Portland Head Lighthouse

Portland, Maine - 1791 (1791**)

Photo of the Portland Head Lighthouse.

History of the Portland Head Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-11-17.

South of Portland, Maine, on a rocky headland, stands one of the most photographed and most famous lighthouses, affectionately called the Portland Head Light.

Machigonne was the name Native Americans originally gave to the peninsula of Portland, which meant "Great Neck." The first European settlement of the peninsula occurred in 1632, when a fishing and trading village named Casco was settled. In 1658, the Massachusetts Bay Colony took over Casco Bay, the town's name was changed to Falmouth.

The town was destroyed several times, once during King Philip's War, and again during King William's War, both in the late 1600s. During the American Revolution, the town was burned to the ground, however, following the revolution, a section of Falmouth called the Neck was developed as a commercial port.

By 1786, citizens of Falmouth formed a separate town in Falmouth Neck, which they named Portland, after an isle off the coast of Dorset, England. As the American Revolution wound down, several ports on the East Coast of the United States began to grow, and by the 1790s, Portland was America's sixth busiest port.

In 1785 the representative from Falmouth, Joseph Noyes, was instructed by the town to look into the construction of a lighthouse on "Portland Point," today more commonly known as Portland Head. Two years later, following a shipwreck where two people perished near, what is today, Cushing Island, the General Court of Massachusetts appropriated $750 for a lighthouse.

Although construction started immediately, it soon slowed due to insufficient funds. The Lighthouses Act of 1789 extended federal control and funding to lighthouses that states had previously administered. With this law, states could turn over previously constructed aids to navigation, or ones in the process of being constructed, to the newly established federal government, which would then complete or maintain them.

In August of 1790, Congress appropriated an additional $1,500 to complete the Portland Head Lighthouse. President George Washington remarked that it was possible to find rubblestone near the shores of Cape Elizabeth, which could be used in the construction.

Although the original plan called for a 58-foot tower, while in the process of construction, it was determined that a local headland would have blocked the view from the south. To remedy the situation, the local lighthouse superintendent, General Benjamin Lincoln, made the decision to raise the tower to 72 feet, from base to lantern.

Two local masons, Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols, were hired to erect the lighthouse. When the order to raise the tower was received from General Lincoln, Bryant resigned, leaving John Nichols to complete the lighthouse and dwelling, which was completed in late 1790.

Captain Joseph Greenleaf, a veteran of the American Revolution, was appointed by President Washington as the first keeper of the Portland Head Lighthouse. Greenleaf climbed the tower on the night of January 10, 1791, and lit the 16 whale oil lamps, placing the lighthouse into service.

Initially, Keeper Greenleaf received no compensation for his services. His compensation was a dwelling and the right to fish and farm. Twice he wrote letters expressing the hardships due to a lack of a salary and in 1793, he was finally awarded a salary of $160.

By 1809, the tower had developed leaks. Within a year, the keeper had reported that much of the woodwork in the dwelling and tower was rotting. Although repairs were made, the tower continued to leak.

In November 1912, Winslow Lewis, an engineer and contractor responsible for the construction of many early American lighthouses, had surveyed the Portland Head Lighthouse. He recommended the upper 20 feet of the tower be removed as it was poorly constructed and also recommended the lantern be replaced.

The following year, Lewis carried out the changes, removing 25 feet of stonework. It is unclear why the headland, which was the reason it was raised to 72 feet at the time of construction, wasn't a concern some two decades later. At that time, he also installed a new lantern and fitted his patented system of lamps and reflectors, all of which was done for $2,100.

In 1816, a new 20-foot by 34-foot one-story stone cottage was built for the keeper by a local contractor named Henry Dyer. The cottage featured two rooms, an attached kitchen, and an attic. At the time of construction, the tower was attached to outbuildings, which were joined to the tower, providing safe passage. Civil engineer I. W. P. Lewis, the nephew of Winslow Lewis, inspected the lighthouses of New England in 1842. The following year, he produced a report detailing their states, which was presented to Congress. Like many early lighthouses, the condition of the Portland Head Lighthouse was ramshackle. Below is the status he reported to Congress:

Tower of rubble masonry, forty-three feet nine inches high, laid up in lime mortar of an inferior quality, base resting on the uneven surface of a ledge; masonry in a bad condition; pointing cracked off, and joints open; mortar soft and sandy; interior wood work rotten - staircase and floor beams very much so; wooden roof coppered, leaks round the eaves.

