lighthouse Legendary Lighthouses  Great Lighthouses: Maine PBS Online
Portland Head Light Pemaquid Point Light
Cape Neddick (The Nubble) Matinicus Rock Light
West Quoddy Light Seguin Island Light

Portland Head Light, South Portland, ME - 1791

One of the most photographed and popular lighthouses in the country because of its beauty and spectacular views, its history and its literary associations.

Built by authorization of George Washington: Maine’s oldest light, Portland Head, was originally authorized in 1787 by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. (Maine didn’t become a separate state from Massachusetts until 1820.) It would have been the 12th colonial light, but Massachusetts had fallen hard times and couldn’t afford to complete the project. Shortly after the first Federal Congress convened in 1789, it passed one of its earliest federal laws, an Act setting up a "Lighthouse Establishment," or as it would later by known, a Lighthouse Service. Under this Act, the government took over ownership and responsibility for the original 11 colonial lighthouses, and an impatient Washington authorized funds to complete the 12th lighthouse. The man who paid the bill was Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury.

Building completed and tower lit in 1791. The original tower still stands and the beacon has shone almost constantly since then. Some small construction changes -- tower heightened, lowered, and raised again in the late part of the 19th century. (See Bibliography: Kochel, p. 379) The original light was replaced by a second order Fresnel in 1855. That was replaced by a rotating, airport style beacon in 1989. The light did go dark June 27, 1942, so that it wouldn’t serve as a homing marker lest German submarines were operating in the area. The fog signal went silent July 5 of that year. Both were turned on again after World War II.

First Keeper, Joseph Greenleaf, was appointed by George Washington in a signed letter. (the letter is in Lighthouses of the Maine Coast, see Bibliography: Sterling, p. 163). Despite the presidential appointment, he received no salary for his duties for the first two years, although he could live rent-free at the keeper’s house. After two years, he got a federal salary of $160/year -- however, two years later he died of a stroke while rowing across Fore River.

Other Keeper Anecdotes:

  • -- Second Keeper, Barzillai Delano, a blacksmith by training, held the job 25 years. After years of complaints about water leaks in the house, the superintendent of Massachusetts agreed to fix them but when he sent carpenters, they found the entire year’s worth of oil stored in the room they needed to repair, so they had to wait until the following year.
  • -- Keepers Joshua and Joseph Strout -- father and son -- most beloved and closely associated with Portland Head; served 65 years in total, from 1866 to 1928.
  • -- Keeper John Watts told Lighthouse Board during their visit in 1852 that no one had ever told him how to light the light; he had to hire someone to train him. And he only blew the fog signal for sea captains who paid him for this service.

Shipwreck of the Bohemian: This steamer had come from Liverpool with 218 passengers when it met with disaster February 22, 1868. Just short of Portland, it slammed into Alden’s Rock a few miles south of the lighthouse amidst heavy seas and fog. Six lifeboats with passengers were sent to shore; only five made it. The Number 2 lifeboat swamped and dumped 40 passengers into the sea. One of the passengers on the remaining boats was young John Fitzgerald. Women from nearby Cape Elizabeth wore the fruits of the wreck -- the cargo that had strewn along the shore included bolts of wool, silks and satins.

Shipwreck of the Annie C. Maguire: This boat, headed from Buenos Aires to Quebec, crashed on the rocks just yards from the Strouts’ front door on Christmas Eve, 1888. The impact shook the house like an earthquake. The Strouts ran a line from the ship to the base of the tower and rigged a bosun’s chair to haul the 15-man crew, the captain, his son and wife ashore while the ship was battered on the rocks. The irony was that the ship’s owners were in financial trouble and the Portland sheriff had asked Strout to be on the lookout for the Maguire, so that creditors could seize it. Although he could serve papers on the ship, creditors only received $177 at auction because it was so beaten up. When the sheriff searched the ship sea chest for essential papers and cash, there was nothing to be found. The captain frantically whispered to his wife, who whispered back to pretend the satchel had been lost in the wreck. In reality, she had ransacked the chest and carried the cash in her hatbox in the bosun’s chair during the rescue! Letters painted in black on the sea wall below the lighthouse commemorate the rescue.

Recent storms: Colorful descriptions in Caldwell book p. 79

  • -- Feb, 1972 -- blowing 92 miles an hour; too dangerous to go outside because of flying debris; waves tore a 2,000 pound bell from its house, ripped down 80 feet of steel guard fence rooted in concrete, and broke a window in the house 25-feet above the ground -- over 50 feet above sea level. The keeper’s house was a foot deep in mud and flotsam, including starfish.
  • -- Coast Guardsman who couldn’t get to shore to his own wedding
  • -- 1975 and 1977 storms so strong that waves and sea extinguished the light.

Literary associations: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow walked here often, wrote about it frequently; Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote "Pearl of Orr’s Island," and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay lived on Radded Island in easy view.

