CREDITS: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont for providing much of the history one can find on this site. He is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England. For a story on Jeremy or to visit his site (New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide), use the corresponding link in the right hand information bar under "Related Links".

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I have set up this site as a means to share my photographs of lighthouses. Since retiring and finding more time to study photography, my interests have expanded a little. For some of my work other than lighthouses please enjoy my Facebook page at, John Shaw Photography. Come visit, enjoy, and 'LIKE' if you wish.

Also, for your enjoyment, I have provided a slideshow of our journey. To view it please use the link on the right under 'Site Navigation Tools'.

I sincerely hope you enjoy my efforts and use my site not only for information and education but also to provide directions for many enjoyable, inspirational visits to the beacons along our beautiful coas.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Boon Island Lighthouse (Haunted)

    "Eight or nine miles out, in plain sight, Boon Island lifts its solitary shaft aloft like an 'eternal exclamation mark' to the temerity of its builders. There is no comfortable dwelling on that lonely rock, over which storms sweep unchecked. The tower is itself both house and home to the watchmen of the sea, and in great gales a prison from which there is no escape until the return of fine weather."

                    -- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891.

      In the summer of 1682, a coastal trading vessel, the Increase, was wrecked on the rocky ledges of barren Boon Island, several miles off the southern Maine coast. The four survivors—three white men and one Indian—spent a month on the island, living on fish and gulls’ eggs. One day the men saw smoke rising from Mount Agamenticus several miles away, so they built a fire in response. The Indians at Mount Agamenticus saw the smoke from the island, and the stranded men were soon rescued.

     The precise origins of the island’s name are shrouded in four centuries of history. It’s been often stated that the men from the Increase, seeing their survival as a boon granted by God, were moved to name the island Boon. In fact, the island was referred to by that name long before the wreck of the Increase. John Winthrop mentioned it in his journal in 1630:  "We saw, also, ahead of us, some four leagues from shore, a small rock, called Boone Isle, not above a flight shot over, which hath a dangerous shoal to the E. and by S. of it, some two leagues in length."

     The island was also mentioned five years later in Richard Mather’s journal; like Winthrop, he In 1797, General Benjamin Lincoln, local lighthouse superintendent, met with the Boston Marine Society to discuss the building of an unlighted beacon on Boon Island for the safety of local fishermen and coastal traders.

     Construction began the following July. The first wooden tower as finished in 1799. It survived until 1804, when it was destroyed by a tremendous storm.

     A stone day beacon was erected in the summer of 1805. Three of the workers involved in erecting the tower drowned when their boat capsized as they left the island.

     In June 1811, General Lincoln recommended a lighthouse on Boon Island. The tower, completed by that winter, exhibited a fixed light 32 feet above the water. The first keeper, after witnessing the vulnerability of the low island (14 feet above sea level at its highest point ) to storms, left after only a few weeks.

     After suffering great damage in storms, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1831. It was built of rubblestone and stood 49 feet tall, with an octagonal wrought iron lantern. The light was 69 feet above mean high water.

      Capt. Nathaniel Baker became keeper in 1846. The schooner Caroline was wrecked on the island in the same year, and Baker rescued the crew. Despite his heroism, Baker was dismissed as keeper in 1849 and replaced by John Thompson, who had been dismissed earlier. In those days lighthouse keeping jobs were frequently given as political favors.

     The present lighthouse was constructed in 1854, along with a new dwelling.  The stone tower, built of granite is 133 feet high -- the tallest lighthouse in New England. It is 25 feet in diameter at its base and 12 feet in diameter at the top.

     An additional $19,973 was appropriated in 1854 for "procuring illuminating apparatus, and completing the light-house tower and buildings..." The new second-order Fresnel lens went into operation on January 1, 1855.

     According to some writers, including the popular New England historian Edward Rowe Snow, the island’s name stemmed from the practice of local fishermen, who left barrels of provisions on the island for the benefit of shipwrecked sailors. That would certainly have been a “boon” in such circumstances.  In any case, the name is an ironic one for the desolate pile of rocks that the poet Celia Thaxter called, "the forlornest place that can be imagined".

     The most famous incident in the island's history was the wreck of the British ship Nottingham Galley on December 11, 1710. The survivors struggled to stay alive for over three weeks, finally resorting to cannibalism. The harrowing story was fictionalized by Kenneth Roberts in his novel Boon Island.
     In recent years cannons have been located in about 25 feet of water that are believed to have been on board the Nottingham Galley.

     Poet Celia Thaxter described the lighthouse in her 1873 book, Among the Isles of Shoals:

     "A slender column against the sky... Sometimes it looms colossal in the mirage of summer; in winter it lies blurred and ghostly at the edge of the chilly sea and pallid sky."

     In 1889, it was reported that the keeper's dwelling had problems with leaks and was cold and unsuitable for occupation. The house was largely rebuilt and an upper story was added. In the following year a stone and brick oil house was built.

     Capt. William C. Williams, a native of Kittery, Maine, went to Boon Island as an assistant in 1885 and served as principal keeper from 1888 to 1911. At the age of 90 he recounted his experiences to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them.

     Captain Williams had pleasant times at Boon Island, but he later remembered the danger of the job:  "The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes... I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away."

     In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous "Portland" Gale of 1898 was "just a breeze."

     The Boon Island light is reportedly one of Maine's haunted lighthouses.  If you ever visit this lighthouse and hear the screams or see the spirit of a woman, they are reportedly that of Katherine Bright, the wife of a keeper. Just four short months after moving in with her new husband, he slipped on the rocks while tying up the boat during a storm and drowned. She pulled his body to the lighthouse steps, and then set to work keeping the light burning for 5 days. She was found on day six holding her dead husbands frozen corpse sitting on the steps of the lighthouse. She reportedly had gone insane.  It has been reported that she died just weeks after being rescued.

     Directions:  From I-95 or U.S. Route 1 in York, take U.S. 1A to York Beach, continuing to Nubble Road (Marked with a small "Nubble Light" sign).  Follow this road to Sohier Park and the parking area.  The light is visible some nine miles off shore.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Cape Neddick (Nubble) Lighthouse

     "By following a cart-track for a quarter of an hour one comes to the canal, a stone's throw across, dividing the cape from the Nubble Rock. On the top of this bare crag the lighthouse-keeper's dwelling and fog signal stand out bold and sharp against the blue sky. At the east, a clump of blanched ledges stretches off... This prospect comprises everything between Cape Ann and Cape Elizabeth in clear weather, and is every way admirable."
                                               -- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891.

