|West Quoddy Head, ME|
Description: The Passamaquoddy are a Native American people who for centuries have lived along Maine’s St. Croix River and Passamaquoddy Bay. Their name means “pollock-spearer,” rightly reflecting their reliance on fishing. Similarly attracted by the area’s plentiful fish, Europeans established settlements in the area starting in 1604.
As commerce increased, local citizens petitioned the government in 1806 for a lighthouse to mark the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay, which is guarded by dangerous basaltic outcroppings. The petition recommended, albeit in a rather convoluted manner, that West Quoddy Head would make an ideal site for the tower: “We…take the liberty to suggest that the site on the mainland the bank being forty feet above the high water – is the most projecting and the nearest to acceptability that we are of opinion that this is the most elligable [sic] and judicious that can be pitched upon for the purpose and in our judgment the elevation should not be less than 75 feet above the ground exclusive of the lantern.”
Established in 1808, West Quoddy Lighthouse is noteworthy in several ways. Despite its name, it is the easternmost beacon in the United States, one of only two U.S. lighthouses with red-and-white bands, and one of the first stations to be equipped with a fog bell and, later, a steam whistle. A reliable fog signal was deemed more essential in this area than a light since fog shrouded the coast for roughly half the time during the summer months. When ships approached the bay in foggy conditions, they would fire a signal gun to prompt the keeper to start tolling the fog bell. This arrangement continued until an adequate mechanical ringer for the bell was installed.
Captain Joseph Smith noted in a report in 1837 that four bells had been used at West Quoddy. The first bell weighed 500 pounds and was installed after a Congressional Act of May 15, 1820 provided “a sum not exceeding one thousand dollars…for placing a bell near the light-house on West Quoddy Head.” Another act in 1826, gave the “keeper of West Quaddy (sic) Head light-house…in addition to his present salary, the sum of sixty dollars annually, for ringing the bell connected with said light-house, from the time he commenced ringing said bell.”
The original bell was replaced by a 241-pounder that was supposed to send out a more penetrating, higher-pitched sound, but when it didn't improve things, it was replaced by a mighty 1,545-pound bell. The fourth “bell” was a “cast-steel bar, two and three-eighths inches square, fourteen and a half feet in length, and of a triangular form,” that Captain Smith judged “worse than useless” and noted that it could not “be heard much more than a quarter of a mile in heavy weather.” To improve matters, Smith recommend a light and bell be established on Sail Rock, 500 yards offshore, explaining that there the bell could be heard a much greater distance outside the surf on the shore. In 1838 Congress authorized funds for a lighthouse and bell on Sail Rock, but the lighthouse was never built, and the fog bell remained at West Quoddy.
After two decades of service, the original wooden West Quoddy Lighthouse had deteriorated to the point that Congress approved funds in March of 1831 for a replacement. Joseph Berry subsequently completed a rubblestone tower for $2,350, and the ten lamps in its lantern room were lit on August 1, 1831. Just over a decade later, Keeper Alfred Godfrey, who succeeded his father after the latter’s 26 years of service at the station, described the sorry condition of the dwelling and lighthouse at West Quoddy: “The house leaks all about the eaves and windows in rainy weather. The chimneys smoke badly…we have no rain water cistern, no well. Our water for domestic use is obtained from a spring about 200 yards from the house. The lighthouse stands 110 feet from my house door, on the edge of the cliff…The tower is built of rubble stone, badly laid. In winter the walls are coated with ice from the effect of leakage. The windows of the tower blow inward in storms from being insufficiently framed…In winter the inside of the glass is coated with ice, from the condensed vapors of the burning lamps, and in summer the glass is also covered with sweat and condensed vapor.”
For years, the U.S. government refused to install the clearly superior French-made Fresnel lens in its lighthouses, and mariners (especially those who had sailed in Europe) complained about the shamefully inadequate state of American lighthouses. On August 18, 1856, $15,000 was appropriated “for rebuilding the light-house,” at West Quoddy Head, “and fitting it with proper illuminating apparatus.” In this case, the “proper illuminating apparatus” was a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sautter of Paris. The new brick tower and wood-framed dwelling, which remain standing today, were completed in 1858.
In an 1872 inspection, the West Quoddy station was found to be in deplorable condition. Inspector James K. Cogswell wrote: “In the whistle house the boilers were stained with dirt and dusty, the steel rods of the engines were somewhat rusty and covered with dust. The paintwork of the interior of the tower showed neglect, and in the lantern room the lens was dusty, brass work greasy, and greasy rags about. The walks, and fence about the grounds, were in poor condition.”
West Quoddy was at that time considered a plum assignment for a keeper, in part because of its easy access to the nearby town of South Lubec. As punishment, Cogswell proposed that the guilty keeper, John W. Guptill, be transferred to a less desirable station. Guptill resigned rather than accept the transfer to Avery Rock Light, saying, “after being in the service more than seventeen years and seven of them at Averys Rock I cannot go there again…”
In 1899, two kitchens and pantries were added to the west side of the dwelling, and the house was divided into a duplex to provide separate living spaces for the two keepers and their families. Sometime in the 1950s, the house was converted back into a single-family dwelling. In 1895, the two outer courses of brick in the tower were replaced with glazed bricks. The Coast Guard had a hard time making paint adhere to the new bricks, but a good sandblaster soon remedied that problem.
The beacon at West Quoddy was originally fueled by whale oil, followed by lard oil in the 1860s and then kerosene around 1880. In 1934 the light was electrified, and a flasher changed the characteristic to a flashing white light every 15 seconds.
In 1988, the station was automated and ownership transferred to Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Land under the Maine Lights Program. West Quoddy Lighthouse is still operational and continues to use the 1858 third-order Fresnel lens . The light, which is visible for 15 to 18 miles, flashes in the following unusual sequence: 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 9 seconds off. Since 2002, volunteers from the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association have operated a visitor center in the keeper's dwelling.
Located in West Quoddy State Park, on the easternmost point in the United States. The lighthouse is owned by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. Grounds open, dwelling open in season, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. Grounds open, dwelling open in season, tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Most people know that there are thirteen stripes in the U.S. flag - one for each of the thirteen colonies - but how many are red and how many are white? Well, now there are seven red and six white, but that was not always the case. West Quoddy Lighthouse has also had a varying number of red and white stripes. At one time, the tower sported six red stripes and six white stripes, with the topmost stripe being red. Currently, the tower has eight red stripes and seven white stripes.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.