For Maine’s 68 Lighthouses, the Future is Looking Up
Here’s everything you need to impress houseguests with your knowledge of the state’s signature landmarks.
When Mainers were asked to choose a design for the state’s official commemorative quarter last year, the image they selected was of a lighthouse standing guard over a rocky shore. It was an apt choice. Maine’s sixty-four working lighthouses are more then just navigational beacons for mariners (most of whom now use Global Positioning Systems); they are icons symbolizing the state’s maritime heritage and the stoic character of its people. In their lonely isolation, these sentinels of the coast conjure a feeling of romance and heroism. It’s no wonder tourists are crazy for lighthouses — and no wonder Maine merchants have sought to capitalize on their popularity by plastering the ancient towers on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs to . . . magazine covers. Like lobsters and moose, lighthouses strike some Mainers as the worst Vacationland clichés. But to truly understand the curious place these coastal beacons hold in the state’s culture, you need to embrace both the romance and the kitsch.
Rescuing the Lights
In June 1998, twenty-eight Maine lighthouses received new leases on life when Senator Olympia Snowe turned over their deeds to more than two-dozen separate owners — state agencies, local towns, and nonprofit organizations — as part of the Maine Lights Program. In the years since, the modern keepers have protected the coastal beacons from vandals and souvenir hunters and transformed some of them into tourist attractions and living history centers. They have also created a model for lighthouse conservation that has attracted the attention of congressional leaders and local preservationists across the country and the world.
The program rose from the ashes of a fire that, in 1991, severely damaged Heron Neck lighthouse on Green Island, off the southern tip of Vinalhaven in Penobscot Bay. The Coast Guard announced plans to demolish the lighthouse. Outraged Vinalhaven residents, who saw the light not only as part of the landscape but also a dependable beacon among the bay’s rocks and shoals, asked Peter Ralston, executive vice-president of the Rockland-based Island Institute, to help them save the tower.
“We jumped in and saved the light,” Ralston explains. “It would be a hole in the ground today otherwise.” Saving the lighthouse took three years and an act of Congress, because that was the only way the title could be transferred from the Coast Guard to the institute.
Along the way, Ralston learned that Heron Neck wasn’t the only Maine lighthouse that needed help. By the early 1990s the Coast Guard had automated every light on the coast. Money was tight for tower upkeep and practically nonexistent for ancillary structures — the keepers’ houses, boat sheds, and storage buildings that often surrounded lighthouses. “We were seeing increasing deterioration and neglect,” Ralston explains. “We knew we had to come up with a way to stop that and preserve public access.”
Ralston emphasizes that the Coast Guard “isn’t the bad guy here. From the commandant to the guys working on the lights, there was and is a real sense of responsibility and a deep regret that they didn’t have the budget to maintain the light stations.”
Lighthouses weren’t really on the Island Institute’s list of things to do when Ralston took up the cause. “But from day one we recognized the logistical and spiritual significance lighthouses have for the people on the coast,” Ralston offers. “I can list several handfuls of people who have had family, friends, or themselves saved by lighthouses. People feel very strongly about them.”
Ralston devised the Maine Lights Program to transfer lighthouse properties to local agencies and organizations with a more personal interest in the structures’ survival, with the Coast Guard retaining responsibility only for the lights themselves. In 1996, with help from then-Senator George Mitchell and Senator Olympia Snowe, the program won congressional approval.
“We got an enormous amount of publicity about the project,” recalls Anne Webster, who served as the administrative director for Maine Lights. “People called from all over the United States and even from other countries, thinking they were going to get their very own lighthouse.”
The selection committee — chaired by a former commandant of the Coast Guard, Richard I. Rybacker — set strict standards and stuck to them. Four lights went to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, three were transferred to state agencies, and twenty-one were given to nonprofit organizations and municipalities who promised to maintain the lights under the supervision of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission. “It’s been a very good experience,” notes Kirk Mohney, the commission’s assistant director. “People have been very committed to keeping the lighthouses in good shape and historically accurate.”
The results have been impressive, from the residency program at Sequin Light at the mouth of the Kennebec River — each summer a couple lives on the island to act as tour guides and caretakers — to the living history program created by the Maine Department of Conservation at Burnt Island Light in Boothbay Harbor. “I can’t imagine a program having worked better,” Webster comments.
In 2000 Congress passed a Lighthouse Preservation Act creating a similar program on a national scale under the auspices of the National Park Service.
As successful as the Maine Lights Program appears today, Ralston refuses to declare victory — yet. “We have a terrific set of stewards for these lights,” he allows, “and on one level it has been a great success, with wonderful stories about the work recipients have done. Everything I’ve dreamed of has come to pass. But I’ve said throughout the process that this won’t be a success until we can look back on it twenty or thirty years from now and be confident we did the right thing because those lighthouses are still standing and still working.”
