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The future looks bright for Maine’s lighthouses

Nubble Light on Cape Neddick

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Nubble Light on Cape Neddick.

Lighthouses, like lobsters, can be found up and down the East Coast and beyond, but it’s Maine they symbolize.

More than 800 lighthouses still stand in the United States, and Michigan counts 120 to Maine’s 66, which include the Machias Seal Island Light, maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard. Maine can, however, claim to lead the country in innovative ways of preserving and maintaining these landmarks.

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No longer simply photogenic icons, more than a dozen lighthouse stations now invite visitors to clamber up into their tower and/or to explore their keepers’ houses-turned-museums, welcome centers, or lodging.

“In order for lighthouses to survive, they have to speak to people in ways that move them,” observes Bob Trapani, director of the American Lighthouse Foundation. Founded 20 years ago to enable volunteers to restore and sustain their local lights, the group currently maintains 18 light stations, nine of them in Maine.

The US Coast Guard continues to service 56 Maine beacons but can no longer afford to preserve their supporting structures — the outmoded towers as well as keepers’ houses, outbuildings, and land. Lighthouses were decommissioned as early as the 1920s, and by the 1960s, all beacons had been automated; most are now solar-powered. By the 1980s, nine lighthouses had been sold off, several razed, and concern for the fate of the surviving lighthouses was widespread and intense.

Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth

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Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth.

“Take away the lighthouses and you’ve taken away an essential part of Maine’s identity, a part of who we are,” Governor Angus King wrote in the introduction to the Maine Lights Program, a model for The National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. This legislation has enabled light stations to be acquired by nonprofits and — if there are no takers — auctioned off to private parties. With acquisition comes the mandate — but no funding — to preserve the historic real estate.

According to Trapani, 42 Maine lighthouses have been transferred to nonprofits or sold since 2000. So it happens that each summer we see new adaptive uses and ways in which visitors can reach light stations and incidentally contribute to their repair and maintenance.

Recently, the American Lighthouse Foundation moved its Rockland headquarters from Main Street to Owl’s Head Light at the mouth of the harbor. Now the 1854 former keeper’s house triples as offices, gift shop, and interpretive center. The 1825 tower is open on a regular schedule, weather and volunteers permitting. Just 25 feet high, it’s an easy climb, and, given its site atop a high cliff, the view is a stunning 40-mile sweep from the Camden Hills, up the bay, and out across the islands.

“That blue hump that you can see peeping up beyond North Haven is Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert [Island], and that’s Isle au Haut that you can just see beyond Vinalhaven,” points out volunteer Phelps Bristol.

Wood Island Lighthouse, Rockland, Maine

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Wood Island Lighthouse, Rockland, Maine.

Across the harbor, Rockland Harbor Breakwater Light is open on weekends, but here, weather can be a serious factor. Surrounded on three sides by water, the squat red brick engine room (now a gift shop), tower, and adjoining clapboard keeper’s house (under restoration) are sited at the end of an almost mile-long uneven granite breakwater, a 20-minute walk each way from shore. On a recent Saturday, the tower’s catwalk and deck were filled to capacity and, according to volunteer Eric Davis, it’s not unusual to log 600 visitors a day.

Pemaquid Point Light claims 100,000 visitors a year and may well be Maine’s most photographed icon. Since 2003, volunteers have kept the tower open daily all summer. The classic white 1824 tower looms high above smooth rocks that cascade down to the ocean, harboring tidal pools that delight kids of all ages. This was Maine’s first light to be automated, and its keeper’s house has long been a town-maintained fisherman’s museum.

Several other keeper’s houses are now small museums, open daily all summer. At Portland Head Light, the oldest and arguably the most handsome of all, exhibits tell, among other things, the history of lighthouses, beginning in Alexandria, Egypt, in 390 BC. At the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum, you can leaf through daily logs kept by its resident keepers from 1874 to 1970, and the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum includes striking works painted on the island by the likes of George Bellows and Rockwell Kent.

The ultimate destination for today’s Maine lighthouse buffs is 2½ miles off the mouth of the Kennebec River, maintained by the Friends of Seguin Island Light Station. Here the highest light above Maine waters retains the state’s only still-active first-order Fresnel lens, which allows the light to be visible from up to 40 miles. Weather permitting, a resident caretaker greets visitors, helping them offload from a dingy (there is no dock) and guiding them up the steep path, into the museum and tower.

The Wood Island Lighthouse, marking the entrance to the Saco River, is far more visitor-friendly. Thanks to AFL and the local chapter of “friends” the 42-foot high tower and keepers house are under restoration, and frequent guided tours begin with a boat ride from Biddeford Pool.

Breakwater Light in Rockland Harbor.

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Rockland Breakwater Light in Rockland Harbor.

At Burnt Island Lighthouse, built in 1821, visitors are greeted by docents in 1950s dress portraying the island’s last lighthouse keeper and his family, guiding them around their ’50s furnished home and up into the light. Owned by Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, the island is accessed by excursion boat tours from Boothbay Harbor.

Another Boothbay area island light station is the newest to offer lodging. The Inn at the Cuckolds Lighthouse on rocky ledges off Southport Island, opens as a luxurious, two-suite bed-and-breakfast in August. Here the keeper’s house had already been razed, and the distinctive lighthouse itself was threatened in 2004 when a local couple applied to acquire it, ultimately rallying local support to rebuild.

The privately owned keeper’s house on Isle au Haut, accessible by mail boat from Stonington, was Maine’s first light house station-turned-inn. Recently reopened, it offers four guest rooms plus a “cozy” former oil house and a cottage.

Surprisingly little known, Whitehead Light, with its beautifully restored keeper’s house, welcomes guests in seven guest rooms (private baths) and ample common space. Sited on a sizable island off Spruce Head, it’s owned by the century-old Pine Island (boys’) Camp. Check out the openings for multiday summer workshops and September rental.

Goose Rocks Light offers the most adventurous lighthouse lodging: a self-contained, three-story, round channel marker at the outer end of the Fox Isles Thoroughfare. Privately owned, its ongoing restoration is financed largely through “keepers experiences.” Guest “keepers” are met at the nearby North Haven ferry landing and eased up the ladders. Bring your own groceries.

The most economical lighthouse stay is in the nicely restored keeper’s house at Little River Lighthouse, set on a small, trail-webbed island off the village of Cutler. Rates (from $150) include transportation, but it’s bring your own linens, towels, sleeping bag, food, beverages, and bottled water.

The lighthouse at Pemaquid Point in Bristol, Maine.

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The lighthouse at Pemaquid Point in Bristol, Maine.

Cutler is also a departure point for puffin-watching tours to Machias Seal Island, a bird sanctuary astride the boundary between the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy. Nearby Quoddy Head State Park, known for its clifftop hiking trails, is home to candy-striped West Quoddy Head Light, marking the easternmost point in the United States. The Keepers House serves as a welcome center for the Lubec area.

So who needs to step inside a light or keeper’s house? Perhaps the much-photographed Nubble Light near the western extreme of Maine’s 4,500-mile coastline is all the more appealing because it sits mysteriously aloof, just across a narrow channel from York’s Sohier Park.

Increasingly, however, visitors are discovering lighthouses as live links to beautiful corners of Maine’s coast and islands and a time in which everything and everyone moved by water. On Sept. 13, Maine Lighthouse Day, 17 towers hold open houses.

Christina Tree can be reached at tree.christina@gmail.com.
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