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.
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.
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.
Credits: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of, http://www.newenglandlighthouses.net/, 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).