Whitehead Lighthouse

Spruce Head, Maine - 1852 (1804**)

Photo of the Whitehead Lighthouse.

History of the Whitehead Lighthouse

Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-10-16.

Early development around Penobscot Bay and the Penobscot River relied heavily on the natural resources of the region and the geography. The cities and the towns that dotted the bay were some of the most important for supplying the growing East Coast cities.

Bangor, due to its proximity to the North Maine Woods and the Atlantic Ocean, quickly became a lumbering and shipbuilding town. After processing the logs at the many water-powered sawmills, they were shipped out to ports all over the world.

Rockland provided nearly all of the lime for plaster and mortar, to New York City. By 1854, the city had more than twelve lime quarries and 125 lime kilns. In a little over 30 years, the lime industry had roughly 1,000 employees and continued to grow.

The Penobscot Bay area was also known for its many granite quarries. With the many growing East Coast cities such as Boston, New York City, and Philadelphia, demand for the material was fierce. Before the establishment of railroads, the only viable option for delivering the cargo to cities was via water.

All of this led to significant traffic into and out of West Penobscot Bay and the Penobscot River. For vessels approaching from the southwest, there were two main channels into the bay - the Two Bush Channel or the Muscle Ridge Channel.

The Two Bush Channel put a mariner in the middle of the open bay but left them exposed to any wind and waves that may arise, or the Muscle Ridge Channel, which carried a mariner closer to shore, but protected them from easterly winds and provided shelter, if it was needed. It, unfortunately, also left them dodging countless islands, reefs, and ledges.

Despite the inherent risks, many mariners still chose the Muscle Ridge Channel. To safely navigate through the islands, they would look for the bleached granite shores of Whitehead Island. Unfortunately, nearby Norton Island also had a bleached granite headland, which was regularly mistaken for Whitehead Island in adverse weather, often with disastrous consequences.

Local mariners petitioned the Senate and the House of Representatives in March of 1798, which included the following wording:

That your Petitioners are employed in boating to and from Penobscot Bay, and the Ports and Harbors in the neighborhood of said Bay. That the entrance of this Bay, which is now extremely hazardous, might be made safe and free from danger by the erection of a Light House on a place called White Head, twenty leagues eastward of Seguin, and about two leagues and a half S. West from Thomaston Harbor.

The petition then concluded:

Your Petitioners, therefore, humbly request that a Light House may be erected on the place described in their Petition, without which the lives and the property of themselves and thousands of their fellow citizens will continue in their present state of insecurity and danger.

It took a few years, but on March 3, 1803, Congress approved "An Act for erecting a Lighthouse at the entrance of Penobscot Bay or any other place in its vicinity that may be deemed preferable by the Secretary of the Treasury," some of which is below:

That as soon as a cession shall be made by the state of Massachusetts to the United States, of the jurisdiction over the land proper for the purpose, the Secretary of the Treasury be, and he is hereby authorized to purchase so much land as may be necessary, and provide by contract, to be approved by the President of the United States, for building a lighthouse on Whitehead at the entrance of Penobscot bay, or any place in its vicinity, that may be deemed preferable by the Secretary of the Treasury, and to furnish the same with all necessary supplies; and also, to agree for the salaries or wages of the persons who may be appointed by the President for the superintendence and care of the same; and that the President be authorized to make the said appointments.

The act provided a $7,000 appropriation with funding coming from "monies arising from imports and tonnage," which Thomas Jefferson approved in 1804.

Shortly after that, Benjamin Lincoln, customs collector and local lighthouse superintendent, visited the island and selected a location on the eastern side of the island beside the channel. In an act dated June 18, 1803, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ceded the ten acres of land to the United States, as Maine was part of Massachusetts at that time.

In contradiction, later government documents state the cost of the land as $102.50.

When Lincoln advertised for bids, he considered it a harbor light rather than a coastal or bay light. His specifications called for an octagonal wooden lighthouse on a stone foundation, roughly 30 feet high to the lantern deck. It also called for a wood-framed dwelling approximately 60 to 70 feet from the tower, and a well dug in the same area.

By the spring of 1804, contractors Duncan Thaxter and Benjamin Beal were on the island to construct the station, which they most likely completed soon after that as the station's first keeper, Ellis Dolph (sometimes spelled Dowlf), was hired in June 1804. According to government documents, the cost of the completed station was $2205.80.

