Photograph of the week: Portland Head Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth, Casco Bay, Maine, USA


“The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day…”

In 1849, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow began his poem “The Lighthouse” with this stanza in what was widely believed to be an ode to Portland Head Light, a historic lighthouse in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Longfellow was, after all, a frequent visitor at Portland Head, whiling away long hours talking and drinking with Joshua Strout, keeper at the time.

“Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!”

The most visited, painted, and photographed lighthouse in New England, Portland Head has inspired more than its fair share of artistic excellence with its “quenchless flame” and “inextinguishable light”, as Longfellow so eloquently put it. Edward Hopper painted the lighthouse in 1927; that watercolour can be viewed today at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. More recently, a snow-bedecked Portland Head was featured in the 1999 movie Snow Falling on Cedars (filmed, incidentally, during the North American Ice Storm of 1998), and the lighthouse also featured in the fifth season of Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

More importantly, though, Portland Head continues to safely guide ships into harbour, as it always has done. The light station sits on a treacherously rocky head of land at the entrance of the primary shipping channel into Portland Harbor, which is within Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Completed in 1791, and lit for the very first time on January 10, 1791, Portland Head burned bright until June 1942 when it was extinguished through June 1945 to avoid aiding German submarines during World War II. Other than that, this oldest light in the state of Maine, and the first lighthouse completed by the United States government, has always been operational and remains so to this day.

Originally commissioned by George Washington in 1787, the station was built with cost-cutting economies in mind. Reminding masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols to be frugal, Washington instructed the light builders to use materials that could be taken from the “fields and shores”, and that could “be handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag”. In spite of, or perhaps because of, these measures, Portland Head has changed very little except for the rebuilding of the whistle house in 1975 after being badly damaged in a storm.

Speaking of storms, Portland Head has been beaten by more than its fair share. Thayer Sterling, the last keeper at Portland Head before US Coast Guard personnel took over in 1946, once told a story of his wife Martha’s lucky escape from a particularly rogue tempest. The story goes that of an evening you would find Martha knitting in a chair next to a window. But one blustery night the Sterling’s dog, Chang, spent the entire evening growling at her feet. Eventually, annoyed, Martha left her customary spot and went to knit elsewhere. No sooner had she moved, with a finally-quiet Chang following her, than a giant wave crashed into the keeper’s house, spraying freezing water, and shards of glass from the now-broken window, over her regular chair.

Today, Portland Head Light continues to serve and protect, standing 80 feet (24 m) above ground and 101 feet (31 m) above water. Its airport style aerobeacon is visible for 24 nautical miles (44 km; 28 mi), and the 400 watt metal halide lamp is rated for 20,000 hours and produces 36,000 lumens of light at 200,000 candlepower. The light station is automated, with the tower, beacon, and foghorn maintained by the United States Coast Guard as a continuing aid to marine navigation. The former lighthouse keepers’ house is owned by the town of Cape Elizabeth and is now a maritime museum within Fort Williams Park. Found at 1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, admission to the park is free, and it is open year round from sunrise to sunset.

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Comments (10)

  1. Bob Brown says:

    I can not help but wonder whether putting out the light during the Second World War might have been counter-productive and have actually cost lives. If there were real safety reasons for the lighthouse’s presence then the danger for ships may have increased during those dark years.

    • Janet Gordon says:

      Just looking at that picture I get the impression that it is a treacherous shoreline. The fact that the lighthouses was built so early in the United States of America’s history makes me think that there was a real need for it. It is also a very impressive list of statistics, it certainly wasn’t put there for cosmetic reasons!. I can’t help but fear that sailors would have been danger in those dark war years. How many wrecks were there? And how many lives were lost?

  2. Fred says:

    Amazing story about Martha being warned by her dog Chang about the approaching tempest. I have always felt that animals have a sort of sixth sense when it comes to weather danger. Often after a tsunami those clearing up say that they don’t find any dead wildlife and they speculate that the animals had evacuated knowing that something was about to happen.

  3. Judy Small says:

    Some great detective work here to produce a fascinating piece. It is amazing what you can find out with some determined digging. I like the different perspectives, looking at the Lighthouse from a poetic point of view is interesting.

  4. Brian says:

    Is there a book on the world’s greatest lighthouses or maybe the world’s most remote lighthouses?

    I’ve not been there but I would guess that Les Eclaireurs lighthouse, nicknamed as “the lighthouse at the end of the world” would get into most categories. Surely it has to be the world’s most southerly lighthouse.

  5. Jeff G says:

    I never fail to be impressed by how a single building can tell history. The story begins with Washington and continues as the USA becomes a great trading power and then is influenced by the Second World War. Now the automated lighthouse is yet another example of the march of technology and also the growth of tourism becoming a landmark for visitors. Another fascinating photograph of the week

  6. Craig says:

    I don’t think this is a new idea, I think one of your followers may have suggested it a few weeks ago, but have you thought about a glossy coffee table book of Luxury Travel Photographs? Glossy, techno-colour photograph on the left-page and fascinating text on the right-hand page.

    Perhaps the main strength of A Luxury Travel Blog is that you are getting bloggers contributing from all over the world. Many of them have an original and intimate knowledge of their regions to share. Plus of course some great photographs. On top of that some of them are really good writers too.

    Such a book would be a really great Christmas present for the millions of travel aficionados out there and also raise the profile of A Luxury Travel Blog whilst developing the identity of the brand at the same time.

    • Julie Humphries says:

      What a brilliant idea! It would make for a beautiful and really fascinating book.

      I find Christmas shopping so stressful. Even the fact that today is 1st August freaked me out. Soon I’m going to be involved in that whole traumatic process again.

      So many of my friends and families are addicted to travel that such a book would be the perfect give for many of them.

  7. Mary says:

    It’s always nice to read that something that’s been around for so many years is still going strong today. Portland Head and its light have certainly been through a heck of a lot over the decades, and that sort of history really does make for an interesting story behind the photograph.

  8. Ariana McDowell says:

    This is the kind of picture that you would see on the desktop of your laptop or your PC. It’s also the kind of place that you can see in romantic movies because it really gives you that relaxing and calming vibe. Simple yet elegant, this scenery is just a reminder of how beautiful our world is. As the description says “the most visited, painted, and photographed lighthouse in New England”, it is without a doubt one of the best views that an artist wants to showcase. This place also has a great history to come with the beauty of it. This place is just stunning!

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