Construction on the breakwater began in 1837, and the foundation was completed by later that year. The breakwater eventually reached 1,800 feet and was uncapped for much of its length. Vessels had to pass through a narrow channel between the breakwater’s end and an obstruction known as Hog Island Ledge. With no lighthouse at its end, the breakwater became more of a navigational hindrance than a help.
In September 1853, Lieut. Thornton A. Jenkins, secretary of the Lighthouse Board, recommended a sixth-order light at the end of the breakwater. “It is absolutely necessary to make a safe entrance into the harbor,” he wrote, “and to guard against striking the breakwater itself, which is nearly under water at high tide, and therefore on dark nights difficult to be seen so as to be.
Construction took about four months during the following year, and on August 1, 1855, a small, octagonal wooden tower went into service. The first keeper, W. A. Dyer, illuminated the sixth-order Fresnel lens. The fixed red light was 25 feet above mean high water.
With no keeper’s house, the keeper had to walk over the breakwater to the light. This often became a battle against waves, wind, and ice. Keepers sometimes had to crawl the 1,800 feet to the lighthouse on their hands and knees.
The breakwater was extended by almost 200 feet to the northeast in the early 1870s, and the wooden lighthouse was reported to be decayed and no longer fit for service. As the work on the breakwater was in progress, the light was shown from a temporary wooden tower.
After a congressional appropriation of $6,000 in June 1874, a new lighthouse was erected on a granite foundation at the end of the structure. The original tower was moved to Little Diamond Island, where it became a lookout tower at a buoy depot.
First lighted in June 1875 by Keeper Stephen Hubbard, the new Portland Breakwater Light, known locally as “Bug Light,” was modeled after the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates, built in Athens, Greece, in the fourth century B.C.
The design of the 24-foot-tall (to the tip of the lantern), cast-iron tower is unique. The cylinder, a little less than 12 feet in diameter, is surrounded by six fluted columns.
The walk on the breakwater was still difficult, but still no keeper's house was built. The trip out was made somewhat easier by the addition of an iron hand rail on the breakwater, 1,990 feet long, in 1886.
A tiny dwelling, a wood-frame structure with two rooms, was finally built adjacent to the lighthouse in 1889. The house presented an unusual and precarious-looking appearance as it hung over the edge of the breakwater on both sides. Two more rooms and an attic were added in 1903.
The light was electrified in 1934. The keeper’s house on the breakwater was demolished in late February 1935. In the early 1940s, shipyards expanded into the harbor, shortening the breakwater until the lighthouse stood only 100 feet from the shore.
A Liberty Ship memorial in the park, sponsored by the Portland Harbor Museum, was dedicated in November 2001. A total of 274 ships were built on the site during World War II. Most of them were Liberty Ships, which played an important role carrying supplies across the Atlantic during the war. Interpretive signs at the memorial tell the story of the ships built in South Portland.
Directions: To reach Bug Light Park, follow Broadway in South Portland to its northern end. When you reach the stop sign in front of the Spring Point Marina, turn left. Turn right onto Madison Street and follow it into Bug Light Park. Bear right to the free parking along the water, near the lighthouse. You can also see the unusual little lighthouse from many excursion boats out of Portland Harbor.
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).