Since we started our Five Lighthouse tour in Portland, Maine, guides have actively debated how many lighthouses we see on the Five Lighthouse Tour. One would think the answer is five, but it depends on what qualifies as a lighthouse and how much of the lighthouse do you see. Initially, there were two lighthouses at Two Lights hence the wildly original name. One of the lighthouses was decommissioned in 1924. So there are two towers at Two Lights but only looks like a lighthouse today. Does that count as a lighthouse?
Just beyond Portland Head Light is the Ram Island Ledge Light? You can see it clearly, but we do not count it among one of the five. We count the five as Bug Light, Spring Point Ledge, Portland Head Light, and Two Lights making Ram Island the 6th, which is 20% more lighthouse viewing.
If you take the tour on a wicked clear day, then you can glimpse Half-way Rock Light 10 miles away in Casco Bay, bringing the total to 7.
Since we cannot dazzle our guests with our sparkling personalities and our knowledge of all things Portland and lighthouses, here is a virtual Lighthouse tour. Featuring photos of the lighthouses since the governor of Maine has told us to Stay Home and a few fun facts about each.
The official name is the Portland Breakwater Light, but locals have always referred to it as “Bug Light” because it is cute as a bug. At only 37 feet tall, it is one of the smallest ocean lighthouses in the country.
Spring Point Ledge
The lighthouse was constructed in 1897. The rock causeway leading to the lighthouse was added in 1951. Initially, the lighthouse was an island with two men living in it, a lighthouse keeper and an assistant lighthouse keeper. If they wanted to exercise, it was 56 times around the deck to walk one mile. Rumor has it one keeper forgot to shut the hatch before setting out for his walk, which why many keepers chose less athletic hobbies like carving duck decoys.
Portland Head Light
It is big, famous, old, and It was commissioned in 1791. You could argue it was the first lighthouse built in the United States. Yes, there are older lighthouses on US shores. They were constructed before the United States ratified The Constitution, creating what we now know as the United States of America. George Washington was personally involved in designing the lighthouse, and he urged the builders to use local stones to reduce construction costs. Captain Joshua Strout become the keeper in 1869 with his wife Mary as the assistant lighthouse keeper. When they retired, their son Joseph became the Lighthouse Keeper. Between them, they served for fifty-nine years.
Ram Island Ledge
I often say lighthouses were not built with foresight. Many lighthouses were built as a result of maritime disasters. Ram Island was one of those, near Christmas in the early 1900s, a steamship headed for Boston, and New York crashed into the ledge. As a result of this tragedy, a lighthouse was built on the ledge. During the winter of 1949-1950, Joe Johnson, the assistant keeper, spent forty-five straight days on the ledge because the weather was too bad to bring out his replacement.
Halfway Rock was another lighthouse not built with foresight. An escalating series of maritime disasters led to the building of the light. It is an eleven-mile row from the island to Portland, meaning the keepers were often stuck on the rocky ledge for weeks at a time. When Half-Way Rock came online, the bureaucratic minions at the Lighthouse Commission in Washington, DC, decided that the Portland Head Light was not as essential, and they ordered it shortened by twenty feet. There was an outcry, hullaballoo, and even a little ballyhoo from area residents, and Portland Head Light was restored to its original height one-year later.
credit: Pat Smith Dreamstime
The two lights were built to make these lighthouses distinct from other lighthouses in the region. In January 1885, keeper Marcus Hanna saved two sailors from icy seas, and six months later, he was awarded a “gold lifesaving medal.”
There are many more fun facts about Portland and the lighthouses on the 5 Lighthouse tour. Hopefully, we will see many people on tour soon. Until then, stay safe.