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New England Lighthouses | A Lighthouse Life List

New England Lighthouses | A Lighthouse Life List
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Portland, Maine
Photo/Art by Roxie Zwicker
Portland, Maine

We romanticize them, but what makes New England lighthouses quintessential icons is their simple, sturdy practicality. They weren’t built to be the stuff of tourist brochures, postcards, and collectibles. They were built to mark the rocky shore for ships.

At the end of the road on the tiny burr of the prickly Maine coast where my relatives live is a lighthouse. It’s square and squat and has long been automated, augmented by an ugly modern beacon on a concrete pylon just offshore.

But its light still sweeps the bay, and its lonely foghorn sounds a plaintive, hypnotic wail. Once, while we were walking down the long road to our stubby little lighthouse, my sister and I pondered what made it so special to us. She said it was like knowing that someone’s always waiting up for you, no matter when you come home. Which, of course, is what it’s there for.

I confess that I, like marketers and souvenir-shop owners, have profited from the allure of the New England lighthouse. A daily journalist who only halfheartedly accepted an assignment from a publisher to write a book about the lights, I quickly found myself sucked in by stories vastly more dramatic than the ones I was covering in my day-to-day job: stories of terror and tragedy and hardship, heroism and mystery and death.

When it came time to take an author photo for the book’s jacket, however, I chose the humblest of backdrops: I walked to the end of our road in Maine and posed beside our lighthouse. What follows is a tour of some of the most stunning, most romantic, most unusual, even some of the most haunted beacons found anywhere in the world.

At Gay Head Light, on the western end of Martha’s Vineyard, visitors are allowed into the red-brick lantern tower, where they can watch the two lights rotate–and take in extraordinary sunsets over the Aquinnah Cliffs and surf below.

Maine’s Cape Elizabeth and Portland Head lights were immortalized by the artist Edward Hopper, and Ten Pound Island Light, off Cape Ann, by both Fitz Henry Lane and Winslow Homer.

For me, though, the region’s quintessential lighthouse is Cape Cod’s Nobska Point Light–especially when thousands of runners sweep past it during summer’s annual Falmouth Road Race (August 9 this year). Portland Head also serves as the picturesque finish for a road race: the annual Beach to Beacon (August 1 this year), founded by Olympian and local resident Joan Benoit Samuelson.

In an ironic reversal of artistic tradition, Hopper’s depiction of Maine’s Monhegan Island Light was used as a guide to rebuild the assistant keeper’s cottage, which now houses the Monhegan Museum’s art gallery–perhaps the only museum that not only exhibits works of art but was inspired by one.

What kid wouldn’t like tramping up all 69 winding steps to the lantern room at the top of Highland Light in North Truro, 183 feet above the sea off Cape Cod? And checking out the shipwreck room in the neighboring Highland House museum?

Provincetown’s Race Point Light is separated from the nearest paved road by two and a half miles of sand dunes–so distant that it’s a Race Point lighthouse keeper who’s credited with inventing the dune buggy. Want to sleep in the keeper’s house? The lantern-light charm has been replaced by solar and wind power, but you’ll still get a sense of the seclusion in which early keepers lived.

After being deactivated in 1914, Bass River Light in West Dennis, Massachusetts, was converted by a Boston mogul into a summer home. Now it’s a Cape Cod hotel called The Lighthouse Inn, with a private beach, pool, tennis courts, restaurant, ocean views, and working fireplaces–and the only private-family-maintained working lighthouse beacon in the country. Three of the guestrooms are in the original keeper’s house.

Want to own your own keeper’s house? There’s one for sale on Maine’s Isle au Haut. And for a deluxe dinner atop a lighthouse, check out Newburyport’s Rear Range Light.

Some lighthouses carry unexpected architectural pedigrees. Alexander Parris, who designed Boston’s Quincy Market, also designed at least seven lighthouses in Maine, including Mount Desert Rock and Monhegan Island. Castle Hill Light in Newport, Rhode Island, is attributed to H. H. Richardson, famous for Trinity Church in Boston.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Updated Monday, June 22nd, 2009

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4 Responses to New England Lighthouses | A Lighthouse Life List

  1. T. Rodrigues July 2, 2009 at 3:12 pm #

    Just finished reading this article in the print version of Yankee – we are amazed (and disappointed) that Pemaquid Point Lighthouse was not listed. It’s simply the best lighthouse – and grounds – imaginable. Just take a look at the Maine State Quarter!

  2. Jackie Normile July 28, 2009 at 8:58 am #

    I consider it a great day-if I am not working, the sun is out & I find myself at a lighthouse near to sunset…Yesterday it was Nobska and recently Chatham. Pemaquid is a wonderful lighthouse-both from the water and land. New England has so many that you can see, and some that should be more accessible.

  3. Greg Rogow August 30, 2009 at 8:54 am #

    Thank you , I really enjoyed your article. I have had the opportunity to photograph eighteen of the lights mentioned and hope to eventually shoot the rest.

    Another light worth mentioning is Scituate Light. The first keeper was Simeon Bates, who stayed at the station until his death in 1834. Bates and his wife, Rachel, had nine children, including two daughters, Rebecca and Abigail. These two sisters would become heroic figures in the history of American lighthouses.

    During the War of 1812, British warships frequently raided New England coastal towns. On June 11, 1814, British forces plundered and burned a number of vessels at Scituate. Keeper Bates fired two shots from a small cannon, angering the captain of a British warship as it departed.

    Less than three months later, Keeper Bates and most of his family were away, leaving 21-year-old Rebecca and 15-year-old (or, according to some accounts, 17-year-old) Abigail in charge. The sisters were horrified to see a British warship anchored in the harbor. They proceded to play a fife and drum while out of sight of the warship. The British thought the sound of the fife and drum signaled the approach of the Scituate town militia, and they hastily retreated.

    This is another of many interesting stories associated with New England lighthouses

  4. jacki wilmot April 15, 2010 at 4:22 pm #

    what facinating stories and a part of NE I haven’t had the opportunity of exploring yet. thank you. We should all make a point of learning about these famous lighthouses.

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