Maine’s Most Interesting Lighthouses

Shipwrecks, poetry and alien encounters: The lighthouses dotting Maine’s coast pack a double punch of beauty and history

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Pemaquid Peninsula, Maine
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Pemaquid Peninsula, Maine Alan Copson/Robert Harding World Imagery/Corbis

Peering out from rugged cliffs and evergreen forests, more than 60 lighthouses dot Maine's Atlantic coast—and while today they may serve a purpose more aesthetic than practical, a strong preservation movement has assured that the state's historic lighthouses will stand for generations of visitors. And although all of Maine's lighthