And on its outer point, some miles away,
The lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day."
Edward Rowe Snow, the popular historian and raconteur of the New England coast, wrote in his book "Famous New England Lighthouses",
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.
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 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.
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.
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).