Friday, August 15, 2014

Beacons Of Light

Owls Head Lighthouse
Lighthouses are as synonymous with Maine as lobsters. They are a direct linkage to the state's long history and connection with the sea. And with close to 1500 miles of craggy coastline (this figure includes all tidal areas including the numerous inlets and coves and all of the off shore islands), lighthouses have often been the only thing that has protected sailors from the dangerous rocky cliffs and shoals lining Maine's coast. And there really is something majestic about these iconic, often white towers perched atop cliffs or along rocky shores.

Today there are 57 active lighthouses protecting sailors along Maine's coast. At one time they were all manned by hearty lighthouse keepers who kept the beacons glowing year around. Growing up I remember reading stories about children of earlier times living in isolated lighthouses along the coast where their fathers were the light keepers and thinking about what an adventure it must have been.  Light keeping was often a family affair with the entire family sharing in the responsibilities of keeping the lights on. (In my mind it was like the Maine version of Little House on the Prairie). Today, however, all of the lighthouses are automated with former living quarters either being boarded up or turned into museums.  It is virtually impossible to travel up the coast or out to the islands without encountering a lighthouse or two. Fortunately for lighthouse enthusiasts many of Maine's lighthouses are accessible to the public and exploring them is a great way to spend a summer day. And that is just what I did recently when I set out to explore four of the lighthouses in Midcoast Maine.

Sitting at the mouth of Camden Harbor, Curtis Island Lighthouse is only accessible by boat. Originally built in 1835 by the directive of Andrew Jackson and rebuilt in 1896, this lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The island was originally called Negro Island after a local cook who resided there but later renamed in honor of longtime Camden resident Cyrus H.K. Curtis, publisher of The Saturday Evening Post. It was automated in 1972 but still serves as a welcoming beacon to  those who approach Camden from the sea. Because the lighthouse is not easily visible from land for years the only way I saw the lighthouse was through the aerial photographs that grace postcards and calendar pages. It was only when I was a teenager that I finally saw the lighthouse "in person" from the water. I've since discovered that there is a path leading to the shore on the outskirts of Camden from which the lighthouse is clearly visible. (And that is where I was able to take my own picture).

Curtis Island Lighthouse
The nearby Saint George Peninsula is home to two lighthouses that are easily accessible to visitors. Located in the Owls Head State Park, the current Owls Head Lighthouse was built in 1826, has never been rebuilt and automated in 1989, making it one of the last lighthouses to loose its light keeper. It is said to have gotten its name because people could see a giant bird face on the nearby rocks. There are numerous stories about rescues affiliated with the lighthouse including one where a couple who had been buried under a sheet of ice were saved by the lighthouse keeper in 1850. One lighthouse keeper's wife told a story about it being so cold that the entire bay between Owls Head and Vinalhaven Island froze over with horses and carriages being able to drive the 11 1/2 miles. Now that is cold!

Even people who have never been to Maine are probably familiar with the Marshall Point Lighthouse located just down the peninsula from Owls Head. The lighthouse, built in 1832, was featured in Tom Hanks' movie Forest Gump and stands at the narrow and rocky mouth of Port Clyde Harbor. Rather than being attached to the keeper's house, this lighthouse sits at the end of a wooden walkway, providing better visibility to passing ships. This is fortunate, since the light keeper's house burned after being struck by lightning in 1895. It was soon rebuilt and today the structure is home to a small museum.

Last but not least on my lighthouse tour is the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The 7/8 of a mile long granite breakwater was constructed between 1881 and 1899 in an effort to help shelter the harbor from incoming storms. A total of 700,000 tons of granite was used to build the breakwater. While the breakwater did provide shelter for the harbor, it initially proved to be a hazard to passing ships since it jutted out into the water without a beacon at the end. To this end a temporary beacon was placed at the end of the jetty with a lighthouse being constructed in 1902. Today visitors can walk, or hop along the large flat rocks, to the end of the jetty. I have fond memories of making this walk numerous times while I was growing up and during my most recent visit retraced my steps to the end. The reward of making it? Sitting in the shade of the lighthouse and watching the sailboats, ferries and lobster boats pass by.

Run Forest, run: Marshall Point Lighthouse
These are just a few of  Maine's storied lighthouses as there are 53 other lighthouses dotting the coast ready to be explored. So the next time you find yourself along the coast of Maine, take the time to get to know one or two of the lighthouses. Or check out the Maine Lighthouse Museum in nearby Rockland. And if you want to learn more about these or any of the other Maine lighthouses, Jeremy D'Entremont has researched and written an extensive history of these lighthouses, including notable rescues and the stories of some of the lighthouse keepers and their families that captures how important this lighthouse was to the area.

Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse

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