Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-01-31.
Located at the mouth of the Kennebec River, is the pond-less Pond Island. Although the origin of the name is unknown, the Pond Island Lighthouse was established in 1821 when it was built to adequately mark the west side of the entrance of the Kennebec River.
Although a lighthouse was already established on the much larger Seguin Island in 1796, Seguin Island Lighthouse did little to mark the entrance to the Kennebec River as it sat nearly two miles further into the Atlantic Ocean.
During the War of 1812, along with nearby Fort Popham, soldiers were stationed on Pond Island to prevent the British from entering the Kennebec River. After the war ended, the island became a transfer point for steamer passengers traveling between Augusta and Bangor, Maine.
As early as 1819, petitions were being made for a lighthouse on Pond Island. However, it would take a few years to be brought before the House of Representatives. Representative James Parker from Massachusetts presented the petition on January 15, 1821. The following entry was captured in the Journal of the House of Representatives of the United States:
Mr. Parker, of Massachusetts, presented a petition of sundry inhabitants residing on the banks of Kennebec river [sic], in the state of Maine, praying that a lighthouse may be erected on Pond Island, in the mouth of said river; which petition was referred to the Committee of Commerce.
On March 3, 1821, Congress appropriated $10,500 for three lighthouses. One on Cross Island, near Machias, One on Burnt Island, near Boothbay Harbor, and the lighthouse on Pond Island, at the mouth of the Kennebec River.
By November, the lighthouse on Pond Island was complete. Constructed was a small tower accompanied by a stone dwelling, containing three rooms on the first floor, with two small chambers in the attic. The lighthouse went into service on the night of November 1, 1821.
The issue of no pond, or any fresh water, on the island came up in 1823 when Keeper Samuel Rogers petitioned for a cistern or well at the station. In his petition he noted that he had no means to collect water, and had to transport it from the mainland. His petition was granted, and a cistern was soon built.
By 1835, the lighthouse was in poor condition and required rebuilding. In March of that year, proposals were requested to build a new stone tower measuring 13-foot tall and 14 feet in diameter at the base, tapering to 10 feet at the top. Atop the masonry structure was to be a 7-foot tall octagonal iron lantern.
The tower was soon rebuilt, and was listed "in good order," in an 1838 report by Lieutenant Thomas J. Manning. A mere five years later, I.W.P. Lewis, the nephew of Winslow Lewis, reported something very different:
Tower of rubble masonry, thirteen feet high, laid up in bad lime mortar; base resting on the uneven surface of a ledge; roof of soapstone slabs; walls cracked, and stones loose in their beds; roof leaky. An iron band has been put around the tower, about six feet from the base, to hold the walling together. Wood work decayed; window frame loose in its seat. Whole structure requires rebuilding.
He didn't have a much better report on the condition of the dwelling:
Dwelling-house of rubble masonry, three rooms on first floor, and two chambers in attic; roof shingled, and leaky in all directions; walls have been pointed with cement, but are open and cracked in many places by frost; kitchen wall cracked off from body of house two inches; plastering off the ceilings in several places; floor beams rotten; cisterns rotten; boat worn out; chimney of brick has settled three inches, and there is bad leak all round it; house and tower are built of mica slate, split from the adjacent ledge. The entire island is composed of this stone, which is entirely unfit for the construction of such buildings.
A fog bell was added to the station in 1848. By 1850, the local lighthouse superintendent was repeating Lewis's recommendation to rebuild the lighthouse. "I would like to take the liberty to recommend a new tower and new lantern, as the tower is cracked and the tower [sic] very rusty - so much that the glass is continually breaking in the lantern."
The following year Congress appropriated $4,000, but a new tower wouldn't be built until 1855. It is unknown why it took four years, but one possibility is that it was related to the establishment of the Lighthouse Board, which took place in 1852.
The new tower was 20 feet tall, and built of brick. A short distance away was a new wood-frame keeper's dwelling, which was attached to the tower by a covered walkway. Inside the lantern was a fifth-order Fresnel lens, which provided a focal plane of 52 feet above mean high water.
On September 7, 1869, a category 3 hurricane formed over the Bahamas and tracked north, making landfall in Rhode Island. It continued to move north, reaching the coast at Boston and dissipated in Northern Maine. It would later be known as the September Gale of 1869.
As it passed over Pond Island, it caused extensive damage, blowing down the frame tower of the fog signal. This damaged the fog bell and the machinery that operated it. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board stated that the "bell was not injured," and they proposed to restore the fog signal.
Pond Island Lighthouse circa 1885 (Courtesy Coast Guard)
From the entry in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1881, it stated that a "Stevens striking machine was furnished for the fog-bell, which was heretofore been struck by hand." This most likely means that after the September Gale of 1869, the bell was rung by hand when needed and a new striking mechanism was never supplied until 1881. By 1890, the bell was badly corroded and replaced with new 1,200-pound bell.
By 1885, the Lighthouse Board was upgrading some of the station's infrastructure; providing a new cistern and a fuel house. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:
42. Pond Island, entrance to Kennebec River, Maine - A frame fuel-house, 20 by 12 feet in plan, was erected; a wooden cistern, with a capacity of about 1,100 gallons, and 14 feet of rain-water conductor, were furnished for the keeper's dwelling, and a window-frame in the light tower was renewed.
In 1896, the lantern and deck were replaced, and the following year, the boathouse was rebuilt. By 1900, one end of the dwelling was in poor condition, which was rebuilt. Several other items were addressed at that time as well. The entry below appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:
In 1905, a new brick oil house was erected, and the fog bell house was rebuilt.
In August 1960, the Coast Guard announced that the station would be automated. At that time, the fog signal was placed under the control of the Coast Guard station at nearby Popham Beach, which would operate it remotely when needed. At that time, the last Coast Guard keeper, Ronald D. Howard was reassigned to the nearby Seguin Island Lighthouse.
To return the island to its natural setting, the Coast Guard had all unneeded structures removed from the island, leaving only the brick tower.
The Coast Guard transferred the island to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1973, whom today manages it as part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Working with the National Audubon Society, the Fish and Wildlife Service has successfully reestablished the island as a tern colony, and in 1999, the island successfully produced its first tern chick in over 60 years.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Pond Island, off the mouth of the Kennebec River, near Phippsburg, Maine. The best views are from the water, however, distant views are available from Popham Beach State Park.
We took a lighthouse cruise offered by the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine.
Access: The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tower closed. Grounds open from September through March. Closed during seabird nesting season (April 1 - August 31).View more Pond Island Lighthouse pictures