Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

Bristol, Maine - 1835 (1827**)

Photo of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.

History of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-03-20.

The Midcoast of Maine is very jagged and rocky, with its points often said to resemble rocky fingers, plunging into the Atlantic Ocean. Nowhere is this more evident than at the Pemaquid Lighthouse, near Bristol, Maine.

The Abenaki Indians had a name for these points, Pemi-Keag, which translated into "Extended or lengthened point." The origin of the word Pemaquid dates to 1605, which European settlers used to describe the peninsula below Damariscotta - "A point of land running into the sea."

Although English settlers had established a village at Pemaquid in 1631, it was burned by the Abenaki Indians during King Philip's War. It was later resettled, but after further attacks by the combined forces of the French and the Indians, it was abandoned in 1696.

The area was again resettled in 1729, and began to grow as more immigrants made their way to Pemaquid Point. By the turn of the century, the area was flourishing with fishing, maritime trade, and lumbering, but the point was still plagued with shipwrecks.

One of the earliest recorded shipwrecks was the Angel Gabriel, bound from Bristol, England, which wrecked on the point on August 15, 1635. Of the 100 passengers on board, although everyone lost all of their belongings, only five died. Many of the survivors settled in the area.

To alleviate the wrecks, Congress appropriated $4,000 on May 18, 1826 for a lighthouse on "Penmaquid Point." The Federal Government purchased a few acres of land on June 29, 1827 from Samuel and Sarah Martin, descendants of survivors of the Angel Gabriel, for $90.

Maine's Superintendent of Lighthouses, Isaac Iisley, contracted with a Thomaston bricklayer named Jeremiah Berry "to build, finish, and complete a Lighthouse and Dwelling house at Pemaquid Point." The cost would be $2,800.

Berry constructed a conical rubblestone tower, which was 30 feet from base to lantern deck, and a 20-foot by 34-foot one-story stone dwelling, divided into two rooms. Attached to the back of the dwelling was a kitchen, measuring 10 feet by 12 feet.

Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury, and the man in charge of all lighthouses, had recommended Esais Preble as the station's first keeper. However, Isaac Dunham would become the first keeper, with a salary of $350 per year. He would first display the fixed white light on the night of November 29, 1827.

Isaac Dunham would serve at the Pemaquid Lighthouse until 1837. He then went on to serve at the Three Sisters Lighthouse on Nauset Beach, Massachusetts. And later, was the first keeper to serve at the ill-fated Minot's Ledge Lighthouse, but resigned after no action was taken to strengthen the tower.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Pemaquid Point LighthouseEarly view of Pemaquid Point (Courtesy Coast Guard)

Problems soon arose with the 1827 tower, most likely due to using salt water to mix the lime mortar used in the tower. In 1835, John Chandler, the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Maine, had drawn up a new contract with Joseph Berry of Georgetown, the nephew of Jeremiah Berry, the builder of the 1827 tower.

In the new contract, the specifications and instructions were identical to the original tower, with two exceptions. The first was "The whole to be laid in the best lime mortar; the same to be used never to have been wet with salt water; the mortar to be mixed with fresh water," and the second called for the walls of the tower to be solid, and not by building two walls and filling in the middle. The price of the new tower was $1,395.

While Dunham served at the station, he farmed the land and kept animals. To care for the animals, he built several outbuildings. When Nathaniel Gamage Jr. was appointed to Pemaquid Point, Dunham asked for and received $1,100 for the buildings. Less than four years later, due to political reasons, Gamage was replaced by Jeremiah S. Mears. When he asked for compensations for the outbuildings, he received only a small amount.

Lieutenant Thomas J. Manning was ordered to survey the lighthouses of the first district in 1838. He included an interesting sentence in his report stating "I herein send you my report and give information as far as the limited time would allow." With that, the brief report stated "Pemaquid-point light - In order."

A more detailed report was ordered a few years later. Civil engineer I. W. P. Lewis, nephew of Winslow Lewis, was sent to each lighthouse and ordered to produce a detailed report of the condition of the lights. Lewis was often critical of many of the early lights and let it be known in his report.

As the tower had just been built in 1838, he reported that the general state of the tower was good, as was the dwelling. He reported that the lantern had eleven broken panes of glass. But when it came to the location, he felt that the tower caused more harm than good and recommended that it be discontinued:

Location. It is difficult to conceive for what particular purpose this light was originally placed here, and, from its contiguity to Franklin Island light, we are led to believe it has often been the cause of sad mistakes and disasters of a fatal character. There are both islands and dangerous ledges lying exterior to it, several miles, which have first to be cleared before the light can be seen or, if seen, made any use of. It is always hazardous to recommend the suppression of any light; but this is certainly calculated to mislead, and therefore ought to be abolished. If continued, it should be reduced to a beacon light of one lamp, suitably constructed, instead of ten lamps now used, to the injury of navigation.

It is unclear if the number of lights were ever reduced, but after the establishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, most of the lighthouses in the United States, in time, were changed over to the superior Fresnel lens.

In 1856, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse received a new lantern. It was at that time, that the multiple lamps and reflectors were replaced by a single lamp and fourth-order Fresnel lens. The following year, the stone keeper's dwelling was replaced with a wood-frame dwelling.