Year of the Lighthouse The number of lighthouses in southern Maine has increased by sixty-six this year — but only for a few months. As part of a promotional campaign called “Lighthouses on Parade,” dozens of ten-foot-tall, artfully adorned lighthouses have popped up on street corners throughout Greater Portland. The idea is that the goofy lighthouses — which don’t light, incidentally — will be beacons for tourists this summer and then auctioned off in the fall to benefit local charities.
A Kiss in the Dark
“A lighthouse, seen from a distance, on a calm and clear day is like a congratulatory pat on the back: like saying, ‘Your navigation was on the nose! You held your compass course true through all the chop and tide!’
“At night, the sight of a lighthouse beacon is like a loving kiss in the dark. You had been hoping for it, but when it came it was a lovely surprise.”
—Bill Caldwell, The Lighthouses of Maine
Lights Through The Ages
290 B.C. — Egyptian ruler Ptolemy Soter begins building the Lighthouse of Alexandria at Pharos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. The lighthouse stands until the fourteenth century.
50 A.D. — The Roman Emperor Claudius commissions the construction of the Tower of Ostia at the mouth of the Tiber River and modestly crowns it with a statue of himself.
1602 — During his exploratory voyage along the coast of Maine, Captain Bartholomew Gosnold holds a parley with Indians at a place he calls Savage Rock — future home of Cape Neddick Light.
1710 — The British ship Nottingham Galley is wrecked off Maine’s Boon Island, and the survivors resort to cannibalism to stay alive; a lighthouse is eventually constructed in 1811 to guard the treacherous ledges.
1791 — President George Washington appoints the first keeper of Portland Head Light, at the entrance of Casco Bay.
1807 — Ellis Dolph, the first keeper of Whitehead Light, at the entrance to Penobscot Bay, is fired for covertly selling whale oil meant for the lighthouse to merchants in nearby Thomaston.
1822 — Physicist Auguste Jean Fresnel is commissioned by the French government to devise a better lighting system for lighthouses; the Fresnel lens he invents becomes the standard for beacons around the world.
1856 — During a fierce January blizzard, seventeen year-old Abbie Burgess keeps
the light burning at Matinicus Rock while her father, the lighthouse keeper, is trapped ashore in Rockland.
1864 — Forty people die when the Bohemian runs aground on Alden’s Rock off Portland Head Light; the ship is carrying bolts of wool, silk, and satin, which wash ashore and are scavenged by local women for clothing material.
1896 — Wood Island Light, at the mouth of the Saco River, acquires a reputation for being cursed after a deputy sheriff is murdered there by a local lobsterman who then commits suicide.
1927 — At Saddleback Ledge Light, keeper W.W. Wells is startled after dinner by a barrage of blows against the tower. Rushing outside, he discovers that 124 flying ducks, attracted by the light, have crashed into the lighthouse. He reports the event “as the weirdest experience I have had since being in the service.”
1929 — Artist Edward Hopper paints the Lighthouse at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth; in 1970 the painting is featured on the 6¢ stamp, the first time an American lighthouse ever appears on U.S. postage.
1934 — Pemaquid Light becomes the first lighthouse to be automated in Maine.
1935 — Clinton “Buster” Dalzell, keeper of Egg Rock Light, at the mouth of Frenchman’s Bay, leaves his wife and two children behind to go ashore for supplies and never returns.
1939 — Coast Guard takes over responsibility for lighthouses from the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
1942 — Portland Head Light temporarily goes dark during World War II as a precaution against the lighthouse becoming a homing marker for German submarines operating in the Gulf of Maine.
1971 — Actor Gary Merrill, ex-husband of Bette Davis, purchases the west tower at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth for $28,000 with the intention (never realized) of turning it into a six-story home with an all-glass bedroom at the top.
1977 — The Voyager spacecraft is launched toward Jupiter, carrying three photos identifying prominent man-made and natural structures on Earth: the Great Wall of China, the Grand Canyon, and Maine’s Nubble Light.
1977 — Two teenaged vandals set fire to and destroy the St. Croix River Light.
1977 — Seventies chanteuse Helen Reddy performs the song “Candle on the Water,” an inspirational tribute to lighthouses and steadfast friendship, in the children’s movie Pete’s Dragon set in fictional Quoddy, Maine. It does not reach the top of the music charts.
1982 — A U.S. Army Special Forces team “infiltrates” Moose Peak Light station under cover of darkness and uses the keeper’s house and outbuildings for demolition practice. (Outbuildings at Two Bush Light had suffered a similar fate in the early 1970s.) The explosions damage the lighthouse itself and spark a public outcry that ends the practice.
1990 — The last official lighthouse family in Maine, Coastguardsman Brad Culp, with his wife, Lisa, and their two children, leaves Goat Island Light off Cape Porpoise.
1991 — A fire at Heron Neck lighthouse, on Green Island off Vinalhaven, leads to the establishment of the Maine Lights Program.
1994 — In the Academy Award-winning film of the same name, Forrest Gump, played by Tom Hanks, completes his cross-country jog at Marshall Point Light in St. George.
