Photo of Portland Head Light and keepers cottage with flowers blooming in foreground.
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Discovering the Magic of Portland Head Light in Maine

Nestled on the stunning shores of Maine, the Portland Head Light is a beacon of history and beauty. This iconic Maine lighthouse has guided ships to safety since 1791 and has witnessed countless maritime adventures.

But there’s more to this landmark than meets the eye.

From its role in the American Revolution to its connection to famous authors and artists, the Portland Head Light has a rich and fascinating history.

Whether you’re a history buff, a lover of stunning coastal views, or simply seeking a unique travel experience, the Portland Head Light is an appealing destination.

So grab your camera, put on your walking shoes, and prepare to be transported through time while exploring the captivating history of this iconic lighthouse.

The History of Portland Head Light

The history of Portland Head Light dates back to the late 1700s when the newly formed United States sought to improve maritime safety along its coasts. The Portland Head Light is the oldest lighthouse in Maine and serves one of Maine’s busiest ports.

In 1787, two years after Maine became a state, President George Washington ordered the construction of lighthouses along the coast to help guide ships safely into harbors.

Portland Head Light was one of the first lighthouses built under this order.

The lighthouse construction began in 1787 and was completed in 1791. Using local stone and bricks, the lighthouse design was based on the John Smeaton’s Eddystone Lighthouse in England.

The tower is 80 feet tall, and the beacon light shines brightly at 101 feet above sea level. The lighthouse originally had 16 whale oil lamps, later replaced in the mid-1800s by a Fresnel lens.

Portland Head Light has played an important role in maritime history. During World War II, the lighthouse was used as a lookout post to watch for enemy ships along the coast. Today, Portland Head Light is still an active aid to navigation, and its beacon is visible for 24 nautical miles.

The Construction of the Lighthouse

The construction of Portland Head Light was a massive undertaking that required skilled labor, extensive planning, and considerable resources. The lighthouse was built on a rocky outcropping at the Portland Harbor entrance, making construction challenging.

The builders created a solid foundation by excavating the rock and then filling the cavity with concrete. The tower was constructed using local stone and bricks, which were transported to the site by oxen and carts.

The tower was designed to withstand the harsh weather conditions of the Maine coast, including strong winds, heavy rain, and bitter cold. The lighthouse’s walls are three feet thick at the base and taper to two feet at the top. The tower was originally painted white, but over the years, it has been painted in various shades of brown and red.

The Keepers of Portland Head Light in Maine

Portland Head Light’s first keeper, Joseph Greenleaf, was responsible for lighting the lamps every night and keeping the tower and surrounding buildings in good condition.

Over the years, the lighthouse has had many keepers responsible for maintaining the lighthouse and lighting the lamps. The first keeper, Joseph Greenleaf, served from 1791 to 1815. Greenleaf was followed by a long line of keepers, including Joshua Freeman, who served from 1815 to 1833, and Charles Collins, who served from 1833 to 1851.

One of the most famous keepers of the lighthouse was Marcus Hanna, who served from 1861 to 1886. Hanna was a Civil War veteran responsible for keeping the lighthouse operational during the war. Hanna was known for his dedication and commitment to the work of the lighthouse keepers.

While stationed at the nearby Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse, he became known for an extraordinary rescue in 1885. The schooner Australia crashed near the lighthouse during a fierce storm, leaving two sailors clinging to the rigging. Despite his own illness, Hanna tirelessly sounded the fog whistle. When he eventually spotted the wreck, he crawled through snowdrifts to retrieve a line and waded into the freezing surf.

After multiple attempts, he saved one sailor and repeated the daring act to rescue the other.

Hanna received the Gold Lifesaving Medal and Medal of Honor for his bravery. In 1997, the Coast Guard honored him by naming a buoy tender vessel, the Marcus Hanna, after him.

Photo of the iconic Portland Head Light and keeper's cottage from the entry point.
Portland Head Light and keeper’s cottage – Photo © Gwyn Goodrow

Portland Head Light Today

Today, the light is still an active aid to navigation and is maintained by the United States Coast Guard.

Portland Head Lighthouse Museum

The museum, housed in the historic keeper’s cabin, is open daily at 10:00 am. The admission fee is $2.00 for adults and $1.00 for children aged 6 – 18. The Portland Head Light Museum offers free admission to children under the age of 6.

This small museum features many artifacts, photographs, and documents that will help you understand the weather conditions near the rocky shoreline and the value of having a lighthouse tower to protect the seagoing vessels. There are documents about the lives of the keepers. It’s interesting to learn how technology has transformed the lighthouse experience for the keepers and the sailors.

The gift shop offers souvenir pieces such as photographs and artwork of the lighthouse, coffee table books, and memento gifts.

Exploring the Lighthouse Grounds

The lighthouse outdoor space is open to the public from sunrise to sunset and is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike. Photographers flock to the park for dramatic images during the early morning and late evening hours.

Visitors can climb to the top of the tower and enjoy stunning views of the coast and nearby islands on Maine Open Lighthouse Day each year.

The area surrounding Portland Head Light is also worth exploring. Several hiking trails wind through the nearby woods and along the coast. The nearby Fort Williams Park is also famous, with its historic military fortifications and beautiful ocean views.

Things to Do Near Portland Head Light

Fort Williams Park

Portland Head Light Fort Williams Park
Fort Williams Park” by dtpancio is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The nearby Fort Williams Park is also worth a visit, and the park features several hiking trails, picnic areas, and historic military fortifications. Fort Williams Park is open year-round from sunrise to sunset. Pets are welcome here, and dogs are allowed in the park on a leash.

Visitors can also explore the nearby beaches, which offer a variety of water sports, including kayaking, paddleboarding, and surfing.

Visit Cape Elizabeth

The area around Portland Head Light is full of attractions and activities. The nearby town of Cape Elizabeth is home to several charming shops, restaurants, and historic landmarks, including the Two Lights State Park and the Cape Elizabeth Light.

Summary

Portland Head Light is an iconic lighthouse with a rich and fascinating history spanning centuries, and its stunning coastal views leave a lasting impression.

Whether you’re a history buff, a lover of stunning landscapes, or simply seeking a unique travel experience, Portland Head Light is a wonderful destination.

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