When completed, the fixed white light, most likely shown from spider lamps which were common at that time, showed from 50 feet above high water. Although some documents state that the lighthouse went into service in 1807, it most likely went into service later that year or sometime in early 1805.

When established, the Whitehead Lighthouse was the third oldest in the state of Maine. The oldest was the Portland Head Light, built in 1791, and the Seguin Island Lighthouse, established in 1796.

By the fall of 1805, to supplement his $200-per-year-salary, Keeper Dolph began selling oil meant for the lighthouse to the citizens of Thomaston. After a year or so of ordering more significant quantities of oil and more frequently than other stations, the inspector started looking into the issue in 1807.

Interviews with locals from Thomaston and St. George produced incriminating evidence. Hezekiah Prince stated that he had seen Dolph sell more than two hundred gallons of oil within the last two years. Others corroborated with the investigation, which led to Keeper Dolph's dismissal.

As a result of the theft, the government put safeguards in place to ensure this wouldn't happen again. All keepers were ordered to log the hours their lamps were in service and to accurately measure and record the quantity of oil consumed each night.

Ebenezer Otis took over duties as keeper after Ellis Dolph's dismissal. During a visit to Whitehead Island in 1813, inventor and lighthouse builder, Winslow Lewis found Keeper Otis was derelict of his duties and called for his release.

Otis explained that he had been ill and asked for a second chance, which he received. Unfortunately, his health never fully recovered, and in July 1816, he passed away.

Whitehead has a reputation for being one of the foggiest places on the coast of Maine. The average amount of fog on the coast of Maine is 874 hours per year, whereas Whitehead averages 1,920 hours per year.

In 1826, mariners received additional support when the Owl's Head Lighthouse was established. Standing high upon a headland, the Owl's Head Lighthouse marked the end of the Muscle Ridge Channel, as well as the south side of the entrance to Rockland Harbor.

By 1829, the residents of the State of Maine petitioned Jeremiah O'Brien, member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maine's 6th congressional district for a fog bell. He brought the petition to Congress on January 12, 1829:

Mr. O'Brien presented a petition of inhabitants of the State of Maine, praying that a bell may be erected on the Whitehead in the Bay of Penobscot, to be rung in foggy weather.

The petition was approved, and on March 2, 1829, Congress appropriated $2,000 for the work. By the following year, Luther Whitman had erected a new 1,000-pound fog bell and machinery at the location.

On March 3, 1831, Congress appropriated $6,000 to rebuild the lighthouse on Whitehead Island. A local mason from Thomaston, Maine named Jeremiah Berry won the contract. He built a 29-foot tall tower of split undressed stone. The base diameter was 18 feet and tapered to 10 feet at the top. Atop the tower sat a wrought-iron octagonal lantern.

Given the year that this tower was constructed, it most likely had Winslow Lewis's patented reflector system. With a focal plane of 69 feet above sea level, the light was visible for 12 miles. The new tower went into service in September 1831.

Also erected at that time was a 34-foot by 40-foot stone dwelling, which contained three rooms downstairs and three small chambers in the attic.

Although a fog signal was established in 1830, it never really met the needs of mariners. Captains of sailing vessels reportedly could hear it, but captains of steamships often could not over the noise of the machinery. Often they had to slow down or stop to listen for it.

By 1837, there were numerous complaints about the fog bell at Whitehead. Due to the frequency of fog near Whitehead, requests made by Colonel Loammi Baldwin, Captain Joseph Smith of the U.S. Navy and several others, Congress appropriated funds for a fog bell "At the entrance to Penobscot Bay on Whitehead, to be rung by the power from the tide."

Andrew Morse, Jr. had invented a "perpetual fog bell," which was powered by continuous ocean tides. The Treasury Department sent commissioners John Ruggles and Sullivan Dwight to Whitehead to report on the operation of the Rube Goldberg-type machine. They were to determine its "value and fitness for the purposes intended." An excerpt describing its operation is below:

The power which rings the bell is obtained by the rise and fall of the tide and the "swells" which at that place are constant and unceasing. One end of a large stick of timber, near 30 feet in length, projects out upon the water, the other end being confined by braces and chains to the middle of another stout timber, some 20 feet long, which lies along the shore, hinged at each end to a projecting rock; both together forming a T. From their point of junction a small timber rises vertically, to the height of 18 or 20 feet, being well braced to its position; to the upper part of this mast is attached a chain, which, with a continuous rod of iron, extends up to the bell-house, a distance of about 140 feet. This chain receives from the vibrations of the outer end of the long timber, and a "take up weight" in the bell-house, a constant reciprocating motion, which, acting upon the machinery in the bell-house, winds up the heavy weight of about 2,000 pounds, that drives both the regulating and striking part of the apparatus. The peculiar arrangement of wheels, &c., called the "maintaining power," which enables the weight to perform these two offices at the same time, without either interfering with the operation of the other, is an ingenious invention, yet quite simple, and not likely to get out of order.

