Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-11-02.
After the American Revolution, Portland Harbor had become one of the most important seaports in the state of Maine. As the southern approach to Portland Harbor was hazardous, the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouses were established in 1828.
Captain John Smith led an expedition to the New World in 1615. On this trip he mapped many of the areas of what is now New England and provided names to locations based on the names used by the Native Americans. It was during this trip that the name "New England" was coined.
After returning to England, Captain Smith turned the map over to King Charles I, and suggested that he change any of the "barbarous names" to English ones. King Charles I made numerous changes, however, only four survive today. Cape Elizabeth is one of the surviving changes, having been named after his sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia.
Cape Elizabeth was incorporated as a separate town on November 1, 1765, after it split from Falmouth, today known as Portland. During the American Revolution, Falmouth was burned to the ground, however, after the war, a section of Falmouth called The Neck was developed as a commercial port.
Over the next ten years, the port grew, and in 1786, the citizens of Falmouth formed a separate town in Falmouth Neck. The new town was named Portland, after the isle off the coast of Dorset, England. As maritime trade of the port increased, so did the number of shipwrecks and the need for aids to navigation.
The first attempt to mark the southern entrance to Portland Harbor occurred in 1811, when a 50-foot black and white pyramidal stone day beacon was erected on a rocky promontory at the southeastern point of Cape Elizabeth. Contractors Edward Robinson and John Bartlett built the day mark.
Shipping continued to increase and so came increased calls for a lighthouse. The Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, Stephen Pleasonton, called upon Isaac Ilsley, the superintendent of Maine Lighthouses in February 1827 to determine the number of lights needed and their cost.
Isaac Ilsley determined that the station would have two lighthouses, one fixed and one revolving, which would differentiate it from Wood Island to the south and Portland Head Light to the south. On March 2, 1827, Congress appropriated $3,000 for two lighthouses at Cape Elizabeth. In February 1828, an additional $4,500 was appropriated.
Original rubble stone east lighthouse (National Archives)
In 1828, twelve acres of land was purchased by the State of Maine and transferred to the federal government, and in May, a contract was made with Jeremiah Berry to erect two rubble stone towers, as well as raze the stone day beacon.
When completed, two 65-foot octagonal rubble stone towers were built on the point, each topped with an octagonal wrought-iron lantern. The east tower was built upon the former site of the stone day marker and contained 15 lamps with 16-inch reflectors, which showed a fixed white light.
The west tower was built 895 feet due west of the east tower and housed 14 lamps with 14-inch reflectors on a revolving apparatus, which produced a flash. Both lights were operational by the end of October 1828.
At a salary of $450 per annum, President John Quincy Adams appointed Elisha Jordan to be the first keeper. Jordan's wife was employed as the assistant keeper. At that time, keeper positions were highly political. With that, Keeper Jordan was replaced in September 1834 by Charles Staples, an active Democrat.
It was during Charles Staple's tenure that the station received a fog bell. A small building was erected in May, 1835 to house the automatic striking machinery. The bell was then mounted on the roof of the structure. To look after the fog signal, the keeper was awarded a $50 per year pay raise.
Soon after the towers were placed into service, it was clear that there were issues with the quality. After visiting the station, the local lighthouse superintendent wrote to Stephan Pleasonton in November, 1829 stating that the lighthouses never did dry. As the towers were erected so late in the season, the mortar froze, and whenever it would rain, water ran amongst the stone, keeping it continually wet.
During 1842, Navy Lieutenant I.W.P. Lewis, the nephew of Winslow Lewis inspected many of the lighthouses along the coast of New England. In his 1843 report to Congress, he was critical of many of the lighthouses.
East tower - East tower of rubble masonry, 48 feet high, laid up in bad lime mortar, base resting on surface of rock; soapstone roof in slabs; masonry in a defective state; mortar soft, and pointing scaled off; walls leaky; wooden staircase rotted considerably; also window frames, which leak in storms; roof leaky.
West tower - West tower of rubble masonry, 49 feet high, laid up in bad lime mortar; base resting on the surface of a rock; roof soapstone slabs. In precisely similar condition to the tower. Towers 895 feet apart.
Dwelling-house of rubble masonry, laid up in lime mortar of bad quality; roof shingled; two rooms on first floor, and kitchen back; two chambers in attic; house leaky about eaves, roof, and windows; chimneys smoky; plastering injured by leaks; no well of fresh water.
