Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse

Rockland, Maine - 1902 (1902**)

Photo of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse.
 
 
   

History of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2018-02-20.

Although mariners regarded Rockland Harbor as one of the finest on the East Coast, its copious opening was also a liability. From 1881 to 1899, the Army Corps of Engineers erected a significant breakwater, affording protection to ships at anchor, and by 1902, the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse marked the entrance to the harbor.

By the early 1800s, the importance of Rockland Harbor became clear. Not only had Rockland Harbor became a harbor of refuge for coasting vessels, but the demand for limestone and granite had also grown fierce. Both materials were found in abundance around Penobscot Bay.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Rockland Breakwater LighthouseRockland Breakwater Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)

Before railroads, the only economical way to transport goods was via ship. With a broad mouth, mariners considered Rockland Harbor as one of the finest along the East Coast. Starting in 1827, locals placed a small lantern at Jameson Point on the north side of the entrance as an aid to navigation.

Though the harbor was sufficiently protected, storms from the east often sent breakers into the port which battered vessels at anchor and inundated the many kilns on the waterfront. The first attempt at protecting Rockland Harbor took place in 1832 when Jeremiah Berry, the mason of the 1827 Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, erected a small wall across a portion of the harbor's mouth.

Although the limited breakwater did protect the harbor to some extent, storms would frequently overwhelm it and flood the Rockland waterfront, inflicting losses upon businesses.

A few years later, while on topographical duty, Second Lieutenant Ward B. Burnett surveyed Rockland Harbor and recommended construction of a more substantial breakwater. His report stated that he had found a rock-covered shoal in the central part of the harbor, which he suggested as a site for a jetty 825 yards long. He estimated the construction costs at $1 million.

Insufficient financial resources prevented any improvements for several decades. Finally, the river and harbor act of June 14, 1880, appropriated the sum of $20,000 for improving Rockland Harbor, Maine. Although this wasn't enough to finish the breakwater, it was enough to start the project. Between 1880 and 1900, there would be nine contracts and numerous appropriations to finish the breakwater. The act read:

As well as can be ascertained, the object of this appropriation is the construction of a permanent breakwater for protecting the harbor from the easterly storms, to which it is much exposed. The location, plan, extent, and probable cost of this work have yet to be determined.

The initial plan, as designed, was to be two separate breakwaters. One stretching south just offshore from Jameson Point, and the second, starting at South Ledge running 2,640 feet north back to Jameson Point.

Colonel George Thom engineered the first section (Jameson Point) of the breakwater, which was to start approximately 204 feet from shore. Bodwell Granite Company of Rockland received the first contract and began work in 1881. By June 1885, the Jameson Point section of the breakwater extended out 1,400 feet, was 10 feet wide but had a design flaw.

The defect with the breakwater was its height. As it only stood five feet above mean low water, it would be entirely submerged at least once a day, thus becoming a hazard to mariners. During the times it was overwhelmed, it would also be ineffective at protecting Rockland Harbor.

So in 1887, it was decided to focus on strengthening the initial section, rather than starting the second section. The plan called for raising the breakwater enough that it would remain above the water at all times. Additionally, it called for increasing the width to 20 feet.

As work progressed on the Jameson Point Breakwater, lights were placed to notify mariners that a breakwall existed. The description of the original light was as follows:

"fixed white lens lantern, 18 feet above the breakwater. This lantern hung on an iron crane on top of stone beacon, 24 feet above sea level."

The light started out as lanterns hung from an iron crane braced by stones atop the wall, but by 1888, they would evolve into a small portable light station. The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1888:

Rockland Breakwater, Rockland Harbor, Maine - The breakwater, which the United States engineers are building, extending 1,600 feet from the shore, was, with the exception of a small portion at the outer end, entirely submerged at about half-tide and presented a serious obstruction to the navigation of the harbor. The appropriation for building this breakwater being exhausted, the engineer in charge was unable to mark this obstacle with a light. The Board, therefore, in view of the extreme danger to navigation of this submerged work, erected a temporary wooden beacon on the outer end, from which is shown a lantern light.

