10 of Maine's Most Interesting Lighthouses

The Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine

Rapid Fire / Wikimedia Commons

Maine's craggy coastline and often-foggy weather once made it one of the most dangerous places in the country for ships. Thankfully, modern technology has made navigation near the shore safer, and many of these historic lighthouses, now automated and outfitted with LED beacons, still help boats avoid the treacherous shoreline.

Many Maine lighthouses date back to the 19th century, and some were commissioned before the United States was even formed. George Washington, for example, ordered the construction of one of the state's most iconic beacons, the Portland Head Lighthouse (pictured), before he was officially elected president. The youngest lighthouse in Maine, meanwhile, is still over 100 years old. This history and the seafaring stories surrounding these places make them more than mere photo ops.

Here are several of Maine's most interesting lighthouses.

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Wood Island Lighthouse

Photo: Hidden Fox Photography [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The Wood Island Lighthouse is only accessible by boat. It is still an active lighthouse, though it is now fully automated and uses LED lights. Thomas Jefferson commissioned the Wood Island Lighthouse in 1808, but its original tower was replaced in 1858 with a new one that is still standing today. The staff quarters, which are also still standing, were built during that renovation project.

The lighthouse is operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, but a non-profit group called the Friends of the Wood Island Light has helped to maintain and renovate the buildings on the island. This group operates seasonal tours of the island and the lighthouse. Those who do not go on guided excursions can see the Wood Island from Biddeford Pool, a resort community that is directly across the channel.

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Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse

Photo: Corey Balazowich [CC BY-ND 2.0]/Flickr

The Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse was built at the end of the 19th century. It marks a major obstacle, its namesake ledge, near the entrance to Portland Harbor. The beacon was constructed after many shipping companies complained that their vessels ran aground in the area because they could not see the ledge. In 1951, a massive 900-foot breakwater, made with granite boulders, was added in order to connect the lighthouse with solid land.

Now owned and operated by a charitable organization, the lighthouse is open to the public. The Spring Point Ledge Light Trust offers tours during the summer season. Visitors also come to fish or picnic along the breakwater. History enthusiasts often combine a visit to Spring Point Ledge with a stop at nearby Fort Preble.

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Portland Head Light

Photo: Jonathan Miske [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

The Portland Head Light on Cape Elizabeth is the oldest beacon in Maine. It was completed in 1791, four years after George Washington ordered it built. Despite being constructed on the cheap (Washington told workers to use stones scrounged from neighboring fields), the lighthouse is one of the few 18th century structures that has never been rebuilt. The tower, however, was raised 20 feet during the Civil War to deter Confederate naval vessels, which often raided the harbor in an attempt to disrupt shipping.

The lighthouse now has a museum, housed in the keeper's quarters. It features lighthouse lenses and exhibits that delve into the area’s history. Portland Head is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the state. Visitors can get a variety of different views from the picnic areas and trails of Fort Williams Park, where the lighthouse is located.

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Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

Photo: Doug Blunt/Shutterstock

You can spend the night at the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse. A museum is housed on the first floor of the keeper's house, but an apartment on the second floor is available for rent. The town of Bristol, bought the land surrounding the light in the 1940s and established a public park with picnic facilities, an art gallery and a learning center. The light is actually still an active Coast Guard beacon, but visitors are allowed to tour the facility.

Pemaquid Point Light might seem vaguely familiar to people who use cash. This is because it was featured on the back of the Maine state quarter (making it the first lighthouse to be displayed on U.S. currency). At 38 feet, the tower is relatively short. However, its location on the high point of the Pemaquid Neck gives it a focal height (height above sea level) of almost 80 feet.

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West Quoddy Head Lighthouse

Photo: J Labrador [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The West Quoddy Head Lighthouse is easily recognized because of its candy-stripe paint scheme. Thomas Jefferson commissioned the original lighthouse on Quoddy Head in 1808. The current tower is from 1858. It sits inside Quoddy Head Park, a 550-acre coastal area with trails, a beach and a cranberry bog. This is the easternmost point in the U.S., and as such, is said to be the first place in the country to catch a glimpse of the sunrise.

