Sunday, July 25, 2010
A LOVE AFFAIR WITH LIGHTHOUSES
Pemaquid Point Light captured in a setting no longer possible after years of change in the surrounding landscape. Stones weighing many tons are sometimes deposited here by surging storm tides.
Shortly after Shirley and I were first married, I was stationed with a USAF Fighter Interceptor Squadron on Washington State’s Puget Sound. We lived off-base in a home in the ocean-front village of Mukilteo which we shared with the Coast Guard couple who manned the nearby lighthouse. I can’t be sure, but that may be where my love affair with “lights” actually began.
What is certain is that over the next fifty years, our affection for coastal New England blossomed into an almost-familial connection with the lighthouses of Maine. While I have researched, visited and photographed lighthouses on both coasts and the Great Lakes, and gathered lighthouse lore and history along the way, there are a handful of lights which have carved out a special place in my heart.
Our primary “Down East” destination has long been the village of New Harbor, home to the Pemaquid Point Light, perhaps the most-photographed beacon in the U.S., often gracing calendar pages and magazine covers. Built in 1827 during the presidency of John Quincy Adams, it marks a jutting rocky finger of glacial debris which has claimed many wrecks over the years. The small building with a white “pillar” attached houses one of the few remaining Phillips’ Striking Bells, a fog signal designed around a wind-up timing mechanism like that of a grandfather clock. A natural drawing card for seascape artists, it is also a favorite gathering place for local residents who hold a traditional sunrise religious service there every Easter morning. One of our own traditions is to gather wild rosehips from a clutch of flourishing sea roses near the base of the light, from which we make a batch of rosehip jelly to bring back west with us. Like most Maine lighthouses, Pemaquid was a “family” light until 1934 when it was automated. The old Keeper’s house has been turned into an excellent fishermen’s museum.
Officially, the first place to see the rising sun on the mainland of the continental United States lies in the extreme northeast corner of Maine at a place known (oddly) as West Quoddy Head. The lighthouse which marks this picturesque spot is one of only several “barber pole” lights, painted in alternating red and white horizontal stripes. It provided a key visual navigational aid to ships destined for both U.S. and Canadian ports. West Quoddy also marks the approaches to the Bay of Fundy, where tides of 55 feet and more create moving “bores” of swift water, where small boat handling requires both good timing and great skill. Fundy is also known as the birthplace of record fogs, one more nightmare for mariners.
(At the opposite side of the continental U.S., the lighthouse on Cape Blanco, Oregon is the last point on the mainland to see the sun as it sets, and one year we managed to visit both of these lights within a two-month period.)
Another of our favorite Maine mid-coast haunts is Monhegan Island which lies about fifteen miles out to sea from Port Clyde – a one-hour boat-ride I have made many times. ( I confess to enjoying the trip most when a high sea is running, and waves are breaking green over the mail boat’s bows, a joy not always shared by members of the tour groups I have led.) Monhegan lays claim to a tantalizing history, from Viking visits, Indian battles, and momentary invasions during the French and Indian Wars, the Revolution and the War of 1812, to raging wildfires and a “lobster war”. It is likely the first piece of America visited by English fishermen who came ashore here to salt down their cod, long before the first settlements were even contemplated. Perched at the island’s apex, 180 feet above the sea, is a stocky stone lighthouse whose white pulses can be seen from twenty miles away, and a nearby fog signal of mighty aural authority. This light was constructed in 1824, during the presidency of James Monroe, and was not automated until 1959. Hiking the island’s miles of trails always begins for us with a pause at the pinnacle to admire this historic light whose early lamps were fueled with whale oil, and tended by a long succession of hardy keepers.
Monhegan Island waters are famous for the lobsters harvested there by dedicated fishermen who impose and respect their own short season, and theirs is another story I will save for another day.
The lighthouse at West Quoddy Head looks out on the Bay of Fundy and the border with New Brunswick. The water that sweeps into the Bay each day exceeds the volume of all the world’s rivers combined.
Maine is 300 miles closer to England than any other part of America, and Monhegan Island was for centuries the exact landmass toward which early Mariners set course. The light house is short, since it is already 180 feet above sea level. Keeper Thomas Seavey lit the first whale oil lamps July 2, 1824.
All Photos By Al Cooper