     The "Nubble" is a small, rocky island a short distance off the eastern point of Cape Neddick, about two miles north of the entrance to the York River and York Harbor. In 1602, explorer Bartholomew Gosnold met with local Indians on the island and dubbed it "Savage Rock."

     The placement of a lighthouse on the Nubble had been recommended by many local mariners since 1807. An 1837 proposal was rejected on the grounds that there were already enough lights in the vicinity. Even after the wreck of the bark Isidore in 1842, north of the Nubble near Bald Head Cliff, it still took nearly four more decades before the lighthouse was established. The Isidore, according to legend, still reappears as a ghost ship with a phantom crew.

    Congress appropriated $15,000 for the building of a lighthouse on the Nubble in 1876. The 41-foot cast-iron tower, lined with brick, was first illuminated on July 1, 1879.

     At first, the lighthouse was painted reddish-brown, showing a fixed red light through a fourth order Fresnel lens.

     The lighthouse still exhibits a red light, but the tower has been painted white since 1902.      The distinctive red oil house (right) was built in 1902, and the walkway connecting the lighthouse to the keeper's house was added in 1911.

     The station originally had a fog bell operated by automatic striking machinery. The skeleton frame bell tower was replaced in 1911 by a white pyramidal tower, itself torn down in 1961.
     For a time, the Nubble's 3,000 pound fog bell could be heard by the keepers at Boon Island six miles away. The bell was later replaced by a diaphragm horn.

     In July 1926, it was reported that the fog bell tower was moved about four feet from its foundation by a powerful storm, leaving it on the brink of a precipice. Moore didn’t dare sound the bell because he feared that the vibration could plunge the bell and tower into the sea. Repairs were soon completed.

      The historian Edward Rowe Snow, in his book Famous New England Lighthouses wrote that on one occasion, Eugene Coleman was rowing across the channel near the Nubble with his wife, a friend, and a load of groceries, when the boat capsized. “The dory went over and the keeper had a busy five minutes, trying to rescue his wife, his friend, and the groceries,” wrote Snow, “but all ended happily except for minor injuries to the groceries.”

    The lighthouse has a long history as a tourist destination. In 1930, Coleman recorded over 1,000 visitors in his guest register, including guests from 11 nations and 32 states. The Colemans moved on to Nauset Light on Cape Cod in 1943, and thereafter Coast Guard keepers staffed the Nubble. It remained a family station.    

     The usual way of getting to and from the Nubble was by boat. For a time, the keepers used a bucket suspended on a line across the channel to transport supplies. This system, installed in the 1950s, was never intended for the transport of people.

     Around 1967, Coast Guard keeper David Winchester put his two children in the bucket each morning to send them on their way to school.

    A photographer snapped a picture of seven-year-old Ricky Winchester in the bucket, and the photo appeared widely in newspapers. A woman also painted a scene of the boy in the bucket, and it won the York Harbor Art Show.

     The district commander saw the photo in a Boston paper. An arrangement was made for the child to board on the mainland during the week. Soon after that, it became policy that families with school-age children were not sent to the Nubble.

     The lantern room in Cape Neddick Light is one of the most complete in an active Maine lighthouse. Nearly all the original brass fittings remain. One of the few changes is that red plastic now encases the light, replacing the original glass used to produce the light's characteristic red light.

     The great blizzard of February 6-7, 1978, washed out the Nubble's boathouse, which was replaced by the present structure.

      The Nubble Light has probably appeared on more postcards, calendars, and other souvenirs than any other New England lighthouse, with the possible exception of Portland Head Light. In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager II into space to photograph the outer solar system, it was also loaded with artifacts designed to teach possible extraterrestrial civilizations about our planet. One of the images it carried was a picture of the Nubble Light.

      The light was automated in 1987 and the last Coast Guard keeper, Russell Ahlgren, was removed.  Brenda Ahlgren wrote down her thoughts about leaving the island:  "On our last night on the island we went for one last walk. We sat back on the rocks with Christopher between us and just watched the glow from that beautiful tall white tower and listened to the familiar drone of the horn we had come to enjoy. We felt that in its own special way the light was saying goodbye to family life on the island. As we sat there thinking back over our special adventure there was no way to hold back the tears."

     A crowd of more than 300 spectators witnessed the automation ceremonies on July 13 in dense fog. The station was leased to the town of York in 1989.

     When the town took over, more than 300 unsolicited applications were received from people wanting to be live-in caretakers. The keeper's house remains unoccupied because of water and sewer issues.

     In 1989, the town received a grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Committee for restoration work on the keeper's house. Two second story windows were removed and replaced by a larger window resembling the one originally installed.

     In November 1997, the people of York voted overwhelmingly to allow the town's selectmen to "adopt" the lighthouse. Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute, the lighthouse officially became the property of the town in 1998.

     Parks and Recreation Director Mike Sullivan once said, "The park is absolutely jam packed every day. Part of the allure of Nubble Light is its mystical nature. You can't quite get there. You can almost reach it but you can't get there."  Because it's easily reached by a drive of just a few minutes from popular York Beach, Sohier Park across from the Nubble is today visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually.

     Sohier Park, incidentally, is named for William Davis Sohier, a lawyer from Boston who gave the land to the town of York in 1929. His father had bought the land for the fine duck hunting.

     One of the most popular events of the year on the southern Maine coast is the annual Lighting of the Nubble, when the lighthouse and other buildings are illuminated with Christmas lights. The late November event is accompanied by holiday music and never fails to draw a large crowd.

     One of the Nubble's tireless volunteers, Verna Rundlett, originated a "Christmas in July" event, giving summer visitors a chance to view the station decorated just as it is at Christmastime. She also supervised the building of a welcome center at Sohier Park. The building, open seasonally, houses a gift shop and public restrooms.