On December 3, 1840, Thomas Howes, Commander of the steamer North America gave positive testimony that the perpetual fog bell was invaluable. The following day, S. H. Howes, Captain of the steamer Bangor also wrote to the inventor, giving positive praise.

It is unclear whether the inventor requested these two testimonies, or if it is just coincidence that two ship's captains with the same last name both wrote unsolicited letters within 24 hours of each other.

During 1842, civil engineer I.W.P. Lewis, nephew of Winslow Lewis was asked to report on the conditions of the many of the lighthouses along the coasts of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.

Lewis was often critical of his uncle's work and didn't speak too highly of the station or Morse's invention. Of the tower, he reported the following:

Tower of rubble masonry, 29 feet high, laid up without mortar, except pointing outside and in; base resting on natural surface of a ledge; walls cracked, pointing all out, and several stones forced from their places by frost; soapstone roof, disjointed and leaky. Interior coated with ice in winter; lintel of upper window broken away and gone.

For the dwelling:

Dwelling-house of rubble masonry, with shingled roof, leaky; 3 rooms on first floor and 3 chambers in attic; windows leaky; chimneys smoky in all weathers; plastering off interior walls and ceilings, in large patches. No well; no rain water cistern. Keeper obtains fresh water among the hollows of the rock. Tower and house entirely out of repair; the former requires to be rebuilt. Boat-house and slips decayed, and require considerable repairs.

I.W.P. Lewis didn't echo the same sentiments that both ship's captains spoke of a few years earlier. Regarding Morse's invention he reported the following:

Morse's fog-bell. This invention has been fairly tested here, and is a complete failure...The failure of this plan has been caused by the immense force of the sea tearing the projecting spar away from the rock, as might have been foreseen by any one acquainted with its resistless power. The end to be obtained by this invention is nowise commensurate with the cost of maintaining such a machine, when the feeble sound produced from the bell is considered, which cannot be heard above the roar of the surf in heavy weather, nor more than one mile, except in a dead calm. The keeper is now obliged to wind it up in the usual manner.

I.W.P Lewis always obtained a statement from the keeper, which at that time was Joshua Bartlett. Bartlett echoed a lot of the same comments that Lewis had made, but did add a little regarding Morse's fog bell:

There is a very good clock machine attached to the fog bell, which has but one defect; and that is, it requires the force of a luff tackle and two men to wind up the weight that sets it in motion. I generally ring the bell by hand, though during fogs of long duration it is impossible for me to do so.

The tower was again inspected in 1850 and was described as leaky. Shortly after the establishment of the Lighthouse Board in 1852, a new tower and dwelling were built at Whitehead. The board called upon the distinguished architect and engineer Alexander Parris to design the tower.

After becoming intimately familiar with granite, Parris preferred the durability of the material. Before constructing granite lighthouses, he used granite on many public projects in Boston and Washington, D.C.

One of the first lighthouses that Parris used granite on was the Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, in 1837. Later that same year, Parris was called upon to design a breakwater around the Whaleback Lighthouse as it shook violently during heavy seas.

Parris felt that a breakwater around the Whaleback Lighthouse would do little to strengthen it, and instead, recommended replacing the lighthouse with a significant masonry tower similar to those employed in the British Isles.

Stephan Pleasonton, a notorious penny-pincher in charge of the nation's lighthouses, always selected the lowest bid, and therefore, most of the nation's aids to navigation were substandard. In stark contrast to that, Parris stated, "Light-houses are a kind of building that should last for ages and be constructed of the best materials and workmanship that can be procured, which is not likely to be had under contracts made at the lowest rate prices."