He detailed many of the same arguments about the dwelling - Bad quality mortar, cracks in the walls, very leaky, no sink in the kitchen, and broken oven. He finished the section relating to the dwelling with "Whole establishment requires repairing."

National Archives Photo of the Portland Head LightPortland Head Light circa 1860 (Courtesy National Archives)

A new lantern, lamps and reflectors were installed in 1850, however, an inspection later that year found the tower and dwelling were still leaky and in poor condition. With the establishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, many of the deficiencies were addressed in the coming years.

The Portland Head Lighthouse was upgraded with a new fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1855. Later that year, a bell tower and 1,500-pound fog bell were established at the station, the tower was lined with brick, and a cast-iron staircase was installed.

By 1863, the Lighthouse Board had stated that Congress had appropriated $20,000 for "additional aids to navigation to facilitate the entrance to Portland, Maine, by suitably marking Alden's Rock and Bulwark Shoal, or otherwise." The Lighthouse Board chose to improve the Portland Head Lighthouse:

After a careful investigation of the case, it is the opinion of the board that the proposed end will be best subserved [sic] by increasing the height of the tower at Portland Head and placing therein a light of the second order, which will have a range of visibility beyond Bulwark Shoal, and in conjunction with the present lights at Cape Elizabeth, by giving to an entering vessel her exact position enable the master to avoid Alden's Rock.

On February 23, 1864, the Bohemian, a ship from Liverpool, England, struck Alden's Rock, four miles outside Cape Elizabeth. In the wreck, 40 people lost their lives, further solidifying the need to raise the Portland Head Lighthouse.

By the end of the year, the Portland Head Light was raised 20 feet with a brick addition. At this time, a massive second-order Fresnel lens was installed, making the light visible for 21 miles. At that time, the Lighthouse Board published the following in its report, "It is believed now that the entrance to this harbor is so completely lighted that navigation in and out is attended with little or no danger."

A hurricane struck the area on September 8, 1869 and destroyed the fog bell tower. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board:

37. Portland Head - The gale of the 8th September destroyed the fog bell tower, but it was immediately rebuilt, and an eighteen-hundred-pound bell and Stevens's [sic] striking machinery provided. This station is now in good condition.

The bell was used for a little more than two years before it was replaced with a Daboll trumpet, which came from the Monhegan Island Lighthouse. The bell remained in place as a backup signal.

One of the more famous visitors to the Portland Head Lighthouse was the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a Portland native. It is written that he would frequently visit the Portland Head Lighthouse and lounge on the white rock near the tower, which is today marked with a sign. Longfellow befriended the many keepers over the years and it is believed that his poem "The Lighthouse" was written about the time he spent at the station.

When the Halfway Rock Lighthouse, standing eight miles east of Portland Harbor, was completed in 1871, the importance of the Portland Head Lighthouse was diminished. The Lighthouse Board no longer viewed the Portland Head Light as a major seacoast light, and by 1883, as the 20-foot addition and lantern added in 1864 were in poor condition, they were removed.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Portland Head LightPortland Head Light post 1891 (Courtesy Coast Guard)

A new lantern was soon installed. On June 1, 1883, the second-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced with a new fourth-order lens. By December, the lamps were changed over to consume mineral oil.

The lowered tower would last less than two years. By late 1884, the tower was again, being raised by 20 feet. The second-order Fresnel lens was placed back in the lantern, and on January 15, 1885, a fixed white light was exhibited.

While trying to make shelter during a blinding snowstorm, the British bark Annie C. Maguire ran aground on the rocks at Portland Head. Keeper Joshua Strout heard the frantic shouting of the crew over the roar of the surf and told his son, Joseph, "There's a ship in the backyard."

Quick action on the part of the Strouts saved the captain and crew of the ship. They used a ladder to get down to the rocks below, which was then used as a makeshift gangway to allow everyone to disembark the ship. Mary Strout provided light by burning blankets, cut into strips, soaked in kerosene.