    Besides being easily viewed from Sohier Park, Cape Neddick Light can be seen from an excursion boat leaving Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, and from occasional lighthouse cruises leaving Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

    Directions:  From I-95 or U.S. Route 1 in York, take U.S. 1A to York Beach, continuing to Nubble Road (Marked with a small "Nubble Light" sign).  Follow this road to Sohier Park and the parking area.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Goat Island Lighthouse

       Cape Porpoise village is built around the shores of its harbor, which a cluster of large and small islands protects. On one of them stands the baby lighthouse of the coast. This harbor -- or perhaps we should say harbors, since there are two basins -- is remarkable for being the only one between Portsmouth and the Saco...   Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast -- 1891

     Cape Porpoise was named by Capt. John Smith for a school of porpoises he saw there. Established in August 1833 for $6,000, Goat Island Light was established to help guide mariners into the sheltered harbor at Cape Porpoise, a busy fishing center for many years.

     In 1859, the tower and house were rebuilt.  For many years, the tower was connected to the 1 1/2-story house by a covered walkway. A boathouse was added in 1905 and an oil house in 1907.
Dangerous rocks near Goat Island continued to claim vessels, including 46 between 1865 and 1920. There was not one death in all the wrecks, partly due to the keepers at Goat Island picking up.survivors near the island. In 1930, a schooner, the Margery Austin, went aground near the lighthouse.

     Keeper James M. Anderson went out in rough seas and helped refloat the vessel.
James M. Anderson was keeper in 1929 when the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and his wife, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, anchored their yacht near Goat Island during their honeymoon. Anderson and his family watched with binoculars as the Lindberghs moved around on the boat, and the keeper told a reporter that the lights were turned off on the yacht at 8:25 p.m.

     Coast Guard Keeper Joseph Bakken, who lived on Goat Island with his wife and three children, told historian Edward Rowe Snow about his experience during a particularly severe storm in 1947. The waves washed over the island and damaged the walkway and the boat slip and ripped out a fence. In the commotion the family forgot about their dog and her newborn puppies.

     Later that night, Bakken went into the cellar and found several feet of water. Floating in the seawater was the box that contained the dog and her puppies. All were safe and sound and the keeper brought them upstairs out of harm's way.

     Julie Owyang, whose brother Mark Brooke was the Coast Guard's officer in charge for two years in the 1970s, wrote the following note in January 2009:  "I came and spent two weeks with them Christmas of '73. My Mom and Dad and I took the train up from western North Carolina to Boston, and Mark picked us up there. What a treat! I'll never forget the piles of lobster we had for dinner in the kitchen with the table covered with newspapers. We had kept them alive in the sink that had the saltwater faucet in it until it was time to cook them"

     The Coast Guard initially planned to automate Goat Island Light in 1976. Local residents felt that having a keeper on Goat Island was important to protect the island and lighthouse station from vandalism, so the automation plans were postponed.

     Martin Cain, a Minnesota native, was the Coast Guard’s officer in charge from October 1975 until June 1978. Cain monitored the local buoys and recorded the weather four times daily. He switched on the foghorn when a lighted buoy almost two miles away was obscured by fog or storm.

     Cain lived on the island with his wife, Cathy, their baby, Martin J., and two cats and a dog. In a 1976 interview, he said he and his wife had to be more compatible than the average couple, but if they did have a fight, “One goes to one side of the island and the other goes to the other side and talks to the seagulls.”

     The Cains were on the island for the memorable blizzard of February 6–7, 1978, which folded the covered walkway between the house and tower “like an accordion” and swept it off the island. At the end of his stay, Cain said, “We’ve seen a lot out here and for the most part we’ve enjoyed it, but we’re ready to leave.”

     Mark Estee was the Coast Guard keeper 1978-80. He lived on the island with his wife, Kris, and their two young children, Nathaniel and Michelle. In an email in June 2011, Kris (Estee) Woodgate recalled life on the island:  "It was such an adventure.  We were quite young, early 20s, and from Wisconsin so we had never seen such a beautiful place ever.  We were the ones who put in the new wooden walkway and cleaned up after the storm of 1978.  The island was quite a mess.  We had lots of company from Wisconsin; our relatives thought it was pretty awesome"

     In 1990, Goat Island Light became the last lighthouse in Maine to be automated. Its Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern 300mm optic. Brad Culp, his wife Lisa and their two children Christian and Dakota were Maine's last traditional lighthouse family. Lisa Culp said of her eight-year old son Christian, "I think it's something he'll carry with him all his life."

     For a time during the presidency of George H. W. Bush, secret service agents lived at Goat Island, which offers a good vantage point on Bush's estate at Walker's Point. The island served as an air-sea command center complete with a radar beacon.

      In 1992, Goat Island was leased to the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. In 1998, under the Maine Lights Program, the lighthouse officially became the property of the trust, which since its founding in 1969 has protected 560 acres of town land from development.

     Goat Island Light remains an active aid to navigation. The lighthouse can be seen at a distance from the public wharf in Cape Porpoise. Visitors with private boats are welcome to the island and tour boats from Kennebunkport pass nearby.

In July 2009, the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust announced plans to restore the keeper's house to the 1950s period. There are also plans to hold more educational programs on the island.

     Work began in the spring of 2011 to rebuild the station's fog bell tower and the covered walkway as part of a $380,000 restoration project.  It was completed in October of that year.

     Directions:  From I-95 take the Kennebunkport exit, follow ME 35 into Kennebunk.  Take ME 9A south to Kennebunkport.  RT 9A becomes RT 9; continue through Kennebunkport to Cape Porpoise Center.  Where ME 9n makes a 90-degree turn left, bear right onto Pier Road which ends at the wharf.  The light is offshore to the southeast.  Better Photographs are possible from a tour boat out of Kennebunkport.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wood Island Lighthouse

     "A most noble and exhilarating prospect of sea and shore presents itself at one glance. Here, at our left, comes the Saco from its mountain home; right before us, Wood Island lights the entrance, and Stage Island breaks off the seas that come rolling in toward the river's mouth.
--- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891

     Wood Island, about 35 acres in size, lies about two miles east of the entrance to the Saco River and less than a mile from the village known as Biddeford Pool. Biddeford Pool gets its name from a tidal inlet known simply as “The Pool,” bounded by Fletcher’s Neck to the south and Hills Beach to the north.

     The communities of Saco and Biddeford grew up on the banks of the Saco River, and around Winter Harbor at the river’s mouth. The first sawmill in the area was established in 1653, and textile mills grew into the chief local industry. Fish and lumber were the other major exports.

     Fletcher’s Neck was considered a hazard to navigation, and Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse on Wood Island in March 1806. The government purchased land for the station from Pendleton Fletcher for $160.