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Cape Neddick (The Nubble), York, ME - 1879

Lighthouse sits on small barren island, with rock formations that seem to boil up from the sea, called Devil’s Oven, Washington’s Rock, etc. Handsome light attracts 100,00 visitors each summer. Unusual feature: top of service gallery’s balusters adorned with tiny cast iron lighthouses.

Although relatively new lighthouse, history dates back to 1602. A letter describing English explorer Bartholomew’s encounter with Indians on Savage Rock as described by historian John Brereton: "The fourteenth of May, 1602, about six in the morning we decried land that we called Savage Rock, because the savages first showed themselves there... whom we supposed at first to be Christians distressed. .... They came bold aboard us, being all naked, saving about their shoulder certain loose deer skins, and near their wastes (THAT’S THE WAY HE SPELLED IT) seal skins tied fast like Irish dimmie trowsers. .....they spoke divers Christian words and seem to understand much more than we, for want of language to comprehend...." The account implies that the Indians had had considerable interchange with whites before this meeting at Cape Neddick.

Story of the ghost ship Isidore, which sank off Cape Neddick in 1842. Two nights before it set crewman Thomas King dreamed about a wreck and drowning sailors -- he begged captain Foss to be dismissed, then hid when the ship sailed. One night before it set sail, another sailor dreamed about seven coffins and saw himself in one of them. The morning following the ship’s departure in snow, fragments of the ship were scattered around Cape Neddick. There were no survivors; seven bodies were recovered -- one was the sailor who dreamed of coffins. Foss’ body was never recovered. Imaginative visitors ever since have claimed sightings of the Isidore.

Keeper in 1912 reportedly went into business or ferrying picnickers to island for 10 cents a head while wife would give tours of the home for 5 cents. They neglected their regular duties and were fired.

Legendary resident 19-pound cat, Sambo Tonkus in the 1930s, born at Cape Neddick and handed down from keeper to keeper, charmed tourists as he regularly swam the channel to visit his mainland friends and was also a great mouse catcher.

Resident keeper David Winchester used to send his second grader Rickie to school in a unique fashion: he was transported in a wooden box on a cable 50’ over the channel. When the Boston Globe reported on this, crowds came to watch, the Coast Guard took notice and decided it was not safe, so he had to go back to being rowed across the channel.

In 1977 Voyager spacecraft launch towards Jupiter, the probes carried three photos identifying prominent man-made and natural structures from Earth -- including the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon and Nubble Light!

In December, Cape Neddick is silhouetted with white Christmas lights

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West Quoddy Light, West Quoddy Head, ME - 1808

Despite its name, stands on the easternmost point in the continental United States; overlooks Quoddy Narrows, which separate U.S. from Canada. Across the channel lies Campobello Island, where Franklin K. and Eleanor Roosevelt spent summers at their 34-room "cottage."

View is spectacular -- cliffs drop down 40’ to a stony beach, while 100 yards offshore, waves crash over the Sail Rocks -- which proved perilous to old sailing ships. Set in West Quoddy State Park, the surrounding nature trails feature patches of true arctic tundra.

Among the oldest lighthouses in Maine, it was built in 1808 under orders of Thomas Jefferson. Mariners, citizens and merchants early recognized the need for a lighthouse at West Quoddy Head and petitioned for it in 1806. In 1858, under orders of the Lighthouse Board, the original tower was torn down and rebuilt 85’ feet high. It was painted with showy horizontal red and white (candy) stripes that make it really visually outstanding.

The original tower still standing.

The first keeper was Thomas Dextor. His pay was set at $250 a year, but Dexter found it difficult to support his family at that rate. He complained to his employers at the Department of Treasury that the soil wasn’t rich enough to maintain a garden and he had to travel for his supplies, so they increased his salary to $300.

Bay of Fundy was very foggy and it got one of the first fog signals -- a bell. Keeper complained about the extra work and seven years later got $70/year extra for constantly ringing it. From 1820-1858, a series of bells replaced the first.

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Pemaquid Point Light, Pemaquid Point, ME - 1827

Built under President John Quincy Adams in 1827 for $4,000.

Beautiful setting on the rocks and spectacular views of the coast and islands to the East and West make it one of the most visited, best-loved lights on the Maine coast.

On Easter Sunday sunrise services are held beside Pemaquid Point.

Shipwreck of the George Edmunds in 1903 was caused by a captain overshooting his destination by 800 yards in dense fog and the ship struck the rocks.

The keeper’s house is now a "Fishermans’ Museum." with an art gallery and park adjacent.

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Matinicus Rock Light, Matinicus Rock, ME - 1827

Matinicus Rock is a desolate, isolated and crucial outpost 25 miles into Atlantic Coast from Rockland that gets constantly battered by New England’s Atlantic storms; marked on Marine charts since men first sailed into Gulf of Maine. Captain John Smith, wrote in his ships log in 1614 about "three isles and the rock of Mattinack."

