Portland Head Light
In 1790, when the United States Government took over the responsibility of all lighthouses, Congress appropriated $1,500 for construction of a lighthouse. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower, but when it was realized that the light would be blocked from the south it was decided to make the tower 72 feet instead. The tower was lit with 16 whale oil lamps, and was first lit in January 1791.
President George Washington appointed Captain Joseph Greenleaf, a Revolutionary War veteran, to be first keeper. At first Greenleaf received no salary as keeper; his payment was the right to fish and farm, and to live in the keeper's house. In 1793, the government decided to pay Greenleaf an annual salary of $160.
By 1810, the lighthouse and keeper's house were in such poor condition, because of dampness and rotting, that repairs were made, and an outdoor oil shed was added. In 1813, a new lantern and a system of lamps and reflectors designed by Winslow Lewis were installed at a cost of $2,100.
In 1850, new lamps and reflectors were installed. The following year an inspection found that the new reflectors were badly scratched already, the house was leaky and cracking, and rats were undermining the tower. Improvements were made.
A 4º Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors in 1855. A bell tower with a 1500-pound bell was installed, the tower was lined with brick, and a cast-iron spiral stairway was built.
In 1864, after the wreck of the Liverpool vessel Bohemian, in which 40 immigrants died, the light was further improved. The tower was raised 20 feet and a new 2º Fresnel lens was installed.
Captain Joshua Strout became keeper in 1869 for $620 per year. Strout's wife, Mary, became assistant keeper at a salary of $480 per year. Their son Joseph became keeper in 1904, and remained until 1928, ending 59 years of the Strout family at Portland Head.
A parrot named Billy was a well-known member of the Strout household for many years. When bad weather approached, Billy would tell Keeper Strout, "Joe, let's start the horn. It's foggy!" Billy reportedly became an avid fan of radio in his declining years and lived to be over 80.
A hurricane in September 1869 knocked the fog bell into a ravine, nearly killing Keeper Strout. A new tower with a 2000-pound bell and a Stevens striking mechanism was built the following year. A fog trumpet soon replaced the bell. In 1887, an engine for the fog signal was moved from Boston Light to Portland Head, and in 1938, an air-diaphragm chime horn was installed.
With the completion of Halfway Rock Light in 1871, the Lighthouse Board felt that Portland Head Light had become less important. In 1883, the tower was shortened 20 feet and a weaker 4º lens replaced the 2º lens. This met with many complaints, and a year later, the tower was restored to its former height and a 2º lens was again installed.
On Christmas Eve in 1886, the three-masted bark Annie C. Maguire struck the ledge at Portland Head. Keeper Joshua Strout and volunteers rigged an ordinary ladder as a gangplank between the shore and the ledge. All on board were saved. The cause of the wreck is still puzzling since visibility was not a problem. On New Year's Day 1887, a storm destroyed the ship after everything of value had been removed. You can still see the rock near the lighthouse with the painted inscription: "In memory of the ship Annie C. Maguire, wrecked here, Dec. 24, 1886."
The current Keepers' Quarters building was constructed in 1891 as a 2-story duplex. Until 1989, it was home to the head and assistant lighthouse keepers and their families.
In 1958, the 2º Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by aero beacons, and in 1989, the lighthouse was automated. The property was leased to the Town of Cape Elizabeth. Three years later the property was deeded to the Town. The United States Coast Guard maintains the actual light and the fog signal.
Recent storms have plagued Portland Head Light. In February 1972, a storm had torn the 2000-pound fog bell from its house, ripped 80 feet of steel fence out of concrete, and left the house a foot deep in mud. A wave had broken a window in the house 25 feet high. In a 1977 storm, the keeper and his family were evacuated. The power lines were downed and the generator burned out, leaving Portland Head Light dark for the first time since World War II.
In 1992, the Museum at Portland Head Light opened in the former keeper's house. The museum focuses on the history of the lighthouse and nearby Fort Williams. Among the displays are this tower's old seven-foot 2º lens and a 5º lens from Squirrel Point.
Portland Head is one of the most spectacularly beautiful lighthouse sites in New England with 350,000 to 400,000 people visiting each year. Maine's oldest lighthouse is easily accessible by land; some tour boats out of Portland approach the lighthouse by sea.