     The light station was completed by September 1, 1807, for a sum of $4,750.  For reasons that aren't clear, the 45-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse didn't go into service until the following year. 

     The 1808 tower lasted until 1839, when a new 44-foot conical rubblestone tower was built, along with a new one-story granite dwelling, after a congressional appropriation of $5,000 in July 1838. The revolving light was 69 feet above mean high water. A rotating “eclipser” created the appearance of a flash at certain intervals.

     Eben Emerson was keeper from 1861 to 1865. Emerson had been a sailor as a young man. He was said to be a staunch Republican and a dedicated abolitionist, and in his later years he was a beloved character known to all as “Uncle Eben.”

     At about 1:00 a.m. on March 16, 1865, Emerson rose from bed to trim the wick in the lighthouse lamp. Through thick fog and heavy surf, Emerson heard frantic voices out on the water. He tried to launch his boat toward the source of the sounds, but the rough seas made it nearly impossible. The keeper raced to a nearby home on the island and recruited the help of the resident fisherman. The two men were able to launch the light station’s small rowboat, and they soon encountered a brig that had run onto Washburn Ledge. The crewmen were clinging desperately to the rigging as the seas hammered the vessel.

     Emerson managed to get aboard the brig. One lifeboat had already been lost, and another still hung by the davits. Emerson urged the men to climb into the lifeboat, while the captain remained at the bow and the mate stood by at the stern. Before returning to his rowboat, Emerson rescued two guinea pigs from below decks and put them in his pockets.

     After returning to his boat, Emerson waited for a large wave and yelled, “Cut loose!” The lifeboat rode the wave and the crew escaped safely just before the brig, the Edyth Ann of Nova Scotia, was reduced to kindling by the surf.

     For his extraordinary heroism, Emerson was later awarded a plaque and a pair of binoculars from the Canadian government.

     Albert Norwood became keeper in 1872, and he was in charge in the following year, when Wood Island got its first fog signal, a 1,315-pound bell that sounded single and double blows, alternately, every 25 seconds. The striking machinery was housed in a pyramidal wooden tower.

     A new 1,200-pound bell was installed in 1890. The 1872 fog bell from Wood Island, manufactured by Vickers, Sons & Co. in England, is now on display (below) at Vines Landing in Biddeford Pool.

     Fred Milliken, a fisherman, game warden, and special policeman in his thirties, lived in a house on Wood Island with his wife and three children for several years in the 1890s. He was described as a giant, in his thirties, who easily carried his dory on his shoulders. Hobbs, a young fisherman, took up residence on the island, sharing a converted chicken house with another fisherman, William Moses. Both Hobbs and Moses were in their early twenties.

    On June 2, 1896, Hobbs and Moses visited Old Orchard Beach, and they were reportedly intoxicated by the time they returned to Wood Island late in the afternoon. Milliken greeted them when they arrived, and he told Hobbs he wanted to speak to him—apparently about an overdue rent payment. Hobbs and Moses returned to their shack. Hobbs picked up his rifle, telling Moses he might shoot some birds. The two young men walked back to Milliken’s property.

     Milliken greeted Hobbs and Moses at his garden gate. Milliken asked if the rifle was loaded, and Hobbs replied that it wasn’t. Milliken decided to check for himself. As he stepped toward Hobbs, the younger man fired a shot into Milliken’s chest. Milliken’s wife, who had been watching from the doorway, helped her husband inside and onto a bed. Moses left with Milliken’s young stepson to row ashore with the intention of fetching a doctor.

     Milliken died within 45 minutes. In a daze, Hobbs went to the keeper’s dwelling at the lighthouse, where Orcutt advised him to give himself up to the authorities. Hobbs returned to his small shack and proceeded to put a bullet in his own head.

     There are many ghostly tales told about the island, and some blame the 1896 murder-suicide. Some people have claimed the island is cursed. Another incident that contributed to this idea was the suicide of another fisherman. After years of solitary island existence, the man went to a hotel in Saco and jumped from a window.

     Robert Thayer Sterling, in Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, described another strange incident. Sometime in the late 1800s, a Frenchman who lived on the west side of the island was selling liquor to visiting fishermen. Brawls among the fishermen became commonplace on the island. One of the fights got out of hand, and a drunken fisherman set fire to the Frenchman’s shack. 

    According to Sterling, “The bottles broke and the seething alcoholic blue flames created such a torchlight that it was seen twenty miles at sea.”

    In  addition to Wood Island’s macabre history, there’s also a brighter tradition of fascinating pets. Keeper Thomas Orcutt’s dog, Sailor, a mostly-black mongrel (described as a Scotch Collie in one article), was taken to the island as a two-month-old puppy and went on to achieve wide fame. In 1894, the Lewiston (Maine) Journal reported:  "It is customary for passing steamers to salute the light and the keeper returns it by ringing the bell. The other day a tug whistled three times. The Captain did not hear it, but the dog did. He ran to the door and tried to attract the Captain’s attention by howling. Failing to do this he ran away and then came a second time with no better result. Then he decided to attend to the matter himself, so he seized the rope, which hangs outside, between his teeth and began to ring the bell."

     The self-trained Sailor developed the habit of vigorously ringing the bell for every passing vessel. Over the next few years, many passengers aboard local excursion steamers were startled to see the dog’s amazing performances. Sailor was said to possess almost human intelligence. He also served as a messenger, delighting in carrying letters and other small articles in his mouth. It was claimed that he understood all that was said to him.

     The Coast Guard converted the light station to electricity in 1950. The Bensons were thrilled to replace their battery-operated radio with a television. Their TV watching included the 1950 World Series. “It was so clear you could see the lines on the ball,” said Benson. The Bensons’ favorite TV show was The Lone Ranger.

    By the 1970s, many improvements had been made to the keeper's house. There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, an office, a living room, laundry room and an upstairs bathroom. The furnace in the basement was converted from coal to oil in the 1950s. Water came from a fresh water well; it was pumped into a 2,000 gallon cistern and then pumped to the faucets as needed. Electric power for the light and the house came from Biddeford Pool and was backed up by a diesel generator.

     In 1972, Wood Island Light's lantern was removed and a rotating aerobeacon was installed. The public complained about the "headless" lighthouse so a new aluminum lantern was installed when the light was automated and the keeper and his family were removed in 1986.