Unfortunately, the Lighthouse Board took no action on the Whaleback Lighthouse, but Parris went to design numerous other lighthouses, including Mount Desert Rock in 1847, Libby Island in 1848, Execution Rocks in 1849, Monhegan Island in 1850 and finally, the Whitehead Lighthouse in 1852.

Parris had also submitted a proposal and plan for a lighthouse for Minot's Ledge in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Stephan Pleasonton was convinced of a screw-pile design, which would ultimately collapse less than a year later, killing the two keepers.

Library of Congress photo of the Whitehead Lighthouse Whitehead Lighthouse (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The tower Parris designed for the Whitehead Lighthouse was mostly the same design that was in use at both Libby and Monhegan Islands, a 41-foot tall granite tower, lined with brick. Also erected at that time was a new wood-framed keeper's house.

A few years later, a new third-order Fresnel lens powered by a single lard oil lamp replaced the old inefficient system of lamps and reflectors.

In 1853, the Lighthouse Board equipped a new fog bell with a Jones patent striking machine at Whitehead at the cost of $2,500. The Jones striking system was supposed to automate the work, but it reportedly had issues. The Lighthouse Board reported that the system stopped working "after five or six strokes," requiring the keeper to ring the bell again manually. The system was fixed in 1860.

With the addition of the fog bell that year, an assistant keeper was hired to help with the additional duties. The two keepers and their families shared the dwelling until 1870 when the second story was added in 1870.

The Lighthouse Board installed a steam-driven fog signal in 1869. The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury on the State of the Finances for the year 1869 had the following entry:

20. White Head - A steam fog-signal is being constructed for this station, to contain which, temporary buildings have been erected. A well to supply water to the fog-signal apparatus has been dug, fifteen feet in depth and twelve feet in diameter.

To house the coal for the steam fog signal, the Lighthouse Board erected a coal shed in 1870. The following year they built a stone pier measuring 45 feet by 25 feet. The shed would also serve as an emergency depot for other light stations in the area that needed coal.

The following year, the board built a new 24-foot by 23-foot stone fog signal building to house duplicate steam whistles. Once the duplicate steam whistles were in use, the fog bell was mounted in a wood frame at ground level where it could be rung by hand in the even of a steam whistle failure.

For all of the complaints of the fog bell not being heard, the ten-inch steam whistle had the opposite effect; it was too loud. In fact, many people on the mainland disapproved of the new signal. Cows allegedly stopped producing milk and chickens stopped laying eggs.

On several occasions, mariners lodged complaints stating that the whistle was not running during fog or heavy snow. They expected it start immediately, as the fog bell had. But often, it would take time for the boilers to build enough pressure to power the whistle.

One mariner wrote to the local newspaper to state that the signal was not operating from 2 a.m. until after dawn and alleged that the keeper was asleep. Keeper Long wrote his rebuttal indicating that the water in the well was frozen and it had taken nearly three hours to thaw it and build up steam for the signal.

Domestic water on the island was a challenge. At times, the keepers had to source drinking water from the mainland and transport it to the island. The addition of steam boilers only exacerbated the issue. Although a cistern was installed in 1870, the supply was still inadequate.

Library of Congress photo of the fog signal and shed Fog signal and shed (Courtesy Library of Congress)

To mitigate the issue, the Lighthouse Board installed a 25-foot by 100-foot rain shed and a 12-foot by 22-foot tank house. Water collected from the roof of the rain shed ran into two 2,500-gallon cisterns in the tank house.

In 1887, the Lighthouse Board had a new 32-foot by 32-foot brick fog signal with a 5,000-gallon capacity brick cistern erected. The boilers and fog signal equipment were renovated and installed in the new facility.

The station still ran into water issues, and in 1889, ran dry requiring the keeper to resort to ocean water. The Lighthouse Board had a 28-foot by 36-foot reservoir, capable of holding 45,000 gallons, excavated near the lighthouse property. It was then connected with the cistern in the boiler house. And in 1893, an additional 4,000-gallon wooden water tank was erected adjacent to the boiler house. Even after these improvements, ocean water still had to be used during periods of drought.

By 1891, new accommodations were erected for the keepers. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board had the following entry:

30. Whitehead, westerly entrance to Penobscot Bay, Maine - The old rubble-stone dwelling was demolished and replaced upon the same foundation by a framed double dwelling, 27 by 37 feet in plan, with an L measuring 27 by 16 feet, with suitable outbuildings. A brick service room, measuring 12 by 16 feet, was annexed to the tower, and an oil house, 9 feet 4 inches by 11 feet 8 inches, was built. The grounds about the dwelling were extensively filled and graded, and a steam pump and inspirator was provided for the fog signal, which was thoroughly overhauled and repaired. Various repairs were made to the depot, wharf, and coal shed.