His report detailed other deficiencies such as cracked glass in the window panes and the rotation mechanism in the west tower was weak and prone to frequent stoppages. Regarding the bell, he stated that it was too far from shore and couldn't be heard over the roar of the surf.
The difference in the height listed when the towers were initially constructed and the heights listed in Lewis's inspection report were how they were measured. From the ground to the top of the dome, the towers stood 65 feet tall. When Lewis measured them, he measured from the ground to the top of the tower, which was 49 feet. The lantern adds an additional 16 feet.
Lewis would routinely take a statement from the keeper, allowing them to contribute items to the report. On August 5, 1842, Keeper George Fickett made many similar statements to those made by Lewis. Stephen Pleasonton, the man in charge of all lighthouses, would many times counter the charges by enlisting "friendly" mariners to sign a petition stating the lights were perfect or could be seen at great distances.
It appears likely that Pleasonton pressured Keeper Fickett to recant his statement. On November 3, 1843, Fickett stated the following:
"Having for the first time just read a printed statement of the condition of the light-houses at Cape Elizabeth, signed by myself, the keep of these lights, dated August 5, 1842, in Document No. 183, I find several important errors, and that, generally it gives the wrong impression as to the condition of these lights. There was a leak in the eastern light, but I discovered and effectively stopped it..."
Fickett's statement goes on to recant nearly every item that I.W.P. Lewis found defective in his report. The retractions didn't just happen at the Cape Elizabeth Lights, there were retractions of keepers at other stations, which also appear around this time.
Original rubble stone west lighthouse (National Archives)
Pleasonton's reign over the nation's lighthouses would come to end in 1852 after Congress passed legislation a year earlier authorizing the formation of the Lighthouse Board. The board was made up of two naval officers, two army officers, a "civil officer of high scientific attainment," and a junior naval officer to act as secretary.
The Lighthouse Board carried out an inspection of the Cape Elizabeth Lights on July 4, 1851. Their report was similar to what Lewis pointed out in 1843, cracks in the walls, damp, and an ineffective fog bell. The fog bell was brought up again two years later by J.B. Coyle of the Portland Steam Packet Company. He complained that it was "entirely too small for one occupying so important position."
Finally, after years of penny-pinching, the Lighthouse Board sought to correct many of the deficiencies. With that, in 1854, a new larger bell and striking mechanism were installed. That same year, the eastern tower received a new cast-iron staircase and was lined with brick.
The Lighthouse Board adopted the more efficient Fresnel lens and began installing them in all U.S. Lighthouses. In many situations, larger lanterns had to be installed on the towers to accommodate the Fresnel lens. This was the case at both towers of the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouses. In 1854, both towers received new lanterns and third-order Fresnel lenses.
It was announced in the summer of 1855 that on August 1, the Lighthouse Board was going to discontinue the west light and change the eastern light to display an equal interval flashing characteristic. However, with this arrangement, it was hard for mariners to discern the Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse with the Wood Island Lighthouse south of Cape Elizabeth. With protests growing louder, the board reinstated the western tower on April 1, 1856.
To help identify the towers during the day, in 1865, each tower was assigned a unique color scheme. The western tower was given a wide, vertical red stripe, while the eastern tower was painted with four horizontal red bands.
A new steam-powered fog signal was installed in 1869. That was also the first year the Lighthouse Board mentioned replacing the western tower. For the years 1870 and 1871, the following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board:
40. Cape Elizabeth, coast of Maine - The westerly tower of the two, at this Light-station was built in 1828 of rubble stone, and is now in such a state as to render it necessary to rebuild it in a better manner, for which an estimate has been submitted in the annual estimates. The station is one of the most important on the eastern coast, serving the double purpose of a sea-coast Light-station, and as a mark for the entrance into Casco Bay and to Portland Harbor.
By 1872, the Lighthouse Board was recommending replacement for both towers, stating that they were beyond repair. Although the board had recommended both towers be replaced, the appropriation of $30,000 on March 3, 1873 was to rebuild the western tower, of which construction had started later that year.