     In early 2003, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation was formed to care for the light station. The group, Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse (FOWIL), has been working for a full restoration of the lighthouse tower, keeper’s house, boathouse, and oil house. FOWIL also takes care of the wooden boardwalk from the boathouse to the keeper’s house and seven acres of land at the light station.

     Directions:From ME 9 between Cape Porpoise and Biddeford, turn souts onto ME 208.  Alternatively, from US 1, take ME 111 into Biddeford toward Biddeford Pool.  Turn south onto Me 208.  Bear left at aa "T" intersection, continuing on ME 208 to Biddeford Pool.  Pass the fire station and continue about 0.5 mile - the road makes a right angle to follow the shoreline.  Just before that turn there is a gate and a path to a well-marked footpath (Audubon Trail next to the golf course) with the lighthouse visible shortly ahead across the inlet.  Afternoon light is the best for photographs.

     The "Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse" run tours originating at Vine's Landing in Biddeford Pool.  To access the days and times of them and to register, go to,

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Friday, May 23, 2014

Cape Elizabeth (Two Lights) Lighthouses

     "The Two Lights of Cape Elizabeth stand up at the end of a long and narrow granite ridge raised fifty or sixty feet above the low ground around it. ...The outlook opened to us here, whether of sea or shore, of windy cape or tumbling surf, is uncommonly fine, if only one could get rid of the train of ideas that these roaring reefs on one hand, and the life-saving station on the other infallibly suggest. Even in the season of calm seas and serene skies these gray little cabins by the sea constantly remind us of lurking dangers..."

        -- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891.

East Lighthouse
     When the English explorer Captain John Smith sailed along the coast of New England in 1614, he named a prominent cape in what is now southern Maine after Princess Elizabeth, sister of Charles I. Two-hundred-acre Richmond Island, a short distance off Cape Elizabeth to the south, was the site of the earliest European settlement in this part of Maine, beginning in 1628. The settlement that later developed on the cape was, for many years, part of the town of Falmouth.

     Cape Elizabeth was incorporated as a separate town in 1765. In 1895, the northern half of the town was incorporated as South Portland. It was the development of Portland Harbor, along the north side of the cape on the Fore River, that led to the need for better aids to navigation in the vicinity. The harbor rebounded after the Revolution to become the most important seaport in the state.

     The approach to Portland Harbor from the south was treacherous, and as maritime trade increased, so did shipwrecks. One of the most heart-rending near Cape Elizabeth was the July 12, 1807, wreck of the schooner Charles, which was dashed to pieces on a reef in fog and heavy seas. At least 16 men and women died in the disaster.

West Lighthouse
      A 50-foot stone black and white pyramidal stone day beacon was erected in 1811 on a rocky promontory at the southeastern point of Cape Elizabeth, at the southwestern limit of Casco Bay and about five miles southeast of Portland Harbor. 

     A sum of $4,500 was appropriated for a light station at Cape Elizabeth in February 1828. It was determined that the station would have two lights, one fixed and one revolving, to differentiate it from Wood Island Light (revolving) to the south, and from Portland Head Light (fixed) to the north. The stone marker was torn down to make way for the first pair of Cape Elizabeth lighthouses, built for $4,250. The east light was built on the former site of the marker, and the inner or west light was built directly to the west, 895 feet away. 

     Both 65-foot towers (to the tops of the lanterns) were octagonal and built of rubblestone, with octagonal wrought-iron lanterns. The east tower had 15 a fixed white light 129 feet above mean high water. The west tower had an apparatus that revolved to produce a flashing light, 132 feet above mean high water. 

     The lights were in service by the end of October 1828. They were considered among the most important on the coast; mariners approaching Portland Harbor would line them up to know they were on course (similar to the Kennebec River Range Lights only much larger).

    In his 1843 report to Congress, the civil engineer I. W. P. Lewis was very critical of the construction of the towers. Lewis also reported additionally that the fog bell could not be heard above the roar of the surf.  George Fickett, keeper since 1841, complained that the great distance between the two towers made his work arduous, especially when snow filled the valley between them.

     Hiram Staples followed Fickett as keeper in 1844. During his tenure in 1847, it was recorded that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived in Portland, visited the station and climbed the west tower.

     In 1853, J. B. Coyle of the Portland Steam Packet Company complained that the fog bell was “entirely too small for one occupying so important position.” At a cost of $2,500, a larger bell and new striking machinery were installed in the following year. By the end of 1854, the towers got new cast-iron stairways, and both were lined with brick. Fresnel lenses were installed in the towers around the same time, replacing the old multiple lamps and reflectors.

     In the summer of 1855, it was announced that the west light was to be discontinued, and the characteristic of the east light would be changed to occulting. Despite protests, the change went into effect on August 1, 1855. Under this arrangement, the single revolving light was often hard to distinguish from Wood Island Light to the south.

     On April 1, 1856, the two lights were returned to their former condition, and the light at Wood Island was changed from white to red to eliminate any chance of confusion.

     During the Civil War, Asbury Staples, the assistant keeper in charge of the west light, enlisted in the Second Maine Battery Light Artillery. His father, Michael Staples, who was also an assistant keeper, requested that his other children be officially appointed as assistants. His teenaged daughter Amelia and her younger brother, Charles, became responsible for keeping the light and related equipment.

     Amelia and Charles assisted in the grim task of draping the towers in black at the news of President Lincoln’s assassination.

    The lights were repainted in 1865 in an effort to make them easier to recognize in daylight. The west tower received one large vertical red stripe, while the east tower was painted with four horizontal red bands.

Fog Horn
       A steam fog whistle with a powerful eight-second blast was installed in 1869, with a new building to house the equipment.  A larger brick fog signal building, 32 by 32 feet, was constructed in 1886.

     In 1872, the Lighthouse Board announced that the two tower had deteriorated to the point that they had to be rebuilt. A pair of identical 67-foot cast-iron towers replaced the original towers in 1874, after a congressional appropriation of $30,000. The cast-iron segments of the towers were manufactured at the Portland Machine Works.  The lighthouses were given delicate Italianate architectural detailing and a new wood-frame, one-and-one-half-story dwelling was built for the principal keeper near the east tower in 1878.

     The west light was discontinued again in 1882; again it was relighted after complaints that the remaining light was too easily confused with Wood Island Light to the south. The towers were painted brown during two separate periods; they have been white since 1902.

