Owls Head Lighthouse

Rockland, Maine - 1825 (1825**)

Photo of the Owls Head Lighthouse.

History of the Owls Head Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2018-01-21.

High atop a rocky promontory in West Penobscot Bay, marking the south side of the entrance to Rockland Harbor stands the Owls Head Lighthouse.

John Lermond and his two brothers built a settlement near present-day Rockland, Maine to produce oak staves and pine lumber. It became known as Lermond's Cove after being settled in 1769. By 1777, settlers incorporated the area as Thomaston but left Lermond's Cove as a district called Shore Village.

Shore Village became known as East Thomaston in 1848 and later renamed Rockland in 1850.

Early settlers chose the Penobscot Bay Region due to the abundant natural resources available. Bangor had ample supply of lumber and quickly established itself as a shipbuilding town. And Rockland became known for its many quarries, which produced lime and granite.

As there were no railroads, these resources flowed out of Penobscot Bay on ships. Mariners calling at these ports had two options to get into the harbor - The Muscle Ridge Channel, or the Two Bush Channel.

Neither channel was perfect. The Muscle Ridge Channel protected the mariner from easterly winds but made them meander their way through a maze of islands, reefs, and ledges. The Two Bush Channel put a mariner in the middle of the bay but left them exposed to weather.

To safely navigate through the Muscle Ridge Channel, Mariners would look for the bleached granite shores of Whitehead Island. Unfortunately, nearby Norton Island had similar characteristics which often led captains to mistake their position, ending in disaster.

Mariners successfully petitioned for a lighthouse at the entrance to Penobscot Bay, and by 1804, contractors had finished erecting the Whitehead Lighthouse on the eastern side of the island.

The early 1800s saw the lime trade continue to grow. Kilns in Rockland and Thomaston produced roughly 50,000 casks of lime each year, which led to more vessels plying the dark waters of Penobscot Bay in an attempt to reach East Thomaston (Rockland). The additional traffic solidified the need for a lighthouse at Owls Head, a large headland on the south side of the entrance to Rockland Harbor.

The headland was initially known by an Indian word Bedabedec, meaning "cape of the winds." Others have said that from the water, the point resembled the head of an owl. But as the beak has long since eroded away, it is hard to see.

After a countless number of complaints regarding the extreme dangers near the headland, Congress authorized the light, and on May 26, 1824, President John Quincy Adams approved a $4,000 appropriation to fund its construction. The government acquired 17½ acres of land on November 22, 1824, at the cost of $258.75, from the heirs of Nathaniel Merryman.

Contractors Jeremiah Berry, Captain Ballard Green, and Major Rober Foster won the contract to build the Owls Head Lightstation. Jeremiah Berry would go on to erect the Pemaquid Point Lighthouse in 1827, the twin lights at Cape Elizabeth in 1828, and the second Whitehead Lighthouse in 1831.

Due to the height of the bluff, a relatively short tower would suffice. The trio erected a conical, rubblestone tower that was only 15 feet to the base of the lantern. Inside the lantern, Winslow Lewis had installed eight oil lamps with 15-inch reflectors.

To provide housing for the keeper, the contractors built a small rubblestone dwelling. On the first floor were a kitchen and two rooms. There were two additional small rooms in the attic. When completed, the station cost $2,707.79.

At the time, the President of the United States appointed the light keepers. President John Quincy Adams had chosen Isaac Stearns, a Massachusetts native, and veteran of the War of 1812. However, for some reason, Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury felt strongly about another candidate and made a fuss. In the end, Adams had won and appointed Isaac Stearns as the station's first keeper at a salary of $350 per year.

Stearns placed the station into service on September 10, 1825. Although Isaac Stearns was appointed keeper, light keeping often required the whole family and many family members helped out with the duties. On one occasion, while on the way to the tower, a gust of wind blew Isaac's wife, Lucy, from the summit. She landed on the precipice and nearly escaped going into the sea.

The first complaints of the station's condition came in 1831 when Captain Derby of the Revenue Cutter Morris stated that the Owls Head Lighthouse was "the most miserable one on the whole coast." Additionally, he reported that the mortar was nothing but sand and that stones were falling off the tower. He concluded with "I am fearful it will not stand till spring."

Repairs were carried out the following year. In 1838, the Secretary of the Treasury ordered Lieutenant Thomas J. Manning to survey the lighthouses of the first district. In his report, Manning states that he had limited time to gather information. For Owls Head, he reported: "In fine order; but the oil in winter complained of as bad."