A great description from the Lighthouse Board in 1891: "There is neither tree nor shrub, and hardly a blade of grass on the rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles a confused pile of loose stone. Portions of the rock are frequently swept over by waves which move the huge boulders into new positions." Early keepers landing by boat, had to first catch a breaker on their approach, steer with strength and hope that the boat landed in the boatways and then haul the boat fast and far so that the next wave didn’t carry it back to the sea.

Built in 1827 and unmanned in 1983; the airport beacon is now operated electronically from a gray box in the Coast Guard Station at Southwest Harbor, Maine.

A long series of keepers and stories of destruction from storms.

Story of Abbie Burgess

  • -- maintained the light with her father from age 14; served as keeper in emergencies as a teen; married on the Rock, bore children on the Rock; buried an infant on the Rock
  • -- at seventeen, saved her invalid mother and three sisters from a three-week long storm which swept the entire two-story keeper’s house off the rock and into the sea; also braved the storm to rescue her pet hens just moments before waves destroyed the house. Great letter, describes her account of the storms (See Bibliography: Caldwell).
  • -- fell in love with the son of the replacement keeper and married him and stayed there a total of 22 years
  • -- her infant daughter Bessie is buried on the rock; only person ever buried there -- originally a wooden cross marked her grave; almost a century later the Buchheisters had a headstone carved that the Coast Guard helped erect over the grave
  • -- Near death, she wrote a moving letter revealing her love of lighthouses: "Sometimes I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more. It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself.......I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn-out body! If ever I have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or a beacon." Years later, Edward Rowe Snow placed a replica of a beacon over her grave.

Matinicus Rock is the only major breeding ground for puffins in the US; Audobon Society runs trips.

The Fresnel lens is now at Shore Village Museum.

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Seguin Island Light, Seguin Island, ME - 1795

One of the oldest lights in Maine; ordered by George Washington in 1795, also one of the foggiest locations. Seguin is located 2.5 miles offshore in an area of rough seas. Difficult to get to and to get on. Lots of fog. Tough walk up to the lighthouse once you’re on the island.

The lighthouse tower is the highest focal point on the coast. The focal point is 186 feet above sea level. The tower is 53 feet high. The tower has a first-order Lens -- one of few remaining operating ones. The light can be seen from the mainland and, on clear nights, some 40-miles away at sea.

Seguin is English corruption of an Indian word meaning "place where the sea vomits." Might have been from the choppy ride in flimsy canoes....

1,100-foot tramway brings in supplies; The only operating tram in Maine.

First keeper named Count John Polersky, colorful character born in Alsace. Got the job as reward for military service in the Revolutionary War. Complained about the salary to his friend, General Lincoln: "The first three years will cost me money out of my own pocket. There is no food on the island, and I must carry two cows for my family....." His friend petitioned the Commissioner of Revenue, who was not sympathetic. "In the case of Major Polersky, there are advantages of plenty of fuel, without expense...the opportunity to fish for his family use, or even sale,.. there is land for tillage and grass...It is plain that the duties of a light keeper are not in the nature adapted to the standing of a field officer, or a Major of Brigade." After the weather turned his home into a shack, sank his boats, and beat his gardens, he was relieved of his troubles by death, not by help of his superiors.

Ghost story of a keeper whose wife was so despondent living in the isolated location that he bought her a player piano. At first she only had one piece of music and she played it over and over, for hours at a time -- even when she got additional music. Her husband realized she was slowly losing her mind. Neighbors on the island would hear the music in a never-ending serenade. Then one night, suddenly, the music stopped. The keeper, himself driven to madness from the song, had strangled his wife and taken an axe to the piano. Supposedly the next keeper’s journals included notes about a piano playing a haunting melody somewhere in the darkness.... (See Bibliography: DeWire 232-4)

When the Coast Guard was de-manning it in 1985 and it was in bad shape, Anne Webster-Wallace formed a non-profit corporation to preserve it. After a long and tedious process to negotiate the lease with the Coast Guard, they finally got possession of the lighthouse in April 1989. Then they began major repairs, including a new roof. Now there is a lot to do in the interior. Seguin is a good example of community preservation. Friends of Seguin is a non-profit corporation, totally volunteer, supported by about 1,000 members. Maintains the building, artifacts, and environment at Seguin Island.

There is a caretaker in residence from Memorial Day to Labor Day. There have between 1200-1800 visitors per year. Most come by private boat.

The Maine Maritime Museum in Bath conducts tours to the island to see the Lighthouse. The boat holds about 50 people for the 6-hour trips. Of five scheduled trips in 1996, only two went because of the weather.

The Seguin Museum is located on the first floor of the lighthouse. There are lots of photos of keepers.

Connie Small, author of "The Lightkeeper’s Wife", is a 96-year old, articulate and spirited woman, with many stories about life in a lighthouse. She lived in Seguin Island Light from 1926-30, where she recalled in the first winter, coal supply was exhausted before Spring and she had to dig up the sand by the dock to look for pieces that had fallen when it was delivered in the spring. She also lived at St. Croix River Lighthouse, which she called paradise.

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