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 Portland Head, ME    
Lighthouse accessible by car and a short, easy walk.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Lighthouse appeared in movie.Boo! Lighthouse haunted.
Description: Portland Head Lighthouse, at the entrance to Portland Harbor in Maine, has a history that reads like a Who’s Who from the early years of the nation. It was the first lighthouse completed by the United States government, and is the most visited, painted, and photographed lighthouse in New England. One keeper took financial advantage of the area’s draw, another enjoyed visits with a famous poet, while yet another thought it the most desirable place he could serve. And some believe at least one former resident has never left.

In July of 1786, “the most populous and merchantile” town of Falmouth, was incorporated into the town of Portland, and by the end of the century, Portland would be described as “one of the most thriving commercial towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.” (Maine would become a separate state in 1820.) Trade was burgeoning, but reluctance to fund the government remained. The Massachusetts government set aside $750 for a lighthouse at Portland Head in 1787, but the project would not be completed until after the First Congress passed the Lighthouses Act in 1789, which placed lighthouses under control of the federal government. Portland Head Lighthouse was the first lighthouse completed under the act, after Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton allocated a sum not exceeding $1,500 in August of 1790 to finish the lighthouse on Portland Head.

A fiscally minded President George Washington asked that the tower be built from local rubblestone, which could be “handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag.” Masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols set to work on the envisioned fifty-eight-foot tower, but when they were ordered to increase the height to seventy-two feet for visibility reasons, Bryant quit. Nichols finished the lighthouse and a small dwelling in late 1790.

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President Washington appointed Capt. Joseph Greenleaf—an American Revolution veteran—as the first keeper. The light, powered by sixteen whale-oil lamps, first shone on January 10, 1791, following its dedication by Marquis de Lafayette. Greenleaf received the right to live in the keeper’s house and fish and farm in the vicinity in lieu of a salary. By November though, Greenleaf was ready to quit, because he couldn’t afford to stay. Plus, the job was not easy. In June of 1792, he wrote that during the previous winter, ice on the lantern glass would freeze so thick he had to melt it off. From 1793 until his death in 1795, Greenleaf was paid $160 per annum.

David Duncan briefly assumed Greenleaf’s duties until Barzillai Delano took over in 1796. In 1809, Delano bemoaned, “the difficulty in getting from the dwelling House to light House is very great, by reason of the passage being very steep & rocky & in addition to this is often frozen over in the Winter season, by reason of the sea washing over it.” He asked the government to build a passageway connecting the tower and dwelling. However, this would not happen until 1816, when Henry Dyer was contracted to erect a new, two-room keeper’s house for $1,175. The kitchen of the new, one-story stone cottage was attached to outbuildings, which were joined to the tower.

In November of 1812, contractor Winslow Lewis wrote that the lower fifty feet of the tower “was built of the best materials, done in a workmanlike manner.” But when the original masons had parted ways, quality declined. Lewis suggested removing the poorly built upper section, which would provide a deck for a lantern ten feet in diameter. Lewis carried this out in 1813, at which time he also installed a new lamp and reflector lighting system of his own design, for $2,100.

Following the submission in 1812 of a petition carrying twenty-two signatures, Delano’s annual salary was increased from $225 to $300. The petition described Delano as “a careful keeper” who had “discharged his trust faithfully,” while noting that even $300 a year “would be but a bare subsistence for a small family.” Barzillai Delano died in 1820, but his son, James, would later follow in his father’s footsteps, serving as keeper at Portland Head from 1854 to 1861.

Directly after Delano came Captain Joshua Freeman, who would sit watching the sea with a length of rope by his side, ready in case of sudden shipwreck. Freeman was also renowned for his hospitality and supplemented his income by keeping liquor to sell for three cents a glass to visitors and fishermen.

