The Eagle Island Lighthouse was commissioned in 1839, one of seventeen lighthouses built in Maine during a fifteen-year period in the 1820s and 1830s. The high number was due to a combination of the obvious need for navigational aids along the rocky coast of Maine and to the political clout of the state's Congressional delegation. The Eagle Island Light was necessary to guide ships going to and from Bangor, which at the time was well on its way to becoming one of the busiest lumber ports in the world.
The original beacon, first lit on September 28, 1838, was a fixed white light shining from ten lamps arranged in two tiers and backed by fourteen-inch reflectors. When the station opened, whale oil or lard was used as fuel, but by 1877 all the lamps had been converted to kerosene, which was cheaper and produced a better light. In 1858, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed, whose light was exhibited from a height of 106 feet above sea level and was visible for 16 ½ miles.
In 1857, a wooden dwelling framed in hemlock and covered with clapboard pine replaced the original stone keeper's dwelling. This residence had three rooms downstairs, four bedrooms on the second floor, and a workshop connecting the building to the lighthouse tower.
Conditions were very primitive at the Eagle Island Lighthouse. The first keepers had to supply their own boat, and it wasn't until 1919 that the government provided a dory for the station, and then in 1936 a fourteen-foot skiff. Even then, it didn't come with an outboard engine. Keepers had to row about two miles to Deer Isle to get supplies. When returning to Eagle Island, supplies had to be hauled up a steep and narrow trail to the bluff where the station was. If the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, the boat had to be landed on the opposite end of the island, requiring a much longer and more difficult trek with the supplies. In 1894, a stairway of 76 steps was built to make this trail much easier when it had to be used.
Keepers also had to buy their own uniforms and provide food for themselves and their families, not easy on a meager salary. Steam heat was added to the keeper's dwelling in 1908, and an indoor toilet in 1949.
Despite the hardships, a number of keepers stayed for decades. Captain John Ball tended the light for fifteen years starting in 1883. His son Howard then replaced him as keeper and John remained at the lighthouse until his death at the age of 82. In 1913, after fifteen years as keeper, Howard contracted pneumonia while helping guide a fishing vessel to safety. Howard passed away on January 31, 1913. Howard's widow, Lucy, served as a temporary keeper until March 23, when Edward S. Farren arrived aboard the steamer Zinzania.
The station was automated in 1959, at which time the Fresnel lens was replaced by a 300mm lens, with an electric lamp powered by banks of batteries recharged by a diesel generator. The light's characteristic was changed to flashing white every four seconds. The fog bell was also turned off, replaced by a buoy just off the island. Today, the lens is solar powered.
In 1963, the Coast Guard became alarmed at a rash of vandalism at other abandoned light stations in the area, and despite opposition from local residents, decided to burn down the keeper's dwelling and all the other buildings besides the lighthouse and the bell tower. The edifices had been put up for bid, but as the new owner would have to remove them from the property, there were no takers. The Coast Guard attempted to remove the fog bell when they burned down the dwelling, but the bell slipped during handling and tumbled down the cliff into the water, where it was left. Years later, a local fisherman named Walter Shephard noticed the bell sitting in deep water, and with some help managed to get a chain around it and tow it to Great Spruce Head Island, where he served as a caretaker for the artist John F. Porter. Today, the bell remains on the grounds of the Porter estate.
Under the Maine Lights Program the lighthouse was transferred to the Eagle Light Caretakers. The station remains an active aid to navigation.
The eagle Island Lighthouse can best be viewed from the water on cruises originating in a number of communities along the Maine coast.