Inspection on Christmas Day revealed a large hole in the ship. Everything that could be removed from the ship was, and a junk dealer purchased the rest. After the dealer removed what he could, the ship was left. It was soon broken up with the onset of another storm on New Year's Day.

In 1912, to memorialize the wreck, assistant keeper John A. Strout, made a flat surface by chipping away at the face of a rock. Once flat, he painted the words: "Annie C. Maguire, shipwrecked here, Christmas Eve 1886." It became a tradition for the keepers to paint the large rock that faces the lighthouse, which is still visible today.

Photo of the shipwreck rock - Annie C. MaguireAnnie C. Maguire shipwreck rock at Portland Head Light

In 1891, the stone dwelling was torn down and a new two-story dwelling was erected on the same foundation. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1891 had the following entry:

53. Portland Head, entrance to Portland Harbor, Maine - The old stone dwelling was demolished, and a framed double dwelling, 42 feet 6 inches by 42 feet in plan, was built upon the same foundation, and a brick oil house, 8 feet 6 inches square, a flight of steps at the landing, 30 feet in length, were built. The watch room and dwellings were connected by speaking tubes, and minor repairs were made to the service room.

Major maintenance on the tower was carried out in 1900. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board detailed the work that was carried out:

67. Portland Head, entrance to Portland Harbor, Maine - The rubble tower, built in 1790, was extensively repointed, and many of the stones were removed and replaced. Two 4-horsepower oil engines with air compressors were installed in place of two old caloric engines for the fog-signal, and a cooling tank was built. The station was connected by about 500 feet of pipe with the water system of Portland, Me. Various repairs were made.

Electricity was brought to the Portland Head Lighthouse in 1929. Keeper John W. Cameron, having served at the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse and the Twin Lights at Cape Elizabeth, took over as principal keeper at the Portland Head Light in 1928 and welcomed the change.

Cameron was quoted as saying that it "relieved the keepers of the chore of 'lighting up' each night." It was at this time that the light was changed from a fixed characteristic to a flash of two seconds on, two seconds off.

A new three-horn diaphragm fog signal was installed in 1938. One large horn pointed towards Halfway rock, and the two smaller horns faced Portland Harbor and the Portland Lightship. With the onset of World War II, both the fog signal and the light were deactivated in June 1942 and reactivated after the war in June 1945.

Robert Thayer was the Portland Head Lightstation's last civilian keeper, having taken over in 1935. Prior to taking over, he served at many stations, including Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse, Great Duck Island Lighthouse, Seguin Island Lighthouse, and the Twin Lights at Cape Elizabeth. The Coast Guard took over staffing upon Thayer's retirement in 1946.

August 7, 1989 was a big day in the history of the Portland Head Lighthouse. The date marked the 200th anniversary of the Lighthouses Act, which placed all lighthouses under federal control. That same day, the Portland Head Lighthouse was automated, allowing the Coast Guard to move out.

The Town of Cape Elizabeth to lease the property in 1990, with the exception of the tower. The following year, the Museum at Portland Head Light opened in the former keeper's dwelling. The Town of Cape Elizabeth, with the help of Senator George Mitchell, received the deed to the property in 1993.

The Museum at Portland Head Light has many items on display, including the fifth-order Fresnel lens from the Squirrel Point Lighthouse and the seven-foot-tall second-order Fresnel lens that was in the Portland Head Lighthouse until 1958, when it was replaced by a DCB-36. Today, a rotating DCB-224 shines from the lantern.


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. The Lighthouses of Maine: Southern Maine and Casco Bay, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2013.
  3. Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.

Directions: Take Cottage Road south out of South Portland. Cottage Road quickly turns to Shore Road. Continue south on Shore Road for about 1 mile to Fort Williams Park Road. Make a left into the park, and follow that east to the lighthouse.

Access: The station is owned by the Town of Cape Elizabeth. Grounds open, dwelling open, tower closed.

View more Portland Head Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 80.00'
Focal Plane: 101'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 43.62310 N
*Longitude: -70.20782 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.