Congress ordered a more detailed report several years later. Isaiah William Penn Lewis, or I. W. P. Lewis as he was more commonly known, nephew of Winslow Lewis, produced the report detailing the condition of the many lighthouses in New England. His report revealed the poor state of the tower:

Tower of rubble masonry, thirteen feet high, laid up in mortar of very inferior quality, the base resting on the surface of a conical rock ninety-one feet nine inches high. Walls are open at all the joints, and the mortar soft from moisture; wood work all rotten and decayed; soapstone roof, loose and leaky; interior of the tower coated with ice in winter; building in a filthy state.

The condition of the dwelling was equally as bad:

Dwelling-house of rubble masonry, laid up in bad lime mortar; walls badly cracked; south corner wall settled away from the body of the house; kitchen walls cracked off from body of house six inches; roof shingled, rotten and leaky; whole establishment dilapidated. Two rooms and kitchen on lower floor, and two chambers in attic; no rain water cistern; no boat allowed.

I.W.P. Lewis took the statement of Penly Haines, keeper, on July 21, 1842. Haines echoed many of the same sentiments that Lewis called out. And regarding the kitchen wall, he felt that "the kitchen will fall down if not soon taken care of."

In Mr. Haines's statement, he also called out the difficulties in reaching the tower. "The distance from the dwelling-house to the tower is 120 feet, up a steep ascent, which, during winter, I find very difficult, and even unsafe in heavy storms." He then referenced the plight of Lucy Stearns, who narrowly escaped being blown from the cliff.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Owls Head Lighthouse Owls Head Lighthouse with covered walkway, circa 1931 (Courtesy Coast Guard)

Despite the harsh conditions, it would take until 1874 until a set of walkways and stairs would link the tower and the dwelling. In 1903, the stairs were enclosed, shielding the keeper from the elements. Three years after that, a 100-foot section was added, extending the covering all the way to the keeper's dwelling.

The covered walkway lasted until the 1920s when the Lighthouse Service had it removed. It had become too expensive to maintain, and officials viewed it as a fire hazard. Although locals tried to have it rebuilt in 1949, the Coast Guard denied the request as the station ran off electricity and frequent trips to the tower were unnecessary.

The August 1850 station inspection didn't change much. It still listed the tower as failing, lantern rusty, and the need for a new dwelling.

One of the most significant folk tales involving the Owls Head Lighthouse took place on December 22, 1850, during a destructive winter storm. A coasting schooner, owned by Henry Butters of Haverhill, had anchored off Jameson's Point to ride out the storm.

The captain had gone ashore, leaving the mate, Richard B. Ingraham, his fiancee, Lydia Dyer, and a seaman, Roger Elliott. It's unclear why the captain chose to leave the ship. Some speculate that he had been discharged, others believe that he had a premonition.

As the storm intensified around midnight, the anchor chain parted, sending the schooner crashing into the rocky ledges near Spruce Head. Although the vessel started taking on water, it luckily grounded, which kept the decks above water.

The three people aboard sought shelter near the stern of the ship, covered only by a heavy wool blanket. As the temperature was below zero, each wave that crashed against the vessel sent an icy spray that instantly froze. Each subsequent wave added another layer of ice, threatening to freeze the trio solid.

Around six o'clock in the morning, Roger Elliott was able to escape the tomb of ice and fight his way to a road. Luckily, Keeper Henry Achorn of the Owls Head Lighthouse happened by and saw the frozen man.

After being taken to the lighthouse, Elliott became more responsive and was able to relay that two others were still aboard the schooner. The keeper's family then retraced his steps back to the vessel where they found Ingraham and Dyer frozen solid.

Although they feared they were dead, the Achorns freed the couple and took them back to the lighthouse. There, they slowly raised the frozen couples body temperatures by gradually increasing the water temperature of which the pair was submerged.

As they began to thaw, the family slowly began to exercise their limbs. Lydia Dyer was the first to come to after two hours. Ingraham took an additional hour, but he too came back to life. It took them months, but the pair fully recovered, eventually married, and had four children.

Roger Elliott never fully recovered and did not return to the sea. It is without a doubt that Elliott's struggle for survival and will to live saved Dyer and Ingraham's lives that day.

In 1852, a newly-formed group called the Lighthouse Board took over lighthouse operations from the Treasury Department, putting control in the hands of Navy personnel and engineers. The organization focused on quality and performance, rather than cost. Construction specifications for the new tower reflected this change:

The tower is to be built of the best hard burnt brick...the foundation to be sunk as deep as may be necessary to make the whole fabric perfectly secure and all of the bricks to be laid in the best of Rosendale cement.