     Marcus Aurelius Hanna, a Medal of Honor winner in the Civil War, was keeper in 1885 during one of the most dramatic episodes in the history of the light station. On the night of January 28, Hanna was suffering from a bad cold. A storm hit and increased in severity as the night progressed.

     Hanna sounded the steam fog whistle all night despite being ill and exhausted. Assistant Keeper Hiram Staples relieved Hanna at 6:00 a.m. The blizzard was by then "one of the coldest and most violent storms of snow, wind and vapor... that I ever witnessed," Hanna later said. The keeper had to crawl through enormous snowdrifts back to the house.

     Hanna was soon asleep. His wife extinguished the lights in both towers after sunrise. Then, at 8:40 a.m., Mrs. Hanna looked out toward the ocean and saw a schooner aground on Dyer's Ledge near the fog signal building. The vessel was the Australia out of Boothbay. The schooner had been headed for Boston with a cargo of ice from the Kennebec River in the hold and 150 barrels of mackerel on deck. The captain had already been swept away by the waves; only two crew members remained alive. The men had climbed to the rigging and were practically frozen alive in the bitter cold.

     The keeper's wife shouted to her husband, "There is a vessel ashore near the fog signal!" Hanna rushed to the signal house. Amazingly, Assistant Keeper Staples hadn't seen the wreck through the thick snow. Hanna and Staples hurried to the edge of the water near the schooner.

     The keeper said later, "I felt a terrible responsibility thrust upon me, and I resolved to attempt the rescue at any hazard." Hanna tried a number of times to throw a line to the vessel but failed. Feeling the situation was hopeless, Staples returned to the fog signal building. Meanwhile, Hanna's wife alerted neighbors.

     Hanna, practically frozen by this time, waded waist-deep into the ocean and again threw a line to the schooner, this time hitting his target. Crewman Irving Pierce managed to pull himself from the rigging and tied the line around himself. Hanna somehow pulled the helpless man through the waves and over the rocks to the shore. According to Hanna, "Pierce's jaws were set; he was totally blind from exposure to the cold, and the expression of his face I shall not soon forget.

     After several tries, Hanna landed the line on the Australia again. The other crewman, William Kellar, tied the rope around himself. Hanna's strength was giving out and he faltered as he tried to pull the man to safety. Just then, Assistant Keeper Staples and two neighbors arrived. The four men hauled Kellar to the shore, then carried the two sailors to the fog signal building. The men were given dry clothes and, once they had thawed enough, hot food and drink. After two days they had recovered enough to be taken to Portland by sled.

     Six months later, Marcus Hanna received a gold lifesaving medal for "heroism involving great peril to his life," after what has to rank as one of the greatest lifesaving feats at an American lighthouse. In August 1997, the Coast Guard launched a new $12.5 million 175-foot buoy tender named the Marcus Hanna. A replica of Hanna's lifesaving medal is mounted on board. The cutter's home port is South Portland, Maine.

    In 1924, the government decided to change all twin light stations to single lights. The west light was extinguished for good.

     On December 20, 1925, the east light was electrified and increased to 500,000 candlepower, which at the time made it the second most powerful light in New England (after Highland Light on Cape Cod).

     Another famous wreck near Two Lights was the coal collier Oakey L. Alexander in 1947. The vessel broke in two eight miles from Cape Elizabeth in a March gale. The stern half, with 32 crew members aboard, drifted onto the rocks near the lighthouse station.

     Earle Drinkwater and his crew at the nearby Cape Elizabeth Lifeboat Station, with help from other Coast Guardsmen and local fishermen, rescued the entire crew by breeches buoy. The wrecked Alexander remained just offshore at Cape Elizabeth for years and was viewed by countless sightseers.

     Cape Elizabeth Light was immortalized in a few of Edward Hopper's paintings in the 1920s, one of which was reproduced on a 1970 postage stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of Maine's statehood.

     The light was automated in 1963, and the 1,800-pound second order Fresnel lens was removed in 1994.

     Local residents lobbied for the preservation and display of the lens. It was the last lens floating on a mercury bath in use in New England. The lens is now on display at Cape Elizabeth Town Hall and is insured for up to $500,000.

     Cape Elizabeth Light, one of the most handsome cast-iron lighthouses in New England, remains an active aid to navigation, and the optic and related equipment are still maintained by the Coast Guard. The grounds immediately around the lighthouse are not open to the public.

    Directions:  From Portland / South Portland, take RT77 to Cape Elizabeth.  Continue about four miles, then bear left onto Two Lights Road )Two Lights State Park is to the right).  Continue for about 1.5 miles, turning left at Two Lights Terrace; the active light and keeper’s house (private property) are on a knoll at the end of the road.  The inactive tower is to the left shortly after turning onto Two Lights Terrace.  The active lighthouse also may be photographed from a park area at the end of Two Lights Road.  It should be noted that neither light can be seen from Two Lights State Park.  Morning light is best for photography.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Portland Head Lighthouse

"The rocky ledge runs far out into the sea
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day."

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Lighthouse"

      Edward Rowe Snow, the popular historian and raconteur of the New England coast, wrote in his book "Famous New England Lighthouses",

“Portland Head and its light seem to 
symbolize the state of Maine—
water and clear, pure salt air.”  

      The hundreds of thousands of people who visit Portland Head each year would agree; this is one of the most strikingly beautiful lighthouse locations in New England.

     The city of Portland took its name from the headland where the lighthouse now stands, but Portland Head is now actually within the present boundaries of the town of Cape Elizabeth. Portland, which was known as Falmouth until 1786, was America’s sixth busiest port by the 1790s. There were no lighthouses on the coast of Maine when 74 merchants petitioned the Massachusetts government (Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time) in 1784 for a light at Portland Head, on the northeast coast of Cape Elizabeth, to mark the entrance to Portland Harbor. The deaths of two people in a 1787 shipwreck at Bangs (now Cushing) Island, near Portland Head, led to the appropriation of $750 for a lighthouse, and construction began. 

     The project was delayed by insufficient funds, and construction didn't progress until 1790 when Congress appropriated an additional $1,500, after the nation's lighthouses had been ceded to the federal government.