2001 — After merging with Tennessee-based Provident, insurance giant Unum gets rid of its familiar Maine lighthouse logo. Coincidentally, financial setbacks begin plaguing the formerly prosperous company.
2001 — A law passed by the Maine legislature requires Governor Angus S. King and all future governors to issue proclamations that set aside the third full week of June as Lighthouse Week in Maine.
2003 — The U.S. Mint issues an official commemorative quarter honoring the state of Maine; the composite image includes an impressionistic rendering of Pemaquid Light in Bristol.
Loopy for Lighthouses
Tim Harrison hasn’t blurred the line between his personal and professional life. He’s obliterated it.
As cofounder of the Lighthouse Depot, a booming mail order and retail business in Wells selling exclusively lighthouse merchandise, and chairman of the nonprofit preservation group American Lighthouse Foundation, Harrison lives, breathes, and profits off Maine’s coastal beacons.
A transplanted Midwesterner, but becoming more a Mainer each day, he’s coy about his business’ financial success, saying only that he and his partner, Kathy Finnegan, send out six million catalogs per year and greet about 1,500 people each summer day at their store, which has grown from a converted farmstead that opened in 1993 to include a separate building dedicated to lighthouse-themed home furnishings, as well as a new 35,000-square-foot catalog and call center. From lighthouse dog biscuits, lighthouse ashtrays, and, of course, lighthouse T-shirts, to lighthouse chandeliers and lighthouse furniture, the Lighthouse Depot has capitalized on Maine’s best-known landmarks.
“Maine has the three Ls: L.L. Bean, lobsters, and lighthouses,” Harrison says. “The state has done a very poor job of promoting our lighthouses as tourist attractions, so we’ve become almost our own tourism bureau promoting this stuff.”
But Harrison hasn’t rested on his financial success. Instead he has formed the American Lighthouse Foundation as a way to raise funds for and awareness of lighthouses in Maine and elsewhere. Through donations, corporate sponsorships, and a steady supply of volunteer hours, the foundation has been actively restoring and helping to fund the restoration of several Maine lighthouses, including Pemaquid Light, Rockland Breakwater Light, and the Little River Light in Cutler, which, along with its fifteen-acre island, the foundation now owns.
Harrison says the Lighthouse Depot and the American Lighthouse Foundation satisfy the two cravings lighthouse lovers have: the desire for knowledge and a passion for anything with a lighthouse on it.
“The quest for knowledge leads to books, and then they get hooked, and they want to decorate their house with lighthouse stuff, and they start wearing lighthouse clothing,” he says. “Lastly — after they’ve bought their lighthouse lawn furniture — they join the foundation.”
Harrison’s store isn’t for everyone. But for those who see Maine’s coastal beacons as more than just stone, mortar, and paint, his Wells emporium is more than just a collection of kitsch and lighthouse information. It is home.
The Lighthouse Depot and the American Lighthouse Foundation Museum of Lighthouse History are located on Route 1 in Wells. 207-646-0608 or www.lighthousedepot.com
“Our Kids Think We’re Nuts”
Call them what you want — pilgrims, sojourners, even junkies — but the thousands of people who come from across Maine and the U.S. to seek out the Pine Tree State’s coastal beacons each year have one thing in common — an obsession with Maine’s lighthouses.
“Our kids think we’re nuts, but there is something about a lighthouse,” says Judi Kearney, who faithfully makes the trek from her home in Ambler, Pennsylvania, to the lighting of the holiday lights at Nubble Light each Thanksgiving weekend. For Kearney, who refers to lighthouses as “she” and keeps a diary of her lighthouse visits, the towers represent a portal into a childhood spent visiting lighthouses on Long Island and elsewhere in New England.
“Memories just come flooding back when I go to a lighthouse,” Kearney says. “To sit on the rocks at Pemaquid is magic — there’s music in the ocean, there’s tranquility in the tower, there’s magic all around.”
Kearney is not alone in her passion. While retirees comprise the largest group of visitors to Maine’s sixty-four coastal light stations — a few stations have two towers, so the total number of lighthouses can be as high as sixty-eight — families, newlyweds, and singles are among the throngs contemplating the surf at Pemaquid Point Light or circumambulating Portland Head Light. These starry-eyed visitors come for different reasons. For some, like Kearney, the visit is a way to relive childhood memories of these unchanging landmarks, while for others it may be a life-changing event. Some claim that seeing the bold towers has imbued them with a new perspective on their own personal situation. But whatever the reaction — nostalgia, enlightenment, inspiration — it often leads to full lighthouse-junkie status.
“You don’t really know that it’s becoming an obsession until you start buying more lighthouse stuff, and people start giving you lighthouse gifts, and you start wearing lighthouse clothing, and then you suddenly realize that it’s become an obsession,” explains Kearney, who says she even dreams of becoming a keeper at one of these shoreside sentinels.