During the course of construction, the Lighthouse Board found it was able to rebuild both towers with the single appropriation. The cast-iron segments of the 67-foot towers were manufactured at the Portland Machine Works. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1874:
42-43. Cape Elizabeth, entrance to Portland Harbor, Maine - The exterior shells of the two new iron towers, in process of construction at date of last report, have been set up at the site, and the interior brickwork and iron stairways carried up to the full height, window-frames set, and the walls plastered. It is expected that the lights will be exhibited from the new towers during the present season, and the old towers will then be taken down. The lens of the fixed light will be changed to the first order, and that of the flashing light will remain of the second order.
Cape Elizabeth West Lighthouse today
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1875 confirmed that both towers were erected from the single appropriation and stated that the old rubble stone towers were torn down. It also stated that a second class fog siren had been constructed as an experiment, and that after the experiment was concluded, it was put into use. It was also recommended that a duplicate signal should be established and asked for an appropriation of $5,000 to carry out the work.
Over the years, maintenance was carried out on the dwellings. In 1876, after being damaged in a hail storm, the east dwelling had new windows installed. The following year, the west dwelling had a new roof and clapboard siding installed. In 1878, a new one-and-a-half story frame dwelling was erected for the head keeper near the east tower.
Although they were initially painted brown when the towers were first established, in 1881, both the east and west towers were given two coats of white paint, and the lanterns were painted black. An oil house was added in 1885 and a brick fog signal house was added to the station in 1886. An additional brick oil house was added by the second tower in 1889.
Housing changes continued over the years. In 1890, the old stone dwelling occupied by the second assistant keeper was torn down, and a new framed dwelling was built upon its foundation. Additional housing issues crept up when the principal keeper, whose wife was an assistant keeper, resigned in 1889.
Until their resignation, although there were four keepers, there were three families being housed in three single dwellings. After their resignation, there were four families being housed in three dwellings, which led to two families occupying a single family house. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1891 called for the construction of an additional dwelling, at a cost of $3,300.
The request for an additional dwelling was repeated each year until 1901 when the west keeper's dwelling was enlarged and rearranged to provide two separate living quarters for the first and third assistants. At this time, the second assistant's dwelling was repaired and improved as well.
Although an attempt was made again in 1882 to deactivate the western light, after being met by protests, it was reactivated. By the early 1900s, the Lighthouse Board began its cost cutting measures by reducing the number of "twin lights."
In 1923, the Lighthouse Board, which had been renamed as the Lighthouse Service, had deactivated one of the Twin Lighthouses at Chatham in Massachusetts. The following year, on June 14, 1924, the west tower of the Cape Elizabeth Light Station was permanently decommissioned.
The east tower was electrified on December 20, 1925, which increased its candlepower to 500,000. This made it the second most powerful lighthouse in New England, just behind the Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod.
During World War II, the lantern was removed from the western tower, converting it to an observation station. At the culmination of World War II, the western tower and dwelling were abandoned. After years of sitting vacant, the tower, dwelling, and 10.5 acres of land were put to auction in 1959.
The high bidder was Gary Merrill and his wife, Bette Davis, with a bid of $28,000. When they divorced in 1960, Gary Merrill kept the property. After years of ownership, Merrill sold the property in 1983.
The eastern lighthouse was automated in 1963. The second-order Fresnel lens remained in service until its removal in 1994. Then lens was on display at the Cape Elizabeth Town Hall until 2013. Today, it is at the Maine Maritime Museum, and will be featured in a new exhibit called "Into the Lantern: A Lighthouse Experience", slated to open in the summer of 2017.
The eastern tower is still an active aid to navigation. Inside the lantern is a modern VRB-25 optic, which is maintained by the Coast Guard. In 2001, the tower was leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation for care and upkeep.The keeper's dwelling next to the eastern tower was sold in 1994. Over the years, it has undergone numerous changes, and today looks vastly different from the day it was built in 1873. It is privately owned, please do not trespass.
Note: Both the eastern and western lighthouses and dwellings are private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
Directions: From South Portland / Cape Elizabeth, take Route 77 (Ocean House Road) south about 5 miles to Two Lights Road. Continue south on Two Lights Road to Two Lights Terrace. The lighthouse sits at the end of Two Lights Terrace. The second light sits just west of this light.
Access: Both the western dwelling and lighthouse are private property. Grounds / dwelling / tower are closed.
The eastern tower is owned by the Coast Guard, but leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation. The eastern dwelling is private property. Grounds / dwelling / tower are closed.View more Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse pictures