Portland Head Light

The rocky ledge runs far out into the sea
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "The Lighthouse"

Portland, which was known as Falmouth until 1786, was America's sixth busiest port by the 1790s. Even so, Maine had no lighthouses when 74 merchants petitioned the Massachusetts government (Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time) in 1784 for a light to mark the entrance to Portland Harbor. The deaths of two people in a 1787 shipwreck at Bangs (now Cushing) Island near Portland Head finally led to the appropriation of $750 for a lighthouse.

The project was delayed by insufficient funds, and construction didn't progress until 1790 when Congress appropriated an additional $1,500, after the nation's lighthouses had been ceded to the federal government.

The stone lighthouse was built by local masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower, but when it was realized that the light would be blocked from the south it was decided to make the tower 72 feet in height instead. Bryant resigned over the change, and Nichols finished the lighthouse in January 1791.

President George Washington appointed Capt. Joseph Greenleaf, a Revolutionary War veteran, to be the first keeper. At first, Greenleaf received no salary as keeper; his payment was the right to fish and farm and to live in the keeper's house. In 1793, officials decided to pay Greenleaf an annual salary of $160. The keeper died of a stroke in his boat on the Fore River two years later.

By 1810, the lighthouse and keeper's house were in poor condition; the woodwork was damp and rotting. Part of the problem was that the keeper was storing a year's supply of oil in one room, putting great stress on the floor. Repairs were made, and an outdoor oil shed was added. In 1813, a new lantern and a system of lamps and reflectors designed by Winslow Lewis were installed at a cost of $2,100. A new keeper's house was built in 1816.

Improvements were made in the following years. A fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors in 1855. A bell tower with a 1,500 pound bell was installed, the tower was lined with brick and a cast-iron spiral stairway was built. Following the 1864 wreck of the Liverpool vessel Bohemian , in which 40 immigrants died, the light was further improved. The tower was raised 20 feet and a new second-order Fresnel lens was installed. A hurricane on September 8, 1869, knocked the fog bell into a ravine, nearly killing Joshua Strout. A new tower with a 2,000 pound bell and a Stevens striking mechanism was built the following year. The bell was soon replaced by a fog trumpet. In 1887, an engine for the fog signal was moved from Boston Light to Portland Head. An air-diaphragm chime horn was installed in 1938. With the completion of Halfway Rock Light in 1871, the Lighthouse Board felt that Portland Head Light had become less important. The tower was shortened by 20 feet in 1883 and the second-order lens was replaced by a weaker fourth-order lens.

This met with many complaints. A year later, the tower was restored to its former height and a second-order lens was again installed, first lighted January 15, 1885. A new Victorian two-family keeper's house was built in 1891, on the same foundation as the 1816 one-story stone dwelling. The old stone house was reportedly moved to become a private home in Cape Cottage. The lighthouse station has changed very little since that time, except for a 1900 renovation during which many of the tower's stones were replaced.

The last civilian keeper before the Coast Guard took over was Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them. Sterling, who retired in 1946, called Portland Head the most desirable of all lighthouse stations for keepers.Electricity came to Portland Head Light in 1929. The light was dark for three years during World War II. The second-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1958 and replaced by aerobeacons.

Severe weather has always plagued the station. In February 1972, Coast Guardsman Robert Allen reported to the Maine Sunday Telegram that a storm had torn the 2,000 pound fog bell from its house, ripped 80 feet of steel fence out of concrete and left the house a "foot deep in mud and flotsam, including starfish." A wave had broken a window in the house 25 feet high. In a 1977 storm, the keeper and his family were evacuated. The power lines were downed and the generator burned out, leaving Portland Head Light dark for the first time since World War II. On August 7, 1989, a celebration was held at Portland Head Light commemorating the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Lighthouse Service. The day also marked the automation of Portland Head Light and the removal of the Coast Guard keepers.