Richard Lee earned $350 annually when he started in April 1840. In 1842, civil engineer I.W.P. Lewis reported that the tower had poor quality mortar, rotten woodwork, and a leaky roof, while the house was cracked and leaky. Lewis called for fewer, but better aligned lamps in the lantern room. Keeper Lee added that he was allowed no boat and had to pay for the use of some land, because the government provided “barely room for a garden.”

Keeper John F. Watts (1849-1853) complained no one had instructed him about the light—he had to pay a man to teach him.

In 1855, after the Lighthouse Board had been established to care for the nation’s navigational aids, a fourth-order Fresnel lens and bell tower were installed at the station. The tower was also lined with brick, and a cast-iron spiral stairway and workshop were added. Following the wreck nearby of the Bohemian, which killed forty people in 1864, a brick extension was constructed to raise the height of the tower by twenty feet, and a second-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room. With these improvements in place, the Lighthouse Board proclaimed that the entrance to Portland Harbor was “so completely lighted that navigation in and out is attended with little or no danger.”

Joshua Freeman Strout became keeper in 1869 at $620 per year. His mother had worked as housekeeper for Joshua Freeman at Portland Head and named her son for him. After a fall from a mast at sea, Captain Joshua Strout returned home and became Portland Head’s keeper. Mickey, a brightly colored Macaw, came with Strout from South America and when coaxed would declare from his perch above the stove, “Light the light! Light the light! Fog’s rolling in!” As assistant keeper, Strout’s wife, Mary (Berry), was paid $480 annually. She kept the job until her son Joseph assumed the position in 1877.

In 1883, the much deteriorated twenty-foot brick addition to the tower was removed, and a new lantern and a fourth-order lens were installed. The establishment of Halfway Rock Lighthouse in 1871 reduced the importance of Portland Head Lighthouse, justifying the Lighthouse Board’s changes to the light. Less than two years later, however, the Board reversed its decision. The focal plane of the light was raised by twenty feet, and a second-order fixed white light was exhibited starting on January 15, 1885.

Portland Head Lighthouse before 1891
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Late on Christmas Eve of 1886, the Annie C. Maguire struck the ledge at Portland Head, despite the fact that members of the crew reported that they “plainly saw Portland Light before the disaster and are unable to account for same.” Hearing the crash, Joshua and Joseph Stout snatched up a ladder to form a gangway across the rocks, while Mary tore blankets into strips, soaked them in kerosene and used them as torches. All aboard, including the captain, his wife and son, and eleven crewmembers were saved.

The Maguire’s owners were in financial trouble, and Portland’s sheriff had asked Keeper Strout to watch for the bark, so that it could be seized. When the sheriff searched the ship’s sea chest for cash and papers, the captain’s wife whispered to her husband to pretend the satchel had been lost in the wreck, when in truth she had spirited off the cash in her hatbox during the rescue. Joseph Strout later recalled: “The day before we had killed eight chickens so that we could have a great feed on Christmas. Ma made all eight the best pie you ever tasted….There was nothing on the boat to eat. All they had was a large supply of salt beef and macaroni, with lime juice to keep from getting scurvy. For months that crew had not tasted real food. Once they got that chicken pie into them, the whole gang wanted to stay.”

On the day John A. Strout, son of Joseph Strout, started his service as assistant keeper at Portland Head in January of 1912, he selected a large rock near the tower, chipped away at its face to make a relatively flat surface, and then painted a memorial to the wreck of the Annie C. Maguire. Maintaining this memorial became a tradition for subsequent keepers, and the lettering can still be seen today.

In 1891, the station’s old stone dwelling was demolished, and upon its foundation a two-story framed double dwelling, “forty-two feet six inches by forty-two feet in plan”, was constructed. A brick oil house, eight feet six inches square, was also built at the same time.

Weather could be truly harsh at Portland Head. Once during a gale the Strouts looked out their window in horror to see a giant pyramid-shaped wave fast approaching. As the wave broke on shore, it came crashing down on the fog signal building and sent water over the top of the tower. When it receded, the great wave took boulders weighing tons with it. Though terrified, the Strouts were unhurt.

