They weren’t easy to find.
On our empty nest road trip to New England in 2018, one of our quests was to locate some lighthouses on the coast of Maine, which didn’t prove to be a simple task because some of the beacons aren’t easily reached or are inaccessible by car.
After a few wrong turns and scratching our heads, we reached success when we discovered Owls Head Lighthouse near Rockland, Maine and Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland.
On that June day, we actually were the only people at Owls Head Light Station. Pulling into the parking lot near the structure in Owls Head Light State Park, we were surprised to find no other visitors and that our vehicle was the lone one there.
Peace and quiet accompanied us on a short walk through a wooded area to this picturesque lighthouse sitting on top of an 80-foot bluff above Penobscot Bay. Both history and mystery surround this beacon.
Construction for the original station was approved by President John Quincy Adams in 1824 and the original, 15-foot tall, stone lighthouse was established in 1825.
Even though that tower was relatively short, because of its location on the rocky bluff, the beacon could be seen for 16 miles. The first lighthouse keeper, a War of 1812 veteran, earned an annual salary of $350. By 1852, that structure had deteriorated so a new, 24-foot tall, brick tower was built with a new keeper’s dwelling added two years later.
Tending the lighthouse was risky business as the tower was situated 120 feet up a steep ascent from the keeper’s home. Winter was especially treacherous and finally in 1874, walkways and stairs linked the keeper’s house with the beacon.
Two fascinating tales exist about Owls Head including a story of two people frozen in ice who came back to life and a dog who rang the fog bell. During a raging December 1820 storm, a small schooner set anchor at the onset of the storm and the captain went ashore leaving three others on board.
As the storm worsened, the vessel was ripped from its mooring and smashed into rocks near the lighthouse after which the boat’s mate attempted to go ashore for help.
The lighthouse keeper found and revived the mate, but the man begged the keeper to rescue his fiancée and a fellow crewman who were still on the wrecked schooner. When a search party recovered the two people, they reportedly were encased in an ice block formed from the water’s spray in freezing cold temperatures.
Even though it seemed they were deceased, hours-long efforts to chip off the ice, place the man and woman in cold water, and massage their legs and arms continued. Miraculously, both were revived.
And then there is the tale of Spot the dog, a springer spaniel owned by an Owls Head keeper during the 1930’s-40’s. The keeper’s daughters apparently taught the dog to ring the fog bell by tugging on the rope and whenever a boat passed by, the dog rang the bell with the ship returning the sound by bell or horn. Sounds like a perfect example of Pavlov’s conditioning experiment with dogs, doesn’t it?
But Spot’s “trick” actually saved someone’s life. Spot became friends with a mail boat skipper who always brought the dog a treat. Spot soon learned to recognize the boat’s engine sound and knew when his friend was arriving.
When a blizzard hit, Owls Head’s fog bell was muffled by snow drifts. During the snow storm, Spot scratched at the keeper’s door to be let out, sped to the shoreline, and barked repeatedly and loudly. The mail boat captain heard his canine friend, replied with the boat’s whistle, and later claimed he was saved from disaster because he was able to determine his location thanks to Spot.
In addition to its history, some mystery swirls around Owls Head Lighthouse as well. Named first on a most haunted lighthouse list, some claim there are at least two ghosts there – a female who has been “seen” in the kitchen or looking out a window and another who some believe is a former keeper’s spirit.
The later just may have climbed into bed with a Coast Guard keeper’s wife one night. She distinctly felt what she thought was her husband crawling back into bed after he gone outside to check something.
When she questioned him and received no response, she rolled over to find no one there yet an indentation in the mattress appeared to be moving. Her husband, who had not yet returned to the bedroom, claimed he saw “a cloud of smoke hovering over the floor” which passed through him.
Yet another ghostly tale is that of a Coast Guardsman’s two-year-old daughter who described seeing a bearded man wearing a blue coat and seaman’s cap, yet no such person had ever been there.
Still others report that unexplained footprints, leading in only one direction to the tower after rain or a snowfall, appear and strangely enough, brass is found polished and the lens cleaned in the lighthouse afterwards.
Fact or fiction? Who knows, but we found this lighthouse, automated in 1989 and still an active navigational aid today, intriguing. We managed to climb the 52 steps up to the lighthouse where we found the view simply amazing.
Owls Head Lighthouse and the keeper’s dwelling now is licensed to the American Lighthouse Foundation. The foundation, along with the U.S. Coast Guard, restored the tower to its original 1852 appearance.
Only open on selected days, the lighthouse was closed when we visited, but the grounds were open. Currently due to the pandemic, lighthouse climbing tours have been suspended until further notice.
The 1854 keeper’s dwelling still stands on the site and serves as the American Lighthouse Foundation headquarters. According to the non-profit’s website, that organization is responsible for restoration and preservation of 18 lighthouses.
From Owls Head, we headed south to Portland, Maine and our next lighthouse stop proved to be a bit of a challenge. After several wrong turns and a bit of exasperation, we finally located Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, which actually sits on a breakwater connecting it to the Southern Maine Community College campus.
Because of its location, it’s not only difficult to find but parking is very limited when the college is in session. We found that to be so. Papa finally just pulled alongside a curb temporarily and I jumped out of the car and jaunted quickly to a vantage point to capture a photo of this distinct lighthouse that kind of looks like a spark plug.
Since we were apprehensive about the parking situation and didn’t want to incur a fine, we weren’t able to walk out onto the breakwater to see this caisson-style lighthouse closely. Out of 49 such types of lighthouses in the United States, Spring Point Ledge is the only one visitors actually can walk to.
Constructed in 1897 and first illuminated in May of that year, this lighthouse was erected in the Portland Harbor to mark a ledge projecting from the shoreline at South Portland’s Fort Preble and extending into the main shipping channel of the harbor. Several significant shipwrecks and groundings occurred due to this dangerous area in one of the busiest harbors on the east coast.
Despite the need for it, Spring Point Ledge Light was darkened for about three months in 1898 during the peak of the Spanish American War, resuming illumination once again in late July of that year.
After sustaining years of damage from ice, granite blocks were placed around it for protection in the 1930’s. The 950-foot granite breakwater connecting the lighthouse with the shore was constructed by the Corps of Engineers in 1951.
The U.S. Coast Guard automated Spring Point Ledge Light in 1960 and nearly 40 years later, ownership was transferred to the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust. Responsibility for the lighthouse’s functions as a navigational aid is retained by the Coast Guard.
The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Normally, visitors could explore the inside of the working lighthouse on Saturdays and Sundays, but tours are now closed due to the pandemic.
Two more visits to Maine’s lighthouses followed after this one. I’ve saved what I think are the best for the last couple of posts yet to come. I hope my readers continue joining me on my Tuesday Tours to view photos of those remaining sites. I believe they are the cream of the crop.
“We are told to let our light shine, and if it does, we won’t need to tell anybody it does. Lighthouses don’t fire cannons to call attention to their shining- they just shine.” ~ Dwight L. Moody