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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 lightho