Fog is a fickle mistress. She winds her damp fingers around the rocky cliffs and hidden coves of Maine’s undulating coastline and settles down for long naps on sandy beaches and tranquil seas. Eventually she gives way to wind, waves or the sun, disappearing until conditions are right for her next appearance. On land, traffic comes to a standstill when she is at her worst. Planes on the ground must wait for her to leave. Those in the air must fly above her and perhaps seek out somewhere else to land.
Ships at sea have no marked traffic lanes, or airport towers to give them guidance. Modern vessels have computer navigation and GPS, but more ancient craft found their way about by seeking familiar landmarks, or looking to the stars. Mistress fog blanketed decks and masts with a cottony shroud, blinding all upon the water. Those close to shore were in danger of breaking up on rocks or stranding on reefs.
Maine’s lighthouses are a symbol of man’s ingenuity. These solitary columns sitting at the edge of the world put seafaring cultures and Mother Nature on a more even playing field. Mistress fog still pays regular visits but she causes far less havoc than she used to.
History of Lighthouses
The Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans and even the Mayans had lighthouses. The tallest lighthouse ever built was created by the Egyptians. It was 900 feet tall and stood for 1,500 years. Not all that surprising from the people that built the Pyramids. The first lighthouse in the United States was built in 1716, in Boston Harbor. It was a casualty of the Revolutionary War, but later rebuilt.
Maine wasn’t too far behind. Portland Head Lighthouse dates back to 1791 and is still guarding Cape Elizabeth. The original tower was 72 feet tall. Sixteen whale oil lamps provided the light. This is where the lighthouse keeper came in. It was his job to make sure those lamps never ran out of oil, and that they were always lit. Portland Head Lighthouse is now 20 feet taller, automated and one of the most visited in the state.
The Life of a Lighthouse Keeper
Maine, suitably dubbed “The Lighthouse State” at one time had 70 lighthouses protecting its rugged coast. Of these, 65 are still standing. Some are on craggy points of the mainland, others on isolated islands offshore or on rivers. At one time, each lighthouse had its own keeper that lived onsite, making sure the lights never went out. In early days that meant the constant trimming of wicks and filling of oil to feed those wicks. Later, when lighthouses changed over to using bulbs, the keeper would make sure the lenses were clean and repair them if necessary. Lighthouse keepers would also sound the fog bells or fog horns to alert ships. Today, in the United States, lighthouses are automated.
A lighthouse keeper and his family lived a solitary lifestyle, particularly those on one of Maine’s islands. In the days before telephone or radio they were completely cut off from society. Supplies, mail and in some cases potable water came by boat, and then only if the seas were favorable. It took a hearty soul to on the edge of nowhere and commit to a job that kept you busy 365 days a year.
Maine Lighthouses by Boat
Some of Maine’s lighthouses may only be approached by sea. Baker Island Lighthouse, part of Acadia National Park, is open during the summers and included in some of the whale watching tours out of Bar Harbor. Built in 1855, the tower is closed to visitors but there are other vintage structures to explore.
Cape Elizabeth Light, located in the Greater Portland and Casco Bay area, is one of Maine’s most photographed lighthouses and provides a classic silhouette from the sea. This is the lighthouse that was immortalized on a US Postage Stamp in 1970 to celebrate the state’s 150th anniversary. It is privately owned and not open to visitors.
The Lubec Channel Light, on the Maine/Canada border sits on an iron and cement caisson, surrounded by water. Completed in 1890, it was one of Maine’s “stag stations.” Two male lighthouse keepers lived in the caisson underneath the tower. It was not roomy enough for families. Only one woman, Abbie Meyers, acted as temporary assistant keeper back in 1899. The wife of keeper Loring Meyers, she filled in when his partner became ill. The only way to see this privately owned lighthouse is to sail on by.
Boon Island Lighthouse is six miles off the southern coast near the Maine Beaches. At 137 feet it has the tallest tower in Maine. The best view is by sea, but it can also be seen from York Beach. Not open to the public, the lighthouse sits on an island with a somewhat checkered past. Boon Island was the scene of several maritime disasters, the earliest recorded in 1682. The most infamous wreck was in 1710 when the Nottingham Galley crashed into the rocks. It was rumored that the survivors, stranded for more than three weeks, resorted to cannibalism to survive.
Maine Lighthouses by Land
The Portland Breakwater Light, nicknamed the “Bug Light” is privately owned but visitors are welcome to tour the grounds. The short, rather chunky lighthouse was built in 1875 and is part of Bug Light Park. After parking in the free lot, walk out to the end of the breakwater on the southwest end of Portland Harbor. This is one of the most ornate lighthouses, decorated with columns, scalloped trim and a gently curved, almost gazebo-like roof. Rumor has it that the designer of the United States Capitol building, Thomas Ustick Walter, had a hand in the design.
The Bug Light was a tough assignment for lighthouse keepers before a small house was built next to the tower in 1889. Before that, the keeper would have to walk to the end of the breakwater to carry out his duties. Not so bad on a clear day, but when the winds were howling and waves coming over that breakwater it was most unpleasant.
Bass Harbor Head Light, built in 1858, sits on a jagged cliff of pink rock in the Downeast and Acadia region. It sits on the southern tip of Mt. Desert Island and, with its red-roofed buildings and backdrop of evergreen trees, is one of the most photogenic lighthouses in Maine. The grounds are open all year, but the tower and buildings are not open to the public. Free parking is available at the end of Lighthouse Road.
Maine Lighthouse Day
Held in September, the Maine Open Lighthouse Day is an annual event celebrating the state’s iconic towers. Co-sponsored by the American Lighthouse Foundation and the Coast Guard, the event teaches about Maine’s maritime history, the lighthouses and their keepers. It is a chance to climb the towers of lighthouses that are normally closed to the public and see Maine’s coastline from a keeper’s perspective.
Special boat tours out of places such as Bar Harbor, Milbridge, and Port Clyde offer access to participating island lighthouses. The plus with a boat tour is the chance to see whales, dolphins, seals and maybe a puffin or two on the way. Maine Open Lighthouse Day is the largest and best known lighthouse event in the United States.
Lighthouse Vacation Stays
Some of Maine’s lighthouses allow overnight stays. One is Pemaquid Point Lighthouse on Maine’s Mid-Coast. The keepers house is home to a Fisherman’s Museum filled with photos and equipment used in the fishing industry and around the lighthouse in the old days. The second floor has a one bedroom apartment that may be rented out for weekly vacation stays from May until October. Built in 1827, the 38-foot tower and grounds are open to the public. Guided tours are offered.
Little River Lighthouse, on a small island off of Cutler on the north coast, offers rustic overnight stays. The lighthouse has three guestrooms, two shared bathrooms, a communal kitchen and living room area. Outside are BBQ grills, lawn chairs and picnic tables. Food, water, sleeping bags or bed linens and all personal items must be carried to the island. Boat transportation is included in the rental rates.
Built in 1876, Little River Lighthouse gives you the chance to get away from it all, tempered with basic creature comforts. You might even catch a glimpse of mistress fog as she settles in for the night. No worries. After all, you’re safely tucked away in your own lighthouse, and not going anywhere, are you?