One of the prettiest lighthouses in New England, Portland Head lighthouse of Maine dates back to 1791. It’s part of a park now in Cape Elizabeth, a town on the coast, although it was named for the headland.
Merchants petitioned Massachusetts (since they were not a separate state at the time) for a lighthouse to allow safe passage to Portland harbor. Construction began on a 72-foot tower with the $750 appropriated, but it took another $1500 to finish the lighthouse. America’s first President, George Washington, appointed a Revolutionary War veteran, Captain Joseph Greenleaf, to serve as the first keeper. Whale oil lamps provided a fixed light. Greenleaf wasn’t paid at first but due to expenses, he was given $160/year until he died of a stroke several years later. A blacksmith was serving as keeper, at a salary of $300, by 1810 when the lighthouse’s woodwork proved in poor condition.
Repairs were made over the years, the tower raised several times and lined with brick, a cast-iron spiral stairway installed and the keeper’s house rebuilt several times. The whale oil lamps and reflectors were replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens in 1855, and a fog signal bell tower installed. One family served a total of 59 years as keeper, a former ship’s captain, Joshua Strout, his wife Mary and son Joseph served from 1871 until 1928.
The Coast Guard took over operation in 1946 and kept the light burning until 1977. The Portland Head lighthouse is now a museum, and celebrated the Lighthouse Service’s 200th anniversary in 1989. For more information about keepers quirky habits, such as a fog-warning parrot, storms of hurricane strength and shipwrecks, click on the link below.