In 1895, the Lighthouse Board authorized a second assistant keeper position for the Whitehead Lighthouse. As the housing only accommodated the two families, a tank house was converted into temporary quarters. Starting in 1897, the Lighthouse Board had requested an appropriation of $3,400 to build a new duplex. The same entry was repeated in 1898.

On March 3, 1899, Congress finally approved the request. In the fall of 1899, the Lighthouse Board built a new dwelling for the head keeper. The two assistants then occupied the duplex.

Updating of the station began in the 1930s. In 1933, two internal combustion engines replaced the steam boilers. The engines drove air compressors, which powered two diaphragm air horns. To disperse the sound, one pointed northeast and the other faced southwest. A horn to the southeast was tried but discontinued.

Library of Congress photo of the tower stairsTower stairs (Courtesy Library of Congress)

At that same time, twin electric generators were installed in the whistle house. The generators charged a bank of wet cell storage batteries, which then provided power for the station. The keeper's dwellings received electric lights, and a sizeable incandescent bulb replaced the incandescent oil vapor (IOV) lamp in the Fresnel lens. Commercial electrical power came via an underwater cable from Spruce Head in the 1950s.

As the water tanks were no longer needed, gas tanks took their place next to the whistle house. The old rain shed became a garage for a Ford Model A that was used to move supplies from the boat landing.

Civilian keepers kept the light for 145 years, from 1805 until 1950. Arthur Beal would be the longest-serving keeper at Whitehead Lighthouse. He started in 1929 and retired in 1950. After his retirement, the lighthouse was staffed by Coast Guard personnel until its automation in 1982.

When the Coast Guard left, they boarded up the dwellings and replaced the third-order Fresnel lens with a modern optic. Sometime after that, the 1899 principal keeper's house was razed. Today, the Fresnel lens is on display at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine.

The Whitehead Lighthouse was disposed of via the Maines Lights Program, the predecessor to the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Under the Maine Lights Program, ownership of the property was transferred to the Pine Island Camp in 1997.

Over the years, campers have helped restore the keeper's dwelling and fog signal building. Today, the Pine Island Camp runs adult enrichment classes at the station, which is also available to rent. The minimum rental period is three nights.

As the light is still an active aid to navigation, it is still subject to Coast Guard maintenance. In 2001, the Coast Guard converted the light to solar power and in 2017, changed the lamp to a VLB-44. This more power efficient light reduced the range from 20 nautical miles to 14 nautical miles. .


  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. Various Government Documents, Federal & State Governments, Various dates.
  3. Lighthouses of the Pacific Coast: Your Guide to the Lighthouses of California, Oregon, and Washington, Randy Leffingwell, 2000.
  4. Annual Report of the Secretary of Commerce, United States, Various.
  5. Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  6. Lighthouses of Maine, Bill Caldwell, 1986.
  7. Lighthouses of Maine: Penobscot Bay (Lighthouses Treasury), Jeremy D'Entremont, July 9, 2013.
  8. Whitehead Light Station David A. Gamage, The Keeper's Log, Fall, 2000.
  9. Maine Lighthouses: Documentation Of Their Past , J. Candace Clifford, Mary Louise Clifford, April 30, 2005.
  10. "Alexander Parris: Enduring Towers of Stone," David A. Gamage, Lighthouse Digest, July / August 2013.

Directions: This lighthouse sits well off shore. The best way to view it is via boat tours, several of which leave from the area. These include Monhegan Boat Line and Sea Ventures Charters.

You can also get up close with the lighthouse via one of the adult summer programs held by the Pine Island Camp or you can rent the keeper's dwelling at the Whitehead Lighthouse. More information is available at whiteheadlightstation.org.

Access: The Whitehead Lighthouse is owned by the Pine Island Camp. Grounds, tower, and dwelling are closed. See directions above for access to the island.

View more Whitehead Lighthouse pictures
Tower Information
Tower Height: 41.00'
Focal Plane: 75'
Active Aid to Navigation: Yes
*Latitude: 43.97873 N
*Longitude: -69.12433 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.