     The stone lighthouse was built by local masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower, but when it was realized that the light would be blocked from the south it was decided to make the tower 72 feet in height instead. Bryant resigned over the change, and Nichols finished the lighthouse in January 1791.

      President George Washington approved the appointment of Capt. Joseph Greenleaf, a veteran of the American Revolution, as first keeper. The light went into service on January 10, 1791, with whale oil lamps showing a fixed white light. At first, Greenleaf received no salary as keeper; his payment was the right to fish and farm and to live in the keeper’s house. As early as November 1791, Greenleaf wrote that he couldn’t afford to remain keeper without financial compensation. In a June 1792 letter, he complained of many hardships. During the previous winter, he wrote, the ice on the lantern glass was often so thick that he had to melt it off. In 1793, Greenleaf was granted an annual salary of $160.

     By 1810, the woodwork in the lighthouse and keeper’s house were in poor condition; the woodwork  was damp and rotting. Part of the problem was that the keeper was storing a year’s supply of oil in one room, which putting great stress on the floor. Repairs were made, and an oil shed was added.

     The tower continued to have problems with leaks. In November 1812, the contractor Winslow Lewis offered the opinion that the upper 20 feet of the tower was very poorly built. The lantern, which was only 5 feet in diameter, was also badly constructed. Lewis recommended reducing the tower’s height by 20 feet in height, along with the addition of a new lantern. Lewis carried out these changes in 1813, along with the installation of a system of lamps and reflectors designed by Lewis himself, at a cost of $2,100. About 25 feet of stonework at the top of the tower was removed.

       The contractor Henry Dyer of Cape Elizabeth built a new keeper’s house in 1816 for $1,175. The one-story stone cottage was 20 by 34 feet, with and comprised two rooms, an attached kitchen, and an attic. The kitchen ell was attached to outbuildings, which, in turn, were joined to the tower. The joining of the house to the tower had been requested in 1809 by Delano, the keeper, who complained that the space between the buildings was often frozen over in winter and that the sea sometimes washed over the area.

     Barzillai Delano died in 1820; his son, James Delano, later served as keeper from 1854 to 1861. Joshua Freeman, who would become known for his jovial hospitality, became keeper in 1820. Freeman kept a supply of rum and other spirits in a cupboard, and he’d sell it drinks for three cents a glass to visitors who came to fish. The top- shelf liquor was reserved for the local minister.

     An 1825 article in the Eastern Argus described the pleasures of a visit to Portland Head:
"I know of no excursion as pleasant as a jaunt to the Light House. There our friend Freeman is always at home, and ready to serve you. There you can angle in safety and comfort for the cunning cunner, while old ocean is rolling majestically at your feet, and when wearied and fatigued with this amusement, you will find a pleasant relaxation in tumbling the huge rocks from the brinks of the steep and rocky precipices. . . . I know of no equal to a ride or sail to the Light House and earnestly recommend it to all poor devils who, like myself, are afflicted with the dyspepsia, gout, or any of the diseases to which human flesh is heir."

     Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who was born in Portland, was a frequent visitor in his younger years. Longfellow's poem "The Lighthouse" was probably inspired by his many hours at Portland Head Light.

    New lamps and reflectors were installed in 1850. in the following year, an inspection found much to be desired. The new reflectors were found to be badly scratched already. The house was leaky and cracking and the tower was being undermined by rats. The keeper was apparently poorly trained and had received no written instructions on the operation of the light. He had been forced to hire a man himself to train him for two days.

     Improvements were made in the following years. A fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors in 1855. A fog bell tower with a 1,500-pound bell was installed, the tower was lined with brick, and a cast-iron spiral stairway was built.

     Following the 1864 wreck of the Liverpool vessel Bohemian , in which 40 immigrants died, the light was further improved. The tower was raised 20 feet and a new second-order Fresnel lens was installed.

     A hurricane on September 8, 1869, knocked the fog bell into a ravine, nearly killing Joshua Strout. A new tower with a 2,000-pound bell and a Stevens striking mechanism was built the following year. The bell was soon replaced by a fog trumpet. In 1887, an engine for the fog signal was moved from Boston Light to Portland Head. An air-diaphragm chime horn was installed in 1938.

     In an 1898 interview, Joshua Strout said that he had gone as long as 17 years in a stretch without taking time off, and as long as two years without going as far as Portland. Strout, the oldest keeper on the Maine coast at the time, retired in 1904. He died three years later, at 81. 

     With the completion of Halfway Rock Light in 1871, the Lighthouse Board felt that Portland Head Light had become less important. The tower was shortened by 20 feet in 1883 and the second-order lens was replaced by a weaker fourth-order lens.

     This met with many complaints. A year later, the tower was restored to its former height and a second-order lens was again installed, first lighted January 15, 1885. A new Victorian two-family keeper's house was built in 1891, on the same foundation as the 1816 one-story stone dwelling. The old stone house was reportedly moved to become a private home in Cape Cottage. The lighthouse station has changed very little since that time, except for a 1900 renovation during which many of the tower's stones were replaced.

     In his 1876 book Portland and Vicinity, Edward H. Elwell reported that a few years earlier a party had gone to Portland Head to watch the crashing waves during a storm. Two carriage drivers who had brought the group out ventured too far out on the rocks and were swept away. Their bodies were recovered several days later.

     On Christmas Eve, 1886, the British bark Annie C. Maguire ran ashore on the rocks at Portland Head. The Strouts got a line to the vessel and helped all aboard, including the captain's wife, make it safely to shore.

     On New Year's Day 1887, a storm destroyed the ship after everything of value had been removed. You can still see the rock near the lighthouse with the painted inscription: "Annie C. Maguire, shipwrecked here, Christmas Eve 1886."

      For a time, the buildings at Portland Head Light received serious damage from practice gunfire from neighboring Fort Williams. The U.S. Lighthouse Service Bulletin of September 1, 1916, reported that "windows were forced out, finish ripped off, roof torn open," and also reported "injury to the brickwork of the three chimneys of the double dwelling." On one occasion two of the chimneys were completely severed at the bottom. Casings were installed to protect the chimneys.

     The last civilian keeper before the Coast Guard took over was Robert Thayer Sterling, a journalist who wrote the book Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them in 1935.

     Sterling, who retired in 1946, declared Portland Head the most desirable of all light stations for keepers. On the first day of his retirement, Sterling fell in his yard and broke a rib.  As a result, he had to put his plans to attend some Boston Red Sox games on hold.

