There’s a lot I find appealing about lighthouses. I like that they exist to guide us through troubled waters, the way they serve as bright beacons of assurance in the midst of a mess. I like their history, the stories of harrowing rescues and narrow escapes from catastrophe, stories of vanished lighthouse-keepers or vivid tales of bravery and independent existences. I like how they all have their own identities, their own stories. They’re all different, all built for some specific sea obstacle in varying sizes, shapes and shades.
Gifted with a free morning in Portland, Maine, and a strong desire to do some outdoor scampering, I decided to check out the lighthouse scene. I’d visited two already, the first the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in Acadia National Park and the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, but I wanted to see more. As it turns out, Portland is a great place to see lighthouses, with five located in and around the area.
START: the Portland Breakwater Light, or the “Bug Light”
The Portland Breakwater Light, called the “Bug Light” because of its small size, was built in 1875. This cast-iron lighthouse was modeled after an ancient Greek monument in Athens and includes six decorative Corinthian columns. Photos on site show the light in its heyday, with an adjoining six-room house for the lighthouse-keeper which was later demolished. The light was decommissioned in 1943 as the breakwater was turned into a shipyard. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973, restored in 1989 and reactivated in 2002.
Location: In Bug Light Park at S. Portland Greenbelt Pathway, South Portland, Maine 04106. During WWII, the site was used for shipbuilding and employed around 30,000 people. Today, there’s a memorial area detailing the shipbuilding history of the site.
#2: the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse
The Spring Point Ledge Light was built after numerous vessels ran aground and wrecked there and, on May 24, 1897, the light was lit for the first time. In the 1930s, granite blocks were placed around the lighthouse to protect it and later, in 1951, the Corps of Engineers built a 50,000-ton, 900-foot granite breakwater that connected the lighthouse to the mainland. In 1998, the Maine Light Selection Committee approved the transfer of the light from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust and in 1999, it was opened to the public. It’s one of 49 caisson lighthouses in the U.S. and the only one that’s accessible from land. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.
Location: 2 Fort Road, South Portland, Maine 04106. Volunteers from the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust occasionally open up the light for tours. The breakwater is uneven granite boulders – pictured below – so be careful as you scamper.
#3: the Portland Head Light
The Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse in the state of Maine and the most photographed lighthouse in the United States. At the behest of none other than George Washington, construction on the lighthouse began in 1787 and was completed on Jan. 10, 1791. The keeper’s house was built 100 years later, in 1891 and housed the head and assistant lighthouse keepers and their families until 1989, when the light was automated. The height of the lighthouse changed a few times for various reasons, but today it stands at 80 feet above ground and 101 feet about water. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
Location: In Fort Williams Park at 12 Captain Strout Circle, Cape Elizabeth, Maine 04107. In addition to the lighthouse, the park includes a beach area and additional historic structures, like the Goddard Mansion and several gun batteries.
#4: the Ram Island Ledge Light
Visible from the Portland Head Light, the Ram Island Ledge Light sits in Casco Bay and marks the northern end of the channel that leads into the Portland Harbor. After a steamship ran aground on one of the Ram Island Ledges in 1900, Congress set aside funds to build a lighthouse there. Construction started in 1903 and the lighthouse was completed two years later in 1905. It’s a twin to the Graves Light in the Boston Harbor, which was built around the same time. The light was electrified in 1958 and automated the next year, which allowed keepers at the Portland Head Light to monitor both the light and the fog signal remotely. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. In 2001, it was converted to solar power and in 2010 it was put up for bid to the general public and was bought for $190,000.
Location: In Casco Bay on the Ram Island Ledges, this light is best viewed from either the Portland Head Light (12 Captain Strout Circle, Cape Elizabeth, Maine 04107) or from a boat.
#5: the Cape Elizabeth Light
Today, the Cape Elizabeth Light sits on private property, but when it was built in 1828, it was part of the first set of twin lighthouses to grace the coast of Maine. Even with these twin lights, shipwrecks were common in Cape Elizabeth, and in 1885, the keeper rescued two men from a schooner that had ran aground during a snowstorm. Even though it’s on private land, the light is still active and is visible 17 miles at sea. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.
Location: Near Two Lights State Park, but most easily seen by navigating to the end of Two Lights Road at 225 Two Lights Rd, Cape Elizabeth, Maine 04107.
Total Drive Time & Mileage: 32 minutes & 10 miles, which means you can easily visit all five lighthouses in 2-3 hours, depending on how much time you spend exploring the surrounding areas.