That year, contractors built a new, round, 24-foot tall tower and tore down the old one. Over the next few years, conditions improved. In 1854, a new wood-frame one-and-one-half-story dwelling replaced the original 1825 residence, and in 1856, a more efficient fourth-order Fresnel lens took the place of the reflectors.

A few changes came to the station in the late 1860s. In 1868, contractors erected a 15-foot square woodshed, and the following year, a small bell was attached to the porch of the tower. Keepers would sound the bell in response to passing ships.

In October 1879, a new automatic fog bell was established. A new wooden, pyramidal tower, built approximately 100 feet away from the lighthouse, housed the much larger bell. Inside, the keepers would wind up weights, which operated the Stevens striking machine. When visibility was low, the bell rang every 15 seconds.

By 1887, the Stevens striking machine was worn out and replaced with a new unit. At that time, the Lighthouse Board replaced the 1879 steel bell with one made out of bell metal, a form of bronze with a higher tin content. The new bell was removed from the Seguin Island Lighthouse after it received a steam-powered fog signal.

The lighthouse tender Clover landed supplies for an oil house in 1894, which crews immediately erected. Later that year, the lighthouse tender Myrtle dropped off supplies for a boathouse and boat slip, which would be built on the beach northeast of the dwelling.

That same year, engineers arrived to survey the island and marked the boundaries with stone posts or copper bolts. They also took measurements of the buildings for ground plans. This work was perhaps carried out for fencing in the whole lighthouse reservation, which took place in 1898.

On April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain following the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor earlier that year. As such, many of the lighthouses along the east coast received telephone lines connecting them to nearby towns under the appropriation of national defense. The telephone at Owls Head linked it to nearby Owls Head village.

The Lighthouse Board had trouble maintaining the multitude of striking machines employed throughout the U.S., with many of the units being of different size and dimensions. To solve the problem, the Lighthouse Board designed and fabricated a striking machine, which they installed at Owls Head in 1902.

In 1906, contractors erected a new fog bell tower and outbuilding. The bell would be used until August 1954 when an electronic foghorn, sounding two blasts every 15 seconds, took over. Although mariners were happy, residents were not, saying "it deprives us of sleep at night." The Coast Guard adjusted it to meet everyone's needs.

Spot...the lighthouse dog

Throughout its time as an active lighthouse, the Owls Head Light never employed an assistant keeper. But that didn't mean that every keeper acted alone. Light keeping was principally a family affair, where all family members pitched in, including the pet dog.

Spot the lighthouse dog marker Plaque commemorating Spot

Similar stories of lighthouse pets have emerged over the years, such as Sambo Tonkus, the swimming cat of the Cape Neddick Lighthouse, or Smut, the Newfoundland-Shepherd mix of Keeper Aldiverd Norton at the Two Bush Island Lighthouse that saved the lives of two fishermen whose schooner wrecked on the rocks. The Owls Head Lighthouse had its own famous dog.

After spending 17 years at Maine's Egg Rock Lighthouse, Augustus B. Hamor, or Gus as he was commonly known transferred to the Owls Head Lighthouse in 1930. He brought his spring spaniel named Spot with him.

Over the years, Harmor's daughters, Pauline and Mille taught Spot how to ring the fog bell by tugging on the rope. Spot would greet each passing vessel by ringing the bell, they, in turn, would acknowledge him by a blast of their whistle. The acknowledgment always made Spot bark excitedly.

This game that Spot would play with the ships would save the Matinicus mail boat from wrecking on the rocks below Owls Head. One blustery night, the snowfall had given way to a blizzard. Spot could hear that a ship was near and ran outside to ring the fog bell. However, it was frozen solid.

Spot ran to the cliffside and began to bark into the night. The dog continued to bark incessantly until the Matinicus mailboat's captain had sounded the horn to let them know that they had cleared the rocks. The captain was later to have said that he was dangerously close to the rocks when he heard the dog's bark and steered clear soon enough to avoid the peril.

Angeli Perrow popularized the legend in her short story, Lighthouse Dog to the Rescue, published in 2000. Today, a plaque commemorating Spot stands near the keeper's dwelling.

When Gus Harmor retired in 1945, George Woodward, who had previously served at numerous other Maine lighthouses, including Boon Island, Libby Island, and Rockland Breakwater, succeeded him as keeper of Owls Head Lighthouse.

Woodward was planning to retire in 1947, but when he couldn't find a decent place to live in the area, he stayed on for another three years. The last civilian keeper to man the Owls Head Lighthouse was Douglas L. Larrabee, who retired in 1963. Coast Guard keepers manned the station through 1989 when it was automated.

