Beacons of Light
There are 65 lighthouses still standing in Maine. Many are major tourist attractions. The Nubble in York, Portland Head Light, Pemaquid Point Light, Owls Head Light, Bass Harbor Head Light, and West Quoddy Head Light receive tens of thousands of visitors a year. Perhaps we Mainers take lighthouses for granted, but a visit to each of these icons should be on everyone’s bucket list.
However, merely taking big pictures of big lighthouses misses the big picture. It’s often the smaller, out-of-the way, little-visited lighthouses that tell the real story of coastal Maine. Most lighthouse visitors look at the world from the perspective of the lighthouse, gazing out to sea. To grasp Maine’s true history, it’s better to be out to sea, looking back at the lighthouse. From that perspective you can see why Congress voted to put lighthouses where they did 150 years ago. Lighthouses were traffic signals, keeping vessels away from danger and guiding them toward ports. From a boat, you can see the dangers that sailing ships were being warned to avoid.
Long before roadways crisscrossed the Pine Tree State, sailing vessels were our primary form of long distance travel. Ports were the economic engines of the state, shipping goods and forest products to Boston and beyond. Fishing boats were sheltered from storms in snug harbors.
Northeast Harbor and Southwest Harbor were superb little harbors, but getting into them could be tricky. Shoals and islands constrained the channel. Lighthouses on Baker Island and Bear Island, at the entrance to Somes Sound, were some of the earliest built in Maine. From the mainland, neither lighthouse is visible. But from sea, it’s obvious why they were put in those locations.
Likewise, the entrances to Blue Hill Bay and Penobscot Bay were treacherous. The channel through Eggemoggin Reach to Blue Hill Bay is shallow and narrow. A light on Pigeon Island marks the way, but few tourists will ever see it. Neither will most tourists see the lights in East Penobscot Bay that guided vessels coming up from the south. On Eagle Island next to Deer Isle, and on Mark Island adjacent to Stonington, the lighthouses are hidden from mainland view. Only Dyce Head Light in Castine can be visited by car.
Large lighthouses offshore signaled danger to ocean-going vessels. Boone Island in southern Maine is tallest at 133 feet. Petit Manan Light tops 109 feet. Shorter towers on Matinicus Rock, Mount Desert Rock, and Stonington’s Saddleback Ledge were also meant to warn ships at sea.
Smaller lighthouses marked the entrance to rivers and harbors, intended to guide fishermen back to port. All these lights flashed at different intervals, sometimes with different colors, so that sailors could tell for sure which light was looming out of the fog.
There’s been a surge of tourist interest in lighthouses over the last decade. Boat companies offer excursions to Maine’s more obscure lights. Bar Harbor Whale Watch earns its bread and butter by chasing marine mammals, but the company has added lighthouse tours to its calendar in increasing numbers. This past summer, the company sent one of its large, fast catamarans on daylong lighthouse tours. One tour ran all the way up the Maine coast into Canada, stopping at 18 lighthouses. A second ran down the coast to Rockland, visiting 16 lighthouses. A third circumnavigated Deer Isle and motored up the Penobscot River all the way to Bangor, lingering at 11 lighthouses.
The Isle au Haut Ferry has gotten into the game, offering several dedicated tours of the lighthouses in the Deer Isle and Stonington archipelago each summer. Many of the schooners in Maine’s windjammer fleet visit the lighthouses of the Midcoast area.
On board these boat tours, you’ll hear stories about each lighthouse. The job of a lighthouse keeper was dangerous and lonely, but it came with prestige and a steady paycheck. Tales of heroism abound, but stories of the day-to-day humdrum are equally informative about Maine life in the mid-19th century. Just trying to establish a small vegetable garden in the rock crevices was a major challenge for some island-bound families.
In those winters, bays could freeze over, preventing supplies from reaching the keepers. Worse, maritime engineers complained that several lights were dangerous because they drew unsuspecting captains onto ice.
Maine’s maritime history is fascinating. On a lighthouse tour, you can actually see that history. Our beacons beckon.