What comes to mind when you dream of traveling to the great state of Maine? No doubt you think of incredible lobster dinners, rugged coastlines, friendly people, and seasonal displays of unmatched natural beauty. Hopefully, you also think about the state’s iconic lighthouses.
You may be surprised to learn how many lighthouses in Maine still exist. There are currently 65 lighthouses still standing in Maine. They are spread out along 5,000 miles of coastline, islands, and inlets. With so many lighthouses, it’s easy to see why the unofficial nickname of Maine is “The Lighthouse State.”
Seeing all the lighthouses in one trip may not be possible, but many visitors do plan their Maine vacations to include touring at least one of these historic buildings.
Why Were Lighthouses Built?
It’s hard to imagine now, but there once was a time when great ships sailed across the sea with no radar, GPS, or even modern lights to guide the way. Lighthouse towers with their beaming lights at the top warned sailors of dangerous seas and served to help ships navigate up and down coastlines safely. The first lighthouse built in the United States was in 1716 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Because the light, which was originally an oil lamp, had to be tended to day and night, small apartments were incorporated into the construction of the lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper was responsible for keeping the oil lamp going and could not leave his post.
The height of a lighthouse not only provided a perfect tall platform for the signal light, but the towering structures, which were typically painted white or red and white like a barber’s pole, were relied upon as landmarks visible during the day.
Even with all the sophisticated navigational equipment available today, some lighthouses are still depended on for helping ships sail around rocky reefs and narrow channels.
Maine’s Oldest Lighthouse
You may have already seen dozens of photos of the state’s oldest lighthouse and not realize it. Portland Head Light was built in 1784 and is one of the most prolifically photographed lighthouses in the U.S. It is located in Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, just twenty minutes south of Portland, Maine.
The government of Massachusetts petitioned for the structure to be built and even dedicated $750 (about $17,000 in today’s value) to get the project started. It was finally completed in 1791 with the help of more money from Congress.
Portland Head Light is a wildly popular destination that attracts nearly one million visitors annually. It is home to a number of local events, including Family Fun Day, the TD Beach 10K Road Race, and much more. The backdrop of the classic lighthouse also makes it a much-loved destination for small weddings and other special events.
To view Portland Head Light, just go to Fort Williams Park. No tours or appointments are needed, though official tours are available. You can walk directly up to the structure and touch it. The park is open 365 days a year, but the best times to visit are in the summer when the weather is warm or during fall when Maine foliage is at its finest.
How Many Lighthouses in Maine Are Still Operating?
Of the 65 still standing, 60 Maine lighthouses are operational. Thirty-seven of them still use old-fashioned fog horns, casting their lonely bellows across the sea each night to warn ships of danger ahead.
Though the U.S. Coast Guard no longer relies on lighthouses the way they once did, USCG still maintains more than 60 of the working lights that dot Maine’s coast. Eight of these still use a historic Fresnel lens:
- Bass Harbor Head
- Browns Head
- Cape Neddick
- Fort Point
- Owls Head
- Sequin Island
- West Quoddy Head
The Fresnel lens was developed by Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a French physicist. The complex design of the lens bends light in such a way that the glow of an old oil lantern becomes a single focused beam of light that can be seen for great distances.
The Fresnel Light has secured a place in history as “the invention that saved a million ships.” Visiting one of these Maine lighthouses is a highlight for anyone interested in the history of shipping or life at sea.
How Many Lighthouses in Maine Can You Visit?
Most of the state’s 65 lighthouses are open to the public. However, not all of them are accessible by land.
If your goal is quantity, consider joining a guided lighthouse tour. If you have a handful of “must-see” favorites, check with overseeing parks, conservancies, or other departments to ensure they are open to the public during your visit.
Whatever your plans, including at least one lighthouse in your travels will give you an authentic Maine experience like no other.
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