Not only can visitors see the sun come up over the Atlantic, but during the summer they may be able to spot whales, including humpbacks, as they migrate past Maine's coastline. Like many other light stations in Maine, the West Quoddy keeper's house is now a museum. The light is now fully automated, but keepers actually lived on site until 1988. This was much later than most of the other beacons in the state, which were automated by the 1960s.

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Cape Neddick Lighthouse

Photo: Hidden Fox Photography [CC BY-SA 4.0]/Wikimedia Commons

The Cape Neddick Lighthouse began operation in the 1870s. Named after the town of Cape Neddick, the beacon is actually located on a small land mass called Nubble Island, which is just offshore. Instead of its official name, the station is usually referred to as the Nubble Light or, simply, "The Nubble."

Sailors first requested a lighthouse in the area, a busy shipping and shipbuilding hub, in the early 19th century. The government decided on beacons in other places, but eventually ordered the lighthouse on Nubble in the 1870s after other efforts failed to curb the number of shipwrecks. The light was a popular tourist spot in its early days. Keepers would sometimes offer to row people from the mainland for a small fee. Though today's sightseers can easily view the lighthouse from the mainland, Nubble Island itself is currently closed to visitors.

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Whaleback Lighthouse

Photo: angela n. [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

The Whaleback Lighthouse is located on the border of Maine and New Hampshire. The original beacon was constructed in the early 19th century, but it had to be renovated and rebuilt several times until its current incarnation was erected in the 1870s. The light was automated in the 1960s and now has an LED beacon. Also, because the Coast Guard feared that the soundwaves could harm the integrity of the tower’s structure, the original fog warning bell was replaced with a lower-volume horn that can be radio activated by ship captains when needed.

The lighthouse is offshore, so it cannot be directly accessed by the public. However, cruises pass within a short distance of the tower and sightseers can get good views from shore on both the Maine and New Hampshire sides of the Piscataqua River.

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Burnt Island Lighthouse

Photo: Richard Bullington-McGuire [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

The Burnt Island Lighthouse is the second-oldest surviving lighthouse in Maine. Other beacon sites are older, but the original Burnt Island structure, built in 1821, is still standing today. The keeper’s house, however, was rebuilt in 1857. When it was eventually automated in 1988, it was one of only 11 staffed lighthouses in the country.

A nonprofit group called the Keepers of the Burnt Island Light currently offers educational programs and summertime tours of the island. These experiences include a living history program. Boaters can moor their vessels at a pier, and a local cruise company offers ferry service to the island.

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Whitlocks Mill

Photo: J Labrador [CC BY-SA 2.0]/Flickr

Whitlocks Mill is the northernmost lighthouse in Maine. It was also the final beacon to be constructed in the state (first lit in 1892). Built on the St. Croix River, the light sits near the U.S.-Canada border. Unlike most lights, which guided oceangoing vessels, the Whitlocks Mill beacon marks a dangerous bend in the river. The original light was nothing more than a bright lantern hung in a tree by the mill owner, named Whitlock, at the request of the Coast Guard.

The current compound was built in 1910. The lighthouse is overseen by the St. Croix Historical Society and operated by the Coast Guard. The keeper's house and other outbuildings are currently privately owned.

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Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse

Photo: Adam Matthew Van Kampen [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr

Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse is on Mount Desert Island in Acadia National Park. First lit in 1858, it is still owned by the U.S. Coast Guard. The property is now used as a private residence for Coast Guard staff members. However, people can get close to the tower via a path that runs next to the property. The trail also provides some great views of the surrounding shoreline.

Despite being the second-largest island on the U.S. Eastern Seaboard (after Long Island), Mount Desert Island only has the one beacon. This fact, along with the scenic trails, make it a popular attraction even though the tower itself is off-limits to the public. The light is still an important beacon and is visible 13 nautical miles out into the ocean.