The lighthouses of Maine

By | Category: Travel destinations

Seguin Island Light; fancy being a summer lighthouse keeper?

The north eastern US state of Maine borders the Atlantic Ocean. For centuries, fisherman and merchant ships have sailed these tricky waters where fogs can be as prevalent as mountainous seas.

Consequently, there are lighthouses scattered up and down the coast – some sixty-five in all – to protect sailors and their vessels. Most still function but many have become tourist attractions with some tour operators providing tours of any number of them as short-break tours or even longer ones. Only five have relinquished their original role and it is surprising to some that one of the very oldest – the Portland Head Light which was commissioned by George Washington in 1791- is still on duty.           – .

Today, in an age when technological advance and satellite guidance systems are probably more important to sailors than lighthouses, they don’t have the same importance. Nonetheless the US coastguard still maintains the beacons but not the buildings in which they sit. This might be surprising to many since if the building decays, then eventually the structures that support the lights must suffer as well. But no, that isn’t the coastguard’s responsibility that is where local communities or non-profit groups become involved. After all, lighthouses can attract tourists and if they come they may spend and stay in the local community therefore bolstering the local economy.

The coastguard has transferred more than 30 of Maine’s historic lighthouse structures into the hands of organisations under the Maine Lighthouse Program, a pilot (no pun intended) program established to preserve these historic structures. The programme became the model for the National Lighthouse Preservation Program in 2000, which has preserved more than 120 lighthouses across not just Maine or other New England states but across the entire country.

West Quody

Today, local preservation groups up and down the Maine coast raise money and donate time and manpower to maintain these important connections to the state’s maritime heritage for future generations. For them, this important work is largely a labour of love. Many of Maine’s lighthouses exist today and are still accessible to visitors because of the numerous dedicated volunteers. According to Bob Trapani, Jr., executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation, volunteers are our modern day “lighthouse keepers.” Without the more than 1,000 people in Maine who give freely of their time and talents, most every lighthouse would suffer immeasurably in one or more aspects.

“Light station structures would begin to look shabby and deteriorate, and the public would be denied the cultural and educational opportunities associated with lighthouses being open or available for overnight-stay programs,” says Trapani. “Without volunteers raising additional funds, lighthouses would be denied professional restoration when necessary due to a lack of monies that cannot be obtained from other sources.”

One such volunteer job is being lighthouse keeper for the Seguin Island Light Station each summer, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. These volunteers live in the Keeper’s Quarters on the tiny island and are responsible for tasks such as maintaining the grounds, giving tours to guests, and maintaining a daily log of activities, weather conditions, and impressions of the island, for historical purposes. Seguin Island is only accessible by boat so volunteers must be prepared for life the way it was for keepers and their families back in the day.

The Keepers of Burnt Island Light in Boothbay Harbor use volunteers for their Living Lighthouse Program — volunteers act out the roles of a former lighthouse keeper and his family, describing what life was like on the island without electricity, running water or refrigeration. Volunteers also are responsible for keeping the shoreline clean, and the trails and structures maintained.

Pemaquid Point Light

Volunteers are a critical part of the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust’s success in maintaining and preserving the lighthouse in the harbour in Portland. Volunteers lead tours, teach visitors about the lighthouse and its historic role in Portland harbour, and point out the landmarks surrounding the lighthouse.

While volunteering is not for everyone, those interested can still enjoy spending some time at many of Maine’s lighthouses, usually in the summer months. If there is an entry fee, or suggested donation, those funds go to the continuing preservation of the beloved coastal guardians. If in search of lighthouses to access, you have quite the selection. Recently, the American Lighthouse Foundation moved to Owl’s Head Light at the mouth of the Rockland harbour. Now the 1854 former keeper’s house acts as offices, gift shop, and interpretive centre. The 1825 tower is open on a regular schedule, weather and volunteers permitting.

Pemaquid Point Light in Bristol is open during warmer months to visitors for just $3. (just over £2.20.) This famous lighthouse is on a dramatic peninsula of striated granite that makes it one of the most photographed of all Maine lighthouses.

Burnt Island Lighthouse is accessible by boat and is open during the height of summer. You can take a boat tour to the island or hire one of the many boats and canoes available. The tower is closed to visitors during the Living Lighthouse Tour on Mondays and Thursdays from 2-4 p.m. Visitors are requested to make a donation, in order to keep the structures and electricity maintained.

The West Quoddy Head Lighthouse has been an aid to navigation since it was first built under the order of President Thomas Jefferson in 1808. It came into its own as a tourist destination in 2002 when the non-profit West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association opened the 1858 Keepers’ House as a visitor centre, museum and art gallery. The easternmost point in the contiguous United States is distinguished by the red and white striped tower pattern in a picturesque setting with the cliffs of Grand Manan which is over the border in the Canadian province of New Brunswick in the distance.

Burnt Island Lighthouse

While there are many lighthouses regularly open to visitors each week, some are closed to the public except for one single day every year — the second Saturday in September. On September 9, 2017, at least 23 lighthouses will be open to the public on Maine Open Lighthouse Day. Sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Maine Office of Tourism and the American Lighthouse Foundation, this annual event attracts thousands of visitors and, increasingly, more and more overseas visitors are scheduling their holidays around this time.

The alternative to visiting lighthouses is to see them from the water. There are many tours such as Finestkind in Ogunquit, Portland Land & Sea Tours in Portland, and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. sailing in Frenchman Bay which will take you towards the lighthouses giving you the sort of experience that sailors must have dreaded. The nearer they got the more imminent a disaster. Today the closer you get the more entrancing it seems!

You can, of course, stay in one. Some are now B&B’s or available for holiday rentals. Whatever option you choose, a holiday looking at lighthouses is probably not one that your neighbours will have enjoyed!

Images © Maine Office of Tourism to whom we are grateful for most of this story



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