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.”
Thomas Dexter, the first keeper assigned to West Quoddy, earned an annual salary of $250. At many light stations, keepers were able to grow crops and keep livestock, but the soil at West Quoddy was unsuitable for such ventures. Dexter was thus forced to travel extensively for supplies, and his salary was raised to $300 a year in 1810 to compensate him for the extra trouble.
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 still-standing 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 approaching the bay in foggy conditions, ships 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 1,565-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.
My leisure time is occupied in boat building. I sometimes pilot vessels into Eastport, when no other pilot is at hand. Wrecks occur upon the Sail rock as often as once a year. On one occasion, two lives were lost. The tide sets directly upon this rock, both at flood and ebb. The fog-bell is tolled by machinery, and can be heard one mile. The position of this bell is now very dangerous - the supports of the house on which it stands being exposed to the full force of the sea. I do not consider it safe. The dwelling-house contains 6 rooms, viz: kitchen, parlor, and 4 chambers. 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 lenses 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 1857.
In 1866, a Daboll fog signal trumpet powered by a Roper hot-air engine was established at the station, but just two years later, plans were in the works to install an eight-inch steam whistle, as the trumpet was found to be defective in power. The Lighthouse Board had previously hesitated to install a steam fog signal as it required entrusting “the management of an agent of so much explosive energy to ordinary light-house keepers,” but recent improvements in steam boilers had obviated this objection. The steam whistle commenced operation in 1868, and a duplicate steam fog signal was added in 1877.
In 1885, the steam whistle at West Quoddy logged more hours of operation than any other fog signal in the United States – an amazing 1,945 hours. The current brick fog signal building was added in 1887, followed by a brick oil house in 1892.
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…”
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 fifteen seconds. Also in 1934, the fog signal was changed to an air diaphone.
Keeper Eugene Larrabee was appointed second assistant keeper of Petit Manan Lighthouse in 1908, rose to first assistant the next year, and was appointed head keeper of the station in 1911. In 1914, Larrabee left the service but then a few years later returned as assistant keeper to Ephraim Johnson at West Quoddy Head. Keeper Johnson, the station’s longest-serving head keeper retired in 1930, after being in charge for twenty-five years. Gwen Wasson had fond memories of Keeper Johnson, her grandfather, and of West Quoddy: “He felt like a very rich man. He loved it, there on the ocean, doing what he wanted to do with his family around him. And we never lacked for food.” Keeper Johnson built his own fishing boat and lobster traps, and his wife kept chickens and raised a few pigs. “Sometimes we went up the tower to assist polishing the brasswork,” remembered Gwen. “Grandfather said that you can’t leave any finger marks, because they collect dirt.”
Eugene Larrabee was promoted to head keeper when Keeper Johnson retired and served in that role until 1940, one year after the Coast Guard assumed control of the country’s lighthouses.
The two outer courses of brick in the tower were replaced with glazed bricks in 1895. The Coast Guard had a hard time making paint adhere to the new bricks, but a good sandblaster soon remedied that problem.
In 1988, West Quoddy Head, which was one of the Coast Guard’s six remaining “family-operated lighthouses” was automated and Malcolm Rouse, its last keeper, was transferred to Owls Head Lighthouse. Though the station’s foghorn blared incessantly during the summer, Rouse, his wife Carol, and their three children were sad to leave their home of two years. “Our first summer here, we had 31 straight days of fog – 31 days of that horn blowing,” Malcolm recalled. “Then it cleared up for about a day and a half, and we had 29 more days of fog.” Carol noted, “Surprisingly you get accustomed to the foghorn. Funny thing, if the foghorn is blasting during the night and it suddenly stops, we automatically wake up with the silence.”
Ownership of West Quoddy Head Lighthouse was transferred to Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Land under the Maine Lights Program in 1998. West Quoddy Lighthouse is still operational and continues to use the 1857 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. Malcolm Rouse returned to Lubec after retiring from the Coast Guard in 1990 and served as the second president of the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association. Having a former keeper greet them at the lighthouse was a special treat for visitors.