Some folks say the end is the best part of any story. The Tuesday Tour of lighthouses is complete for now, at least until Papa and I can embark once again on our empty nest travels. As I’ve promised in earlier posts, I believe I have saved the best for last in this series.
When you view the photo below, you may think I’m off my rocker. But hang on, this one is just the sidekick of a more spectacular one. I almost missed catching a glimpse of Ram Island Ledge Light, an unobtrusive and almost forlorn looking tower, located about a mile offshore from a more famous lighthouse on the coast of Maine.
This particular navigation aid was erected first as an iron spindle in 1855 to mark dangerous ledges near the entrance of the Portland harbor, and later became a 50-foot wooden tripod.
Shipwrecks abounded in the area for many years and when a large transatlantic steamer ran aground during a snowstorm in 1900, the necessity of a lighthouse there became most apparent.
Construction began on Ram Island in 1903 and completed the next year, but the 90-foot tall tower was first illuminated in January 1905 with a fog bell added later that year. Keepers lived inside the tower for two weeks at a time working 12-hour shifts daily and then were granted one week shore leave.
By 1959, keepers no longer were required since the light became automated and on 2001, it was converted to solar power. Eventually, this light tower was placed on the auction block and a private owner purchased it simply because he wanted to preserve this historic place.
Ram Island Ledge Light might be lone and forgotten possibly because it’s almost hidden in the shadows of a famous lighthouse, actually New England’s most visited, photographed, and painted landmark – Portland Head Lighthouse.
Situated in Cape Elizabeth, Maine on the dramatic coastline, Portland Head is rich in history since it is Maine’s oldest lighthouse dating back to 1791 and is noted as the first lighthouse completed by the U.S. government. When we visited in early summer 2017, it didn’t take long to realize this is a popular sightseeing destination.
Cape Elizabeth’s history can be traced back to Revolutionary War times when, in 1776, the newly established town posted soldiers at Portland Head in order to warn of British attacks and protect the harbor. By 1787, partial funding was provided to build a lighthouse there and three years later, the U.S. Congress added enough funds to complete the construction of a 72-foot tower and a small keeper’s dwelling. President George Washington requested that local rubble stone be used to build the lighthouse itself.
Illuminated by 16 whale oil lamps, Portland Head was first lit on January 10, 1791 after its dedication by none other than Marquis de Lafayette. A Revolutionary War veteran, appointed by President Washington, became the first lighthouse keeper there. His salary? The right to live in the keeper’s dwelling, fish, and farm in the area. Finally, after two difficult years, the keeper received $160 per year.
Winter was perilous at Portland Head especially when the trek from the keeper’s dwelling to the lighthouse was steep, rocky, and frozen when ocean waves washed over it. By 1816, a new two-story keeper’s quarters was built and part of the former structure was joined to the tower.
During the Civil War era, the tower was elevated another 20 feet after a 295-foot ship wrecked taking 40 lives into the sea with it. Later, on Christmas Eve in 1886, yet another sea vessel crashed at Portland Head. When the lighthouse keepers heard the impact, they formed a gangway with a ladder set between the rocky ledge and the shore and rescued all 14 people on board.
The peculiar aspect of that shipwreck was that visibility was good that night and the ship’s crew stated they saw the Portland Light clearly. So what caused the ship to strike a ledge and be lodged against it?
Yet more unusual occurrences happened at this famous lighthouse. As the wife of one keeper sat knitting in a chair next to a window one evening, their dog began growling so ferociously, she got up and moved to another area. Immediately afterwards, an enormous wave crashed into the keeper’s dwelling, breaking the window and blowing glass shards over the chair where she had sat.
Visitors to the lighthouse roamed freely about sometimes startling the keepers and their families. In the 1950’s, a woman entered the house, sat at the kitchen table, and declared that the keeper and his wife serve her since they were government employees.
And in the 1960’s, keepers’ families learned that downstairs doors and windows should be locked at all times after tourists with cameras barged into the bathroom in the keepers’ home and caught a coastguardsman’s wife in the tub.
After the lighthouse was automated, an apartment in the keeper’s dwelling was rented and several occupants over the years reported a feeling that they weren’t alone there. One couple said a motion-detector alarm often went off when no one was there at night. Other residents thought there was a spectral presence in the basement but felt it was a friendly ghost who “just needed to be told that his keeper days were over and he could rest in peace.”
One keeper named Joshua Strout is noted as Maine’s oldest keeper. At 79 years old, he retired in 1904 after being Portland Head’s light keeper for 35 years and had served 17 of those years without any time off. Strout’s son Joseph became head keeper serving until 1928. His career at the light station was over 50 years.
Another interesting story about Portland Head Light is that a very famous poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, became a frequent visitor there. It’s highly suspected that he was inspired by this lighthouse to pen his poem entitled The Lighthouse:
“Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night,
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!”
– excerpt from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Lighthouse
That inextinguishable light actually was extinguished though from June 1942 to June 1945 in order to prevent aid to German submarines. During World War II, unauthorized visitors were also forbidden there.
During its long service, Portland Head Light was first the responsibility of the U.S. Department of Treasury from 1790-1852 when the U.S. Lighthouse Board took over management. By 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard became responsible for navigational aids including Portland Head. In 1989, the lighthouse was decommissioned and the town of Cape Elizabeth now owns and manages it with the U.S. Coast Guard still controlling the light and fog signal.
We first viewed Portland Head from adjacent Fort Williams Park, where visitors can utilize picnic areas, go hiking, engage in sports and recreational activities, and enjoy beautiful ocean viewpoints from its 90+ acres. When visiting the lighthouse itself, the public also can tour an award-winning museum in the former lighthouse keeper’s quarters as well as a gift shop.
In my estimation, Portland Head Light is one of the most beautiful lighthouses we’ve viewed thus far. I fell head over heels for this lighthouse (although not literally because that would have been a disastrous fall!) and took more photos of it than any other. I just couldn’t stop taking pictures, as you can tell from this post, and I thought every picture this amateur photographer captured looked amazing.
“Once the lighthouse is seen, the rest of the sea is ignored.” ~ Terri Guillemets