By 1890, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers scrapped the plan of a two-section breakwater in favor of a single, long structure extending out from Jameson Point. The change simplified the work, and in the end, it would call for a single light to mark the end, whereas the multi-section breakwater called for three separate lights.

The 1898 List of Lights of the United States described the portable station as a small wooden building surmounting a stone beacon displaying two fixed lanterns with red lenses, one 23 feet above the surface of the breakwater and one six feet above that.

The Lighthouse Board hired Elba Ring, a laborer, in April 1888 to maintain the temporary beacon. He kept the position until 1895 when Llewelyn Charles Ames replaced him. For his work, Ames received $25 per month.

When the tide was low enough, Ames could walk to the light, at other times, he had to row out to the light. During periods of dense fog, he would strike a metal triangle as a makeshift fog signal.

Each time the Army Corps of Engineers extended the breakwater several hundred feet, they moved the station to the end. Government records indicate that between 1888 and 1895, the light was moved four times. By 1899, the Army Corps of Engineers had finished the project. Records show that a foundation pier was built near the end of the breakwater and that the lights were moved to it on November 20, 1899.

The winter of 1899 saw several powerful winter storms with extra-high tides, which sent waves cresting over the breakwater, causing damage within the harbor. Again, the decision was made to raise the top. The Army Corps of engineers added a four-foot-high cap, which they completed on October 15, 1901.

When completed, the breakwater was 4,346 feet long and made up of 768,774 tons of stone. The cost for the entire project was $880,093.

Starting in 1899, the Lighthouse Board recommended a permanent light and fog signal for the end of the breakwater. The following explanation and recommendation appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year:

Rockland Breakwater pierhead light, Maine - The harbor of refuge, which the breakwater forms, will lead many sailing vessels to enter it in the stormy season and they will need ample warning of the outer end of the breakwater to avoid getting it too close under their lee, and the disaster of being carried upon it in blinding easterly and northeasterly snowstorms. The harbor of Rockland is entered throughout the year by the steamboats, which, during the summer, when fogs are frequent, carry large numbers of passengers between Boston and Bangor, touching at Rockland. In summer several other steamers also carry passengers into the harbor. On account of the dense fogs in summer and the blinding snowstorms in winter the outer end of the breakwater should be indicated. The Board proposes to establish a light-station on the end of the breakwater to consist of a stone pier supporting a small dwelling with a light, and a small trumpet should a fog-bell give inadequate warning, to save vessels from being carried against the breakwater in driving easterly and northeasterly snowstorms. It is estimated that this can be done for not exceeding $30,000, and the Board recommends that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.

The Lighthouse Board received the $30,000 appropriation by an act approved on June 6, 1900. It would take another year before the job would go out to bid, but on June 11, 1901, the Lighthouse Board signed a contract with the W. H. Glover Company of Rockland to build the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The contract was approved nine days later, but before construction could begin, the temporary beacon was moved to the extreme southern end of the breakwater to make room for the new lighthouse.

Construction started on July 1, 1901, and continued until December 19 when it ceased for winter. Crews resumed work on April 12, 1902, and completed the station on September 19. The light, shown for the first time on October 30, 1902, exhibited a white flash every five seconds.

The following description of the station appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1903:

The station consists of a brick tower, a fog-signal house, a keeper's wooden dwelling and a boathouse, all attached, built on a stone pier. The light, which illuminates the entire horizon, is of the fourth order, flashing white every five seconds. Its focal plane is 39 feet above mean high water. The fog-signal is a first-class Daboll trumpet. A direct hot-water heating system was installed in the dwelling. A fog-signal house, and a derrick, with winch, were provided at the landing. The revolving apparatus and fog-signal machinery were made in the Board's machine shop in Boston.

Howard P. Robbins was appointed the station's first keeper with an annual salary of $500, which was soon raised to $540. In November 1902, Howard's son, Clifford was appointed assistant keeper. Both keepers resigned in 1909. Clifford recalled the thick ice that surrounded the station during winter. After four winters like that, he stated, "I got fed up with lighthouse keeping!"

Charles W. Thurston replaced Howard Robbins as the principal keeper. After serving as an assistant keeper at the Halfway Rock Lighthouse and the Spring Point Ledge Light, Leroy S. Elwell accepted the position as the assistant keeper at the Rockland Breakwater Light.