After automation, Coast Guard personnel continued to use the keeper's dwelling as a residence. In 2007, the Coast Guard leased the lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), a 501c3 nonprofit organization founded in 1994 to preserve lighthouses and their history.

In 2010, the ALF hired J.B. Leslie Inc. of South Berwick, Maine to restore the Owls Head Lighthouse. Work included structural repairs, repointing of brickwork, refurbishing of interior window frames, iron staircase, and deck and ladder leading into the lantern. At that time, the Coast Guard, which owned the tower, funded a separate project to restore the lantern.

Two years later, the ALF licensed the keeper's dwelling from the Coast Guard. Their plans included opening the keeper's house to the public, as well as using the building as their headquarters, which took place in mid-2013.

Today, the Friends of the Rockland Harbor Lights, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, manages the property, opening the tower and the dwelling to the public each season.

Is the Owls Head Lighthouse Haunted?

Coast Living magazine published a list of top ten haunted lighthouses in its October 2006 issue. The list included such lighthouses as the White River Lighthouse in Michigan, the Heceta Head Lighthouse in Oregon, both the Battery Point and Point Sur Lighthouses in California, St. Simons Lighthouse in Georgia, and in the number two spot, the Port Boca Grande Lighthouse in Florida. But sitting in the number one spot was the Owls Head Lighthouse.

Most of the "ghostly" encounters seem to take place during the 1980s when Coast Guard families lived at the station. Andy Germann was the keeper of the light station from 1983 to 1987. During one particularly stormy night, Mr. Germann got out of bed to secure some construction materials. Shortly after leaving the room, Mrs. Germann felt him climb back into bed.

Mrs. Germann asked him how everything went, but when there was no answer, she turned over to question him again. That is when she saw an indentation of a person in the bed. Not only was there an indentation, but it appeared to be fidgeting. After making sure she wasn't dreaming, Mrs. Germann asked the spirit to go away.

The next morning, Mr. Germann seemed to corroborate his wife's story. He had told her that shortly after getting out of bed and leaving the room, he saw a cloud of smoke hovering over the floor, which went right through him and into the bedroom. It was soon after that that Mrs. Germann encountered the indentation.

After the Germanns left Owls Head Lighthouse, Coast Guard keeper Gerard Graham and his family moved in. Before leaving, the Germanns told the Graham family about their ghostly experiences, but the Grahams sort laughed it off.

Their two-year-old daughter, Claire's bedroom, ended up being a particularly "active" room. For the year that the Grahams lived at Owls Head, Claire had an imaginary friend that she described as looking like "an old sea captain."

Her imaginary friend perhaps might have been an old lightkeeper as one foggy night Claire ran excitedly into her parent's bedroom and yelled, "Fog's rolling in! Time to put the foghorn on!" The expression caught her parents by surprise as they had never used that language or phrase in front of her.

Other keepers had reported seeing fresh footprints in the snow that appeared from nowhere and went to the tower. There, they would find the tower door open, even though it had been locked, and the lens and brasswork freshly polished. Other times, the case around the Fresnel lens was opened, and it appeared as if someone attempted to light the lantern.

Malcolm Rouse, the last keeper of Owls Head, said that his wife had seen the outline of a person dressed in white in one of the windows. His son also reported that several times, upon waking up, that a woman was sitting in the chair of his room.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. "Owls Head Lighthouse restoration under way," The Associated Press, Bangor Daily News, April 29, 2010.
  3. "Lighthouse Ghosts Coming to the Travel Channel," Jeremy D'Entremont, Lighthouse Digest, September 2003.
  4. "Top 10 Haunted Lighthouses," Steve Millburg AND Mamie Walling, Coastal Living, October 2006.
  5. Lighthouses of Maine: Penobscot Bay (Lighthouses Treasury), Jeremy D'Entremont, July 9, 2013.
  6. Maine Lighthouses: Documentation Of Their Past , J. Candace Clifford, Mary Louise Clifford, April 30, 2005.
  7. Ghostly Beacons: Haunted Lighthouses of North America, Therese Lanigan-Schmidt, January 1, 2000.

Directions: From Rockland, Maine, follow State Route 73 south out of town for about 1.8 miles. Head east on North Shore Drive (~ 2.5 miles). Once on North Shore Drive, make a left onto Main Street, and then a quick left onto Lighthouse Drive. Follow Lighthouse Drive to the end to Owls Head State Park.

Access:The lighthouse is owned by the City of Rockland, but leased to the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation. Grounds open, tower and dwelling open during hours of operation.

View more Owls Head Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 30.00'
Focal Plane: 100'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 44.09217 N
*Longitude: -69.04410 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.