-- 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.
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).