Joshua Strout was Maine’s oldest keeper when he retired in 1904 at age seventy-nine. He recalled that during his career he had gone as long as seventeen years without time off and as long as two years without traveling as far as Portland. His son Joseph Strout served as keeper until 1928, bringing the family’s tenure at the station to just one year short of six decades.

Portland Head Light was extinguished from June 1942 through June 1945 to avoid guiding German submarines. For much of the war, unauthorized visitors were forbidden at the light. Thayer Sterling, who penned Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, was the last keeper before the Coast Guard took over in 1946.

While Sterling proclaimed Portland Head the best possible light station for a keeper, the families of keepers sometimes found themselves in unusual situations. Sterling’s wife, Martha, enjoyed knitting in a chair next to the window. But one evening, Sterling’s dog, Chang, was growling so fiercely that she left to knit elsewhere. No sooner had she moved then a giant wave crashed into the house, breaking the window and spraying shards of glass over her chair.

Once during the 1950s, a woman walked into the keeper’s house and sat down at the kitchen table, insisting that as government employees the Coast Guard keeper and his wife were obliged to serve her. By the early 1960s, Coast Guard families had learned to keep downstairs doors and windows locked. One time, after the coastguardsman’s wife had forgotten to lock the front door, camera-carrying tourists flung open the bathroom door while she was in the tub.

During the years following automation when an apartment in the keeper’s house was rented out, some occupants felt they were not alone there. Ed Ellis and his wife, Elaine Amass, told tales of their motion-detector alarm on the stairs going off at night when nobody was there. Geraldine Reed, who lived in the keeper’s dwelling in the 1960s with her husband, coastguardsman Tom Reed, thought there was a ghostly presence in the basement. “My feeling is that he was a friendly ghost and just needed to be told that his keeper days were over and he could rest in peace,” she wrote.

A celebration was held at Portland Head Lighthouse on August 7, 1989 to commemorate the bicentennial of the lighthouse service and to mark the automation of the light. The second-order Fresnel lens was removed from the lantern room in 1958 and replaced by an aerobeacon.

The Town of Cape Elizabeth was given a lease to the property in 1990, and two years later the Museum at Portland Head Light opened in the keeper’s dwelling. An old garage was later converted into a gift shop to support the museum. The town received the deed to the lighthouse in 1993, but the Coast Guard retains control of the light and fog signal.

A frequent visitor at the light, sipping cool drinks with the keeper, was poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who wrote a poem entitled “The Lighthouse,” doubtlessly inspired by Portland Head. One of the poem’s stanzas seems a fitting honor to this historic light.

Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

References

  1. Lighthouse Board records, various years.
  2. The Lighthouses of Maine, Jeremy D’Entremont, 2009.
  3. Portland Head Light website, About Us, “History”. .
  4. “The Lighthouses Act of 1789,” U.S. Coast Guard website.
  5. “Portland Head Light, A Strout Tradition,” Lighthouse Digest, John Strout, May 1997.

Location: Located in Fort Williams Park, marking the entrance into Portland Harbor.
Latitude: 43.62312
Longitude: -70.20785

For a larger map of Portland Head Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: From Interstate 295 in Portland, take Highway 77 south to Broadway. Go east on Broadway for 0.2 miles and then turn right onto Cottage Road. After a mile, Cottage Road will become Shore Road, which will lead you to Fort Williams State Park where the lighthouse is located.

Portland Discovery offers a Lighthouse Lover's Tour that will let you see the Portland Head Lighthouse from the water.

The Museum at Portland Head Light, housed in the keeper's dwelling, is open daily from Memorial Day to the Friday following Columbus Day. From mid-April to Memorial Day and from Columbus Day to just before Christmas the Museum is open weekends only. The hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (207) 799-2661 for more information.

The lighthouse is owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. Grounds open, dwelling open in season, tower closed.

Find the closest hotels to Portland Head Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
Portland Head Lighthouse appeared in the 1999 movie "Snow Falling on Cedars."

See our List of Lighthouses in Maine

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