     Life at Portland Head Light was quite different from the popular image of the solitary lighthouse keeper. Constant tourists were a way of life. When Earle Benson was keeper in the 1950s, a woman walked right into the keeper's house and sat at the kitchen table. The woman insisted that Benson and his wife were government employees, and she demanded service.

    Electricity came to Portland Head Light in 1929. The light was dark for three years during World War II. The second-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1958 and replaced by aerobeacons.

     Severe weather has always plagued the station. In February 1972, Coast Guardsman Robert Allen reported to the Maine Sunday Telegram that a storm had torn the 2,000 pound fog bell from its house, ripped 80 feet of steel fence out of concrete and left the house a "foot deep in mud and flotsam, including starfish." A wave had broken a window in the house 25 feet high.

     To view hurricane at Portland Head Lighthouse click below:

     In a 1977 storm, the keeper and his family were evacuated. The power lines were downed and the generator burned out, leaving Portland Head Light dark for the first time since World War II.

     On August 7, 1989, a celebration was held at Portland Head Light commemorating the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Lighthouse Service. The day also marked the automation of Portland Head Light and the removal of the Coast Guard.

     Rear Admiral Richard Rybacki, the Coast Guard's First District commander, said in his address to the crowd, "I can think of nothing more noble. The lighthouse symbolizes all that is good in mankind. We are not here to celebrate an ending. We are here to immortalize a tradition."

     The Museum at Portland Head Light opened in the former keeper's house in 1992. The museum focuses on the history of the lighthouse and nearby Fort Williams.  It has welcomed visitors from every state in the United States and over 75 countries. The museum is open June through October.  The garage was converted into a gift shop that now does about $500,000 annually.

     The all-volunteer Cape Elizabeth Garden Club maintains a beautiful flower garden near the lighthouse. The Exxon Corporation awarded the club third place in a national competition several years ago.

     A $260,000 renovation was completed in the spring of 2005. Some repointing was done on the 80-foot tower and it was also repainted. The keeper's house and gift shop were also painted, and some of the lighthouse's windows were replaced.

    Directions:  From I-95, 295, or U.S. 1, take ME 77 to Cape Elizabeth (clearly marked).  Turn east onto Shore Road and continue to Fort Williams State Park (several "Portland Head Light" signs direct you.  There is ample parking and plenty of room for picnicking or strolling. Maine's oldest lighthouse can also be seen on tour boats out of Portland.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse

     "The white double flash which shows every six seconds has already eased the minds of hundreds of mariners who have strained their eyes to catch its first warning of the presence of the black rock upon which the lighthouse rears high its gray conical tower. In thick weather, once in every ten seconds, the penetrating clang of the sonorous bell indicates the rock's whereabouts to the nearby mariners." 
-- Alfred O. Elden, "Beacons that Shine in Casco Bay," Pine Tree Magazine, August 1906. 

     Ram Island, about a mile offshore from Portland Head near the entrance to Portland Harbor, is surrounded by dangerous ledges. As far back as 1855, an iron spindle was erected as a navigational aid on Ram Island Ledge, which extends for a quarter mile from Ram Island. A larger 50-foot wooden tripod was placed there in 1873. These markers were helpful in clear weather, but in bad weather they were virtually invisible.

     Shipwrecks continued with frequency. On May 27, 1866, alone, there were four wrecks. Many fishing boats and schooners struck the ledges over the years, often while trying to make Portland Harbor in bad weather. On February 24, 1900, the 400-foot transatlantic steamer California went aground at Ram Island Ledge in a snowstorm. There was no loss of life, and the steamer was refloated six weeks later. This near-tragedy finally convinced the federal government that a lighthouse was called for.

     In 1902, Congress appropriated funds for the building of a lighthouse on Ram Island Ledge. In 1903, the federal government purchased the ledges from two Cape Elizabeth families for $500.
     The granite tower is nearly a twin of Graves Light in outer Boston Harbor, which was built almost at the same time.

     Ram Island Ledge was submerged much of the time, meaning that construction could only take place at low tide. Work began on May 1, 1903. Temporary quarters were set up for the workers on Ram Island. A Rockland company provided granite blocks from Vinalhaven. The giant blocks were brought to Central Wharf in Portland, numbered to indicate their position, and then ferried to the ledge, which had been leveled to three feet above mean low water. The first stones were laid on Ram Island Ledge in July 1903.

     By the end of September, the tower reached a height of 32 feet. A crew of 25 men worked from April to July 1904 to complete the tower.

    A 26,000-pound lantern was placed on the tower and fitted with a third-order Fresnel lens. With the lantern, the lighthouse reached a height of 90 feet, with the light 77 feet above mean high water.  An iron pier was added to the ledge, and the kerosene lamp was first lighted on January 23, 1905.

     The light's flashing characteristic was produced by a clockwork mechanism that rotated the lens, which floated on a bed of mercury. The mechanism had to be wound every hour and a half by the keepers. A fog bell went into operation on August 28, 1905. 

     The light was electrified in 1958 via an underwater cable extending from Portland Head. The automated light and fog signal were monitored remotely by the keepers at Portland Head Light Station, enabling the Coast Guard to remove the keepers from Ram Island Ledge in 1959.

     Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute in Rockland in 1997-98, Ram Island Ledge Light was expected to become the property of some local organization, but none applied due to the lighthouse's relative inaccessability.

     The light was converted to solar power in January 2001. The solar panels mounted on the south side of the tower provide power for two large batteries supplying the light and fog signal.
In 2009, the lighthouse again became available to a new steward under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. There were no applicants, and the lighthouse was put up for auction to the general public in the summer of 2010. On September 14, 2010, it was sold to Dr. Jeffrey Florman of Windham, Maine, for $190,000.

     Directions:  From U.S. Route 1 in Portland, take the ME77 exit (Congress St.) and follow the route through Portland past the harbor to South Portland, then into Cape Elizabeth.  Turn left at the “Portland Head Light” sign onto Shore Road; continue to Fort Williams State Park and Portland Head Light.  The Casco Bay cruises and harbor trips offer distant views of this light.  A custom boat charter is the only way to get close photographs.  The afternoon light is best for photographs from the shore and Portland Head Lighthouse.

     CreditsI would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of,, for sharing the above history.  Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England.  To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).  

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