Lighthouses are towers with bright lights and fog horns located at important or dangerous locations along a country’s coast. Usually found on rocky cliffs or sandy shoals on land, on reefs at sea, and at entrances to harbors and bays. Their main objective is to serve as a warning to mariners of dangerous shallows, perilous rocky coasts, and they help guide ships to safety into and outof harbors. The messages of these long-trusted aids to navigation are simple: STAY AWAY, DANGER, BEWARE! or COME THIS WAY!
Each lighthouse tells its own unique story. Those in the upper northeast of the United States are no exception. Many of these lighthouses have been in this country for nearly its entire existence, some for even longer.
The Boston Light lighthouse stands on Little Brewster Island in outer Boston Harbor, Massachusetts. Not only is this lighthouse unique in its location but built in 1708 it is was the first in the USA and is the second oldest lighthouse currently active in the US according to the US Coast Guard.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse
Leaving Boston, we head north to the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse. Spring Point is the only caisson-style lighthouse that visitors can walk up to and enjoy. It sits on the breakwater of Southern Maine Community College. Built in 1897, it is an integral part of Portland Harbor and Casco Bay.
Beyond Spring Port Ledge Lighthouse, you can see Fort Georges which was built in 1865 just as the Civil War ended. Following the war a veteran was appointed to live in the fort and take care of it with his family. This era ended however when the US entered World War I. The fort was then used to store munitions and mines for the US Navy. During World War II the fort was again used for storage, mostly for anti submarine munitions and other equipment.
Across Casco Bay from the Spring Point Ledge Light is the Bug Light. Portland Breakwater Lighthouse was built in 1875 and is one of Maine’s most elegant lighthouses. Though modeled on an ancient Greek monument, it was built with plates of cast iron. It was dubbed “Bug Light” due to its small size.
In 1897 when Spring Point Ledge Light was built the houses around Bug Light were demolished and both lights were tended to by the keepers of Spring Point Ledge Light. During World War II two shipyards were built next to the lighthouse. These shipyards produced Liberty Ships for the war effort. Due to less need for the lighthouse, Bug Light was decommissioned in 1943.
The Bug Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places as Portland Breakwater Light on Jun 19, 1973.
In 1989 Bug Light was fully restored and was reactivated as a private aid according to the US Coast Guard Light List as South Portland Breakwater Light. Today, there is a park named after the Bug Light where you can visit this lighthouse alongside the Spring Point Ledge Light.
Cape Elizabeth Light – Two Lights
Cape Elizabeth Light, also known as Two Lights, is located at the southwestern entrance to Casco Bay. Of the two towers that originally made up the light station, only the eastern tower is still active. Originally built in 1828 out of rubble stone the two towers stood 300 yards apart and were accompanied by a steam-driven warning whistle that was installed in the nearby brick fog signal station in 1869, the first of its kind in North America.
Both towers were replaced in 1874 by conical towers made of cast iron. Each tower was 67 feet tall and 129 feet above sea level. Despite having twin beacons, Cape Elizabeth saw its share of many shipwrecks.
In 1924, the use of multiple lights at a given sites was discontinued by the US government and the western light was removed from service. It was used as a coastal artillery fire control tower by the Harbor Defense of Portland and served as such throughout World War II. In 1971 it was sold to a private owner and has remained private ever since.
The eastern tower however remains in service as the Cape Elizabeth Light and is often used as a motif for artists. It was even featured on a U.S. postage stamp in 1970.
Portland Head Light
The Portland Head Light sits at the entrance to the primary shipping channel of Portland Harbor. Construction began on this beautiful lighthouse in 1787 at the direction of President George Washington and was completed in 1791 using a fund of only $1,500. That would be around $48,408 in 2023 dollars.
Originally the tower was supposed to be 58 feet tall but was raised another 20 feet when masons realized it would not be visible beyond the headlands to the south. During the Civil was the tower was raised another 20 feet so ships could see it as soon as possible. When Halfway Rock Light was built in 1871, the Portland Head Light was deemed less important and was shortened by 20 feet and a fourth-order Fresnel lens was added. Due to mariner complaints however the former height and the second-order Fresnel lens were restored in 1885. That lens was replaced in 1958 by an aerobeacon and again in 1991 by a DCB-224 aerobeacon, which is still in use today.
When it was built the Portland Head Light used whale oil lamps for its illumination and wasn’t converted to electricity in 1929 and wasn’t automated until 1989.
Today, the Portland Head Light tower stands at 80 feet and is 100 feet above water. The Portland Head Light was registered in the National Register of Historic Places on April 24, 1973.
Ram Island Ledge Light
Last but not least is the Ram Island Ledge Light. The Ram Island Ledges are a series of stone ledges, some which break the waters at the southern end of Casco Bay, just south of Cushing Island. In 1855 an iron spindle was built to protect sailors from the underwater ledges; however, the site continued to be the site of many shipwrecks until 1900 when Congress approved the funds to build a lighthouse.
Construction began on May 1, 1903 and took two years to complete the 72 feet granite lighthouse with its third-order Fresnel lens. It was electrified in 1958 and was converted to solar in 2001.
Interestingly enough, when no government agency wanted this lighthouse, it was put up for auction at a starting bid of only $10,000 in 2010. The winning bid for the Ram Island Light was $190,000 from a surgeon and resident of Windham, Maine.
Oh the stories these lighthouses could tell if only they could speak. The Boston Light for instance has been in use longer than this country has been established by nearly 70 years. From wars to peace and feast to famine, these lighthouses have been beacons of hope for our nation and those who travel along her shores. Take a lesson from a lighthouse and be a light to someone else today.