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Explore Maine Lighthouse History

Updated: Jun 23, 2022

From The Islandport Guide to Lighthouses in Maine by Ted Panayotoff


Depending on your source, there were 10 to 11 lighthouses built in the American colonies prior to the American Revolution. The earliest of these colonial lighthouses was built in Boston Harbor in 1716. The only colonial light that is still in use today is in Sandy Hook, New Jersey. Built in 1764, the Sandy Hook lighthouse was designed to mark the entrance to New York Harbor. Another built at Tybee Island, Georgia—located outside Savannah harbor—exists only as the foundation of the current Tybee Island Light. All other colonial lighthouses were replaced by newer structures.

After the American Revolution, the state of Massachusetts added two additional lighthouses and started a third in 1787 at Portland Head. The project was stalled for lack of funding, until the first Congress passed a law on August 7, 1789, bringing all existing and future lighthouses under federal control. Funds were then appropriated to complete the Portland Head Lighthouse in 1790 and to begin others. This law established two important precedents: 1) the construction and operation of lighthouses were a federal government function, and 2) the expenses associated with lighthouses were to be paid from the general fund. The thought was that lighthouses facilitated commerce and supported the national economy. Their function benefited all citizens, not just mariners and merchants.

During the first two decades (1789 to 1819), while still a part of Massachusetts, Maine depended on legislators from away to understand the needs of local mariners. They relied on the legislators to petition Congress for lighthouse construction. During that time, eight lighthouses were built along the coast. The coverage up to Penobscot Bay was barely adequate with six lighthouses. North of Penobscot Bay, there were only two lighthouses, leaving dangerous dark gaps for mariners to navigate. Of the eight lighthouses, only Portland Head exists today as an active aid to navigation, although the tower has been somewhat modified.

When Maine officially became a state in 1820, it acquired its own congressional delegation, and the management of lighthouses changed dramatically. In the next two decades (1821 to 1841), 23 lighthouses were built along the Maine coast and in many of its bays and harbors. Of these, five still exist in their original form; the others have been replaced or modified.

The next wave of Maine lighthouse construction coincided with the creation of the Lighthouse Board and their efforts to upgrade the US lighthouse system. In the decade prior to the Civil War (1851 to 1861), the Board added 14 new lighthouses in Maine and replaced or remodeled 19 more. Much of the remodeling was related to the introduction of Fresnel lenses to bring lighthouses to the expected standard for modern navigational aids. After the Civil War, from 1871 to 1890, 8 new lighthouses were built and 14 more were renovated or replaced older lighthouses. In recognition of the Lighthouse Service becoming a professional career organization, the living conditions for the keepers and their families were also considerably upgraded.

During the last two decades of Maine lighthouse construction (1891 to 1910), nine more Maine lighthouses were added. Note that four Maine lighthouses that are no longer in existence have not been included in these totals.

The next period of major change to Maine lighthouses came in the early 1930s. The Depression demanded that federal government agencies economize, and maritime traffic along the coast was reduced (a result of the development of highways and bridges). The technology using acetylene gas-powered lights to automate lighted aids to navigation had also sufficiently matured. For this reason, some lighthouse keepers could be eliminated. Similarly, entire lighthouses were replaced by beacons or lighted buoys. Nearly a dozen light stations closed or were sold to private owners in the early 1930s.

The next major change happened after World War II, when new electrical and electronic technologies eliminated the need for lighthouse keepers. This change occurred in 1950s, and continued until the last Maine lighthouse keeper left his station in 1990.

The changes introduced a new problem for the Coast Guard, who had been responsible for lighthouses since 1939. Namely, how did the Coast Guard maintain the lighthouse and other station structures with no one to assign to the job and little funding to do so? Initially this problem was partly solved by demolishing all station structures not absolutely required for aiding navigation. As news of this policy spread, and citizens complained, the historic structures were placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and the Coast Guard was forced to stop the practice. This action didn’t resolve the underlying dilemma of how to maintain the structures with no resources. In an attempt to address this situation, the Maine Lights Program was developed, which enabled light stations to be acquired by nonprofits.

In 1998, the legislation resulted in nearly 30 Maine lighthouses being transferred to other federal agencies, the State of Maine, Maine cities and towns, and private nonprofit organizations. The Maine Lights program was hugely successful (only one lighthouse had to revert to Coast Guard ownership). The program became the model for the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Lighthouses all over the country have been transferred to new owners, and because of this, these symbols of our rich maritime heritage are available for future generations to enjoy.

This excerpt serves as the foreword to Ted Panayotoff's guidebook, The Islandport Guide to Lighthouses in Maine. This four-color book celebrates celebrates the longstanding history and importance of each lighthouse, as well as its modern-day use and accessibility. A special section for mariners details the sea approach to twenty-two lighthouses. Features include up-to-date descriptions, directions, GPS coordinates, and information on surrounding attractions.




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