For our 11th anniversary, my husband and I traveled to Maine for a day to see and photograph lighthouses. Instead of providing research from my current work in progress this week, I thought I would follow a tangent and share about the Portland Head Light Lighthouse. Enjoy the pictures and a little bit of history!
What: The Portland Head Light Lighthouse – the oldest lighthouse in Maine
Who: Commissioned by George Washington – Yes, that one!
When: Commissioned in 1787 and first lit on January 10, 1791
Where: Formerly part of Portland but now Cape Elizabeth, Maine inside of the Fort Williams Park
A Bright Beginning
Portland was the sixth busiest port ind America during the 1790s, yet there were no lighthouses on the coast of Maine. After the deaths of two people in 1787 in a shipwreck near Portland Head, 74 merchants petitioned the Massachusetts government for one to mark the entrance to Portland Harbor.
The lighthouse was originally designed by Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. It was supposed to be 58 feet tall, but after discovering the lighthouse would be blocked from the south, they increased the height to 72 feet. Bryant resigned from the work because of the change and Nichols finished the lighthouse in 1791.
After the initial appropriation of $750, there was a delay in construction until the national government took over with an additional $1,500. So for $2,250 the United States has a lighthouse which is still in use 225 years later!
The First Lighthouse Keeper
Captain Joseph Greenleaf was the first appointed lighthouse keeper and a veteran of the American Revolution. In the beginning the only compensation he received was the right to fish and farm in the area and live in the keeper’s house. Within the first year, though, he requested a financial support to compensate for the hardships involved with maintaining the lighthouse. His annual salary? $160.
Christmas Eve Heroism
On Christmas Eve, 1886 the Annie C. Maguire was on its way home to Quebec when she ran ashore on the rocks at Portland Head. The Lighthouse Keepers at the time were the Strout family. There are several accounts of how the Strout family saved the Captain, his wife and son, the the 13 other crewmen. However, the most likely was the use of a ladder stretching over to the ship.
You can still see the rock near the lighthouse with the inscription: “Annie C. Mcguire, shipwrecked here, Christmas Eve 1886.”
To read more about the shipwreck and some funny quotes from one of the Strout sons, visit NE Lights.
Porthead Head Light Lighthouse Decommissioned
The 200th anniversary of the creation of the Lighthouse Service was celebrated the the Portland Head Light on August 7, 1989. This was also the day the lighthouse became automated and Coast Guard keepers were removed. The Coast Guard is still responsible for the light and foghorn, but no one resides there any longer.
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 original tower measured 72′ from base to lantern deck and was lit with 16 whale oil lamps.
- Captain Greenleaf reported that during the winters the ice on the lantern glass was often so thick he had to melt it off.
- The first Keeper’s Quarters began construction in 1790 as the result of a contract signed by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock.
- The current Keepers’ Quarters building was constructed in 1891 as a two story duplex. Until 1989, it was home to the head and assistant lighthouse keepers and their families.
- The United States Coast Guard maintains the actual light and the fog signal, but the remainder of the property is managed by the Town of Cape Elizabeth.
For those who miss the ocean, a special treat I recorded…