Over the years, maintenance items were carried out, including the exterior of the dwelling being repainted, dwelling roof being replaced, and the tower being repointed.

During the early to mid-1800s, lighthouse keeper positions were political in nature. Most keepers were appointed for military service, party affiliation, or as a political favor. This lead to a frequent turnover at lighthouses. By the late-1800s, politics were no longer a factor, which provided steady employment for good keepers.

As the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was considered a good family station, there were several keepers with some long stints - William L. Sartell served from 1873-1883, Charles A. Dolliver served from 1883-1899, and Clarence K. Marr served for 23 years.

Clarence K. Marr was the son and brother of keepers at Hendricks Head Lighthouse. His father, Jaruel Marr served from 1866 to 1895, and was relieved by his son Wolcott Marr. Wolcott served at the Hendricks Head Lighthouse from 1895 to 1930.

Clarence Marr was no stranger to lighthouses. Prior to accepting the position at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, he had served for a year at the Cuckolds Fog Signal Station. Marr and his wife were so respected in the community, that when he retired, the community presented them with a purse of money and a leather-bound book containing a letter and signatures of the donors.

A brick oil house was built in 1896 to hold the kerosene, which fueled the lamps. As there was no place to land the lighthouse tender, it would along the rocks, send a heavy line ashore, and transfer the oil.

The following year, a fog bell was established at the station. At first, the bell was operated by hand, when needed. On September 28, duplicate Shipman oil burning steam engines were installed to operate the bell. A little over a year later, they were replaced by Stevens striking machines, for which a wooden tower was built to house the weights. The Coast Guard removed the fog bell in 1937 and replaced with a gong buoy, moored offshore.

The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was converted to automatic acetylene gas operation in 1934, and was one of the first to be automated along the coast of Maine. Not everyone was happy about that. Sidney Baldwin, author of Casting Off from Boothbay Harbor wrote the following in 1948:

There was a wail of grief all along the coast when the government in its policy of cutting down the Lighthouse Service and transferring it to the Coast Guard electrified Pemaquid Light. There is a big keeper's house standing empty. The light flashes by day and night with no one to guard it. The necessary work of cleaning the lenses and making minor repairs is done by a visiting light keeper.

The town of Bristol purchased the Pemaquid Point property, with the exception of the lighthouse, in 1940 for $1,639. The property became the Town of Bristol's Lighthouse Park and has flourished over the years.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse Pemaquid Point Lighthouse circa 1975 (Courtesy CG)

The Pemaquid Group of Artists established an art gallery at the park in 1960 and the town converted the old keeper's dwelling into the Fisherman's Museum in the in 1972. The museum showcases many exhibits from the fishing and lobstering industries as well as the fourth-order Fresnel lens from the Baker Island Lighthouse, and a prism of the damaged first-order Fresnel lens from the Cape Ann (Thacher Island) Lighthouse in Massachusetts.

A storm in April 1999 badly damaged the roof of the bell house and the weight tower, and in August, Hurricane Bob destroyed both structures. They were rebuilt the following year. A smaller replica of the original larger fog bell has been hung on the fog signal house.

The Coast Guard licensed the tower to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) in May 2000. The Friends of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, was soon established. The group restored the entryway and began opening the tower to the public.

A few months later, the Coast Guard contracted with P & G Masonry Restoration and Scaffold of Scarborough, Maine to replace the glass in the lantern room and repaint the tower. Two years later, volunteers of the New England Lighthouse Lovers (NELL) again painted the tower.

In 2003, the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse became the first lighthouse ever to appear on American currency. Its image appeared on the official Maine state quarter.

By November 2006, the lighthouse was imminent danger caused by water seepage, decaying mortar, the elements, and its advanced age. The estimated cost of the exterior restoration was close to $100,000. Within the year, grants from Lowe's and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as funds already raised by the Friends of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse allowed the restoration to be completed in August 2007.

Starting in mid-March 2010, the American Lighthouse Foundation contracted with J.B. Leslie Company, Inc. to carry out an $84,000 restoration of the interior of the tower. Some of the work included cleaning and repointing the interior brickwork, restoring the wainscoting in the lantern room, and repainting the staircase.

Today, the lighthouse is open to visitors. Visitors can climb to the top, where they can get magnificent views of the fourth-order Fresnel lens and the Atlantic Ocean. The keeper's dwelling houses The Fishermen's Museum, also open to visitors.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. "Pemaquid Point Sparkles Again," Bob Trapani, Jr., Lighthouse Digest, July 2010.
  3. "Pemaquid Point Gets Major Grant," Staff, Lighthouse Digest, May 2007.
  4. "Help Needed Now To Save Maine's Famous Pemaquid Point Lighthouse," Staff, Lighthouse Digest, November 2006.
  5. "History is made at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse," Kathleen Finnegan, Lighthouse Digest, July 2003.
  6. The Story of Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, H. Libby, 1975.

Directions: The Pemaquid Point Lighthouse sits in Lighthouse Park, just south of Bristol, Maine. From Bristol, take State Route 130 to the end.

Access: The Coast Guard owns the tower, but it is leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation. The keeper's dwelling is owned by the town of Bristol and features The Fishermen's Museum. Grounds open. Tower and dwelling open in season.

View more Pemaquid Point Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 38.00'
Focal Plane: 79'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 43.83697 N
*Longitude: -69.50594 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.