Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse

Mount Desert Island, Maine - 1858 (1858**)

Photo of the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse.

History of the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2018-03-01.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, sitting atop a granite headland in Acadia National Park, is probably one of the most photographed lighthouses in all of New England.

Long before Europeans arrived at Mount Desert Island, the Wabanaki, a collective group of four distinct tribes of Native Americans inhabited the land. Wabanaki roughly translates to "People of the Dawnland." They knew Mount Desert Island as Pemetic, or "the sloping land."

To avoid harsh inland winters, the Wabanaki wintered on the coast and summered inland. They built bark-covered conical shelters and traveled in birchbark canoes. They lived off the land by hunting, fishing, collecting shellfish, and gathering plants and berries.

Although the first meeting between the Europeans and the Wabanaki is unknown, Samuel Champlain, a Frenchman, led an expedition that landed on Mount Desert Island on September 5, 1604. It was during this trip that he provided the name Isles des Monts Deserts, or "island of the Bare Mountains."

In 1613, after being welcomed by the natives, Frech Jesuits established the first French mission in America on Mount Desert Island. The French soon began to settle when an English ship commanded by Captain Samuel Argall destroyed their mission.

With English settlements to the south and French colonies to the north, both groups left Mount Desert Island alone until 1688 when Antoine Laumet a French immigrant arrived. Upon arrival, he changed his name and gave himself the title of Sieur de la Mothe Cadillac.

The governor Jacques-Rene de Brisay de Denonville gave him the estate of Les Douacques, which included thousands of acres of land along the Maine Coast. Within a few years, the English captured the area, and by 1701, de la Mothe Cadillac had founded Fort Pontchartrain, which would later become Detroit.

The English succeeded in driving the French from their stronghold of Quebec in 1759, which opened up the Maine coast for English settlement. Although governor Francis Bernard had received a royal land grant to settle Mount Desert Island, the onset of the Revolutionary War scuttled his plans.

After the war, Mount Desert Island was divided. John Bernard, son of Governor Francis Bernard, received the western half, while Marie Therese de Gregoire, the granddaughter of Cadillac, was given the eastern half. Both parties eventually sold their property to non-resident landlords.

By the start of the 1800s, the number of settlers on Mount Desert Island steadily increased. By the 1820s, lumbering, farming, shipbuilding, or fishing were the industries that employed most homesteaders. Over the next 30 years, the link to the sea expanded as more fish racks and shipyards dotted the landscape.

Around the 1850s artists and journalists started visiting Mount Desert Island. Crude accommodations didn't bother them. These so-called "rusticators," sought out fisherman and farmers to put them up and through returning summer after summer forged friendships.

It was through their works of writing and paintings that outsiders were "introduced" to the area. The first record of summer vacationers arriving on the island was in 1855, and by 1868, steamboat service from Boston had started.

The influx of visitors put a strain on lodging, and by 1880, there were nearly 30 hotels in the area. By the 1890s, many prominent East Coast families, such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, Astors, and others had luxurious estates on Mount Desert Island they euphemistically called "cottages."

As the number of vessels calling in the Mount Desert Island area increased, Bass Harbor, on the southwestern tip of the island had caught the attention of the Lighthouse Board. In the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the State of the Finances for 1855, W.B. Franklin, the lighthouse inspector for Maine and New Hampshire noted:

There is a very good harbor about four miles west of Mount Desert harbor, called Bass harbor. A light is necessary to assist vessels in entering it; and I recommend that $5,000 be appropriated for a lighthouse on Bass Harbor Head.

Congress appropriated the necessary $5,000 on August 18, 1856. By June 1857, the United States had entered into a contract to purchase three acres of land for $80. By the time the Attorney General had approved the title for the site of the Bass Harbor Head lighthouse, it was too late in the season to start construction.

Library of Congress Photo of Bass Harbor Head LighthouseBass Harbor Head Light (Courtesy L.O.C.)

Work began in the spring of 1858 and finished up by early fall. Workers erected a 32-foot-tall cylindrical brick tower, but given that the tower stood atop a granite bluff, the light from the fifth-order Fresnel lens displayed at 56 feet above sea level.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was a single family station. Construction crews erected a 40-foot by 20-foot one-and-a-half-story wood keeper's dwelling to provide living quarters for the keeper and his family. A 21-foot long covered walkway connected the tower and the house. The cost of the station was $4,983.35.

The station's first keeper was John Thurston, with a $350 per year salary. He placed the fixed red light into service on the night of September 1, 1858. A red chimney arranged over the lamp within the lens gave the light its color.

The keeper's dwelling was repainted during the 1867/1868 timeframe. The station received a fog bell in 1876, and along with being repainted in 1878, several other changes occurred. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board detailed them below:

16. Bass Harbor Head, entrance to Bass Harbor, Maine - The keeper's dwelling was raised ten inches, the cellar floor cemented, and the exterior walls of the building clapboarded and painted. The tower floor was raised, and the work-room and porch rebuilt.

In 1894, workers erected a 12-foot by 24-foot boathouse and a 100-foot long boat slip. The following year, the Lighthouse Board supplied a hand winch to help the keeper pull the boat out of the water.

