To a sailor inbound on a stormy night, a Maine lighthouse is a thing of beauty. The blinking light, the reverberating fog horn, the ringing bell – these are signals of safety and well-being.
They’re also great places to visit.
Starting in the 1790s, the Federal government began planting lighthouses throughout Maine, first on rocky shores, then on islands and shoals. Maine desperately needed them. In Colonial days, Maine had few roads. Those it had were terrible. So ships became Maine’s engines of commerce. Without lighthouses to illuminate the way, those engines might well have been sunk on the rocks or turned away.
The Federal Government kept building – and rebuilding – Maine lighthouses for more than a century. When it finished, more than 60 lighthouses had risen. Until those lights were automated in the late 20th century, each light had keepers who lit and repaired the lanterns and blew the foghorns and rang the bells and kept everything working throughout the worst storms. Some lighthouses were merry places with bright, sun-lit keeper’s houses, pretty gardens and even schools for light keepers’ children. Some were barren outposts atop tiny piles of wave-washed rock with grim towers rising from the middle.
Today, you can visit a number of Maine’s lighthouses by car or tour boat. A few favorites include Cape Neddick, or “Nubble” Light, in York, which sits just offshore on a pint-sized island. The light tower and its Victorian keeper’s house were once supplied by cable car connected to the mainland. Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth is Maine’s oldest light. It’s close to downtown Portland. Owl’s Head Light rises on a steep hill above Rockland Harbor. Pemaquid Point Light is so distinctive it’s featured on the Maine State quarter. And in a state full of white-painted lighthouses, West Quoddy Head Light is a stand-out. Located, ironically, on the eastern-most point of the contiguous United States, West Quoddy Head is the only candy-striped lighthouse in the country.
One thing hasn’t changed for many Maine lights: they’re still at work. While a few have been retired, many remain lit, signaling to ships at sea, warning of those same dangers that still hide among the rocks and shallows.