Principal Keeper Thurston died on Christmas Eve 1909 from complications of surgery for a stomach ulcer. As a result, the Lighthouse Service appointed Leroy Elwell to the principal keeper position.

For most of the history of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, the station was a stag station, which meant that the keeper's families did not live at the lighthouse. In August 1915, permission was granted to allow the wives of Elwell and his assistant to live at the station.

Within a few months, Elwell wrote to the district inspector asking for him to rescind the permission stating that "it is not agreeable for two separate families to live in the same quarters." Elwell transferred to the Two Bush Island Lighthouse in 1916, and then to the Indian Island Lighthouse in 1921 before returning to the Rockland Breakwater Light in 1925.

U.S. Coast Guard Photo of the Rockland Breakwater LightRockland Breakwater Light (Courtesy Coast Guard)

George Woodward was the station's last civilian keeper. When the Coast Guard assumed control over the nation's aids to navigation, keepers were given the option to join the Coast Guard, or stay on as a civilian keeper. George Woodward opted to join the Coast Guard as a chief petty officer.

Many light stations were transformed during World War II. Additional Coast Guard personnel were added at Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The biggest change was when the Coast Guard erected a lookout tower at the north end of the dwelling, accessed through a hatch in the ceiling. By the end of 1944, the additional staff were reassigned. The lookout tower was eventually removed.

The Coast Guard automated the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in 1965. At some point later, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed. The following year, the Coast Guard solicited bids to demolish the aging lighthouse, but the Rockland City Council and the city manager objected, forcing the Coast Guard to abandon its plans.

After the City of Rockland turned down the property, the nearby Samoset Resort assumed some responsibility for the upkeep of the light. The group had the lighthouse repainted in 1984, but by 1989, it had relinquished its responsibilities.

The Rockland City Council, under the Maine Lights Program, applied for the property in 1998. In applying for ownership, their goal was "to protect and preserve our own history to increase the access to this historic structure for our own citizens and visitors to the history of our region and that of the Breakwater Light."

The Maine Lighthouse Selection Committee approved the transfer to the City of Rockland, which became official in June 1998. The American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) founded a new chapter, the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse (FRBL), in August 1999 as a 501c3 non-profit dedicated to lighthouse preservation.

The City of Rockland leased the lighthouse to the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in 2001. In December 2007, through the assistance of the ALF, the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse assumed the care of the nearby Owls Head Lighthouse.

The group changed its name in January 2012 to the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights to reflect the dual effort to restore and care for both the Rockland Breakwater and the Owls Head Lighthouses.

Since taking over care of the property in 2001, the "Friends" group carried out too many tasks to name them all. But a few include painting the exterior of the structure, installing floating dock and ramp for ease of access, opening the tower to the public, replacing windows, and installing shutters.

As the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights is a 501c3 non-profit, any donation made is tax deductible. Visit their website to make a donation and help support the both the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse and the Owls Head Lighthouse.

Reference:

  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Lighthouses of Maine, Bill Caldwell, 1986.
  3. Lighthouses of Maine: Penobscot Bay (Lighthouses Treasury), Jeremy D'Entremont, July 9, 2013.
  4. Maine Lighthouses: Documentation Of Their Past , J. Candace Clifford, Mary Louise Clifford, April 30, 2005.
  5. "The Rockland Breakwater and Lighthouse," Tom Seymour, Fisherman's Voice, August 2010.
  6. History of Thomaston, Rockland, and South Thomaston, Maine, Vol. I, Cyrus Easton, 1865.
  7. National register of Historic Places, U.S. Dept. of the Interior, Various.

Directions: From US-1 north out of Rockland, make a right onto Waldo Ave. Once on Waldo Ave, you will travel less than a half mile to Somaset Road. Follow Somaset Road to the end. This is where the breakwall starts.

Access: The Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse is owned by the City of Rockland but is leased to the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights. The lighthouse is open most Saturdays and Sundays throughout the season. Grounds open.

View more Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 25.00'
Focal Plane: 39'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 44.10403 N
*Longitude: -69.07747 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.