The fog signal received a much-needed upgrade in 1897. The Lighthouse Board erected a one-story brick structure just east of the lighthouse tower. Suspended outside the building was a 4,000-pound bell. No longer would the keeper need to strike the bell manually, machinery inside automated the task.

Library of Congress Photo of Bass Harbor Head LighthouseBass Harbor Head Light fog signal house (Courtesy L.O.C.)

The ell of the house was extended ten feet to enlarge the kitchen and add an office in 1900. At that same time, the boat slip was extensively repaired and improved. In 1901, a Stevens striking machine replaced the Shipman oil engines to operate the fog bell.

Over the next few years, a few changes occurred at the Bass Head Harbor Lighthouse. The station received an upgraded fourth-order Fresnel lens, manufactured by Henry-Lepaute in Paris, France, and a brick oil house in 1902. And in 1905 a rectangular clapboard barn was erected.

For a family light station, many keepers didn't stay long. Most stayed on average about four to six years. The two longest-serving keepers were Willis Dolliver, from 1894 to 1921, and Joseph M. Gray, from 1921 to 1938.

The last civilian keeper was Morton M. Dyer, who arrived in 1955. He retired in 1957 at the age of 70. After that, all keepers were members of the United States Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard automated the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse in 1974, forever relieving keepers. Unlike other "automated" lighthouses, this didn't mean that there would be no human presence at the station. Instead, the Coast Guard kept the house, using it for housing for the commander of the Coast Guard Group Southwest Harbor.

The Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988.

In 2012, for the second time in history, a Maine lighthouse was featured on a U.S. quarter. The U.S. Mint chose the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse to represent Acadia National Park in its "America the Beautiful Quarters Program." Previously, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was featured in 2003 as part of the U.S. Mint's "50 States Quarter Program."

On June 2, 2016, the United States Postal Service issued "forever" stamps featuring National Parks in recognition of the National Park Service's 100th anniversary. Again, the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse was the featured image for Acadia National Park.

In September 2017, the Coast Guard, working through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, offered to transfer the Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, keeper's dwelling, and its 2.5 acres of land to the park. Acadia National Park's public affairs specialist, Christie Anastasia, said that most people already assumed that it was part of the national park.

It took Acadia National Park less than two months to accept the Coast Guard's proposal. Due to the financial liability of maintaining the property, Kevin Schneider, Acadia National Park Superintendent, said the park service is looking into ways to defray the costs.

Several options they were exploring were offering the house as a vacation rental, using the lighthouse as a bookstore or other retail shops, such as a coffee shop or cafe. The problem with a retail shop would be the low turnover of parking spaces, and with only 27 spots, parking would be an issue.

Another option that came up was to use the dwelling for employee housing, which Schneider said was sorely needed.

Brief History of Acadia National Park

In 1901, George B. Dorr, a private citizen, and lover of nature became disturbed by the growing development around Bar Harbor. Worried what the newly invented gasoline-powered portable sawmill would do to the landscape, Dorr and several others established the Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations.

The Hancock County Trustees of Public Reservations sole purpose was to preserve land for the perpetual use of the public. Dorr spent the next decade acquiring land, and by 1913, he had amassed nearly 6,000 acres.

That same year the Maine state legislature threatened to revoke the nonprofit status of the group. After successfully fighting the measure, Dorr realized that the only way to permanently preserve the area was through the protection of the federal government.

After many trips to Washington D.C. and numerous meetings with influential people, President Woodrow Wilson created the Sieur de Monts National Monument on July 8, 1916. Dorr continued acquiring property and working to obtain full national park status, which finally occurred on February 26, 1919.

President Woodrow Wilson signed an act creating Lafayette National Park, named after Marquis de Lafayette, an influential French supporter of the American Revolution. George B. Dorr became the first park superintendent and declined to take any salary except for one dollar a month. He held the position until his death on August 5, 1944.

The name of the park was changed to Acadia National Park on January 19, 1929, to honor of the former French colony of Acadia which once included Maine. Today, George B. Dorr is known as the "Father of Acadia National Park."


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. The Lighthouses of Maine: Acadia Region and the Bold Coast, Jeremy D'Entremont, July 9, 2013.
  3. Wikipedia website.
  4. National register of Historic Places, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Various.
  5. National Park Service website.
  6. Lighthouses of Maine, Bill Caldwell, 1986.
  7. "Acadia to assume ownership of iconic Bass Harbor lighthouse," Nick Sambides Jr., Bangor Daily News, November 23, 2017.
  8. "Acadia National Park considering purchase of iconic MDI lighthouse," A.J. Higgins, Bangor Daily News, September 16, 2017.
  9. "Bass Harbor Lighthouse on Quarter Dollar Coin," Timothy Harrison, Lighthouse Digest, March/April 2012.

Directions: From the tiny Town of Bass Harbor, Maine, follow Route 102A south. At the point where Route 102a turns left, stay straight and follow Lighthouse Road south. This road will end at a parking area for the lighthouse.

Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard, but is set to transfer to Acadia National Park at sometime in the future. Grounds open, dwelling and tower closed...for now. For views of the lighthouse from the water, you can take a sightseeing cruise offered by Island Cruises of Bass Harbor.

View more Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 32.00'
Focal Plane: 56'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 44.22197 N
*Longitude: -68.33729 W
See this lighthouse on Google Maps.


* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.