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.
President Washington appointed Captain Joseph Greenleaf—a veteran of the Revolutionary War—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 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 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.
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.” After having a chance to read Lewis’ report, which, like many others he wrote, tended to be overly pessimistic, Keeper Lee penned the following: “The statement, as published, represents the tower and dwelling-house in a leaky and ruinous state, when, in fact, they are both good and comfortable buildings. The tower has been built over 50 years, and is now strong and tight, and will probably remain a good tower for hundreds of years.”
John F. Watts, keeper from 1849 to 1853, complained that no one had instructed him about the light, forcing him to employ a man for two days to teach him how to tend the light. A new lantern room and lantern deck were installed atop the tower in 1850.
In 1855, after the Lighthouse Board had been established to care for the nation’s navigational aids, a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room, and a bell tower, equipped with an old bell from Cape Elizabeth, was erected. The tower was also lined with brick, and a cast-iron spiral stairway and workshop were added. The Lighthouse Board distributed printed instructions for lighthouse keepers so their responsibilities would be clearly explained. By using just one lamp inside the Fresnel lens instead of an array of lamps and reflectors as the light source, the quantity of oil used in a six-month period fell from 220 gallons to just 48 gallons.
Following the wreck on Alden’s Rock of the 295-foot steamer Bohemian, which claimed the lives of forty people in 1864, Congress provided $20,000 for “additional aids to navigation to facilitate the entrance to Portland, Maine, by suitably marking Alden’s Rock and Bulwark Shoal.” After a careful investigation, the Lighthouse Board decided the best plan would be to raise the height of the Portland Head Lighthouse twenty feet and install a second-order Fresnel lens in the lantern room. With these improvements completed, the Lighthouse Board proclaimed in 1865 that the entrance to Portland Harbor was “so completely lighted that navigation in and out is attended with little or no danger.” An assistant keeper was added to the station starting in 1865 to help with second-order light and other station duties.
Joshua Freeman Strout became keeper in 1869 at $620 per year. His mother had worked as housekeeper for Keeper 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. As assistant keeper, Strout’s wife Mary 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 change to the light. Less than two years later, however, the Board reversed its decision. The focal plane of the light was raised twenty feet, and a second-order fixed white light was exhibited starting on January 15, 1885.
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.”
John A. Strout, son of Joseph Strout, selected a large rock near the lighthouse, 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 along with a flight of steps at the landing.
A gale on September 8, 1869 destroyed the station the station’s fog-bell tower, but an 1,800-pound bell was soon provided and a new tower built. In 1872, a second-class Daboll trumpet, removed from the station at Monhegan Island, was established at Portland Head. Mickey, a brightly colored Macaw, came with Joshua Strout from one of his trips to South America and learned to declare from his perch above the stove, “Fog coming in; blow the horn!”
Weather could be truly harsh at Portland Head. Once during a gale in December 1887, 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. The fog signal building, however, was “bent, twisted, and shattered.” A new brick fog signal building was soon built to take its place. In 1900, oil engines replaced the steam boilers used to power the fog signal.
Joshua Strout was Maine’s oldest keeper when he retired in 1904 at age seventy-nine, after being in charge of the light for thirty-five years. 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 head keeper until 1928, bringing his tenure at the station to over fifty years and his family’s to just one year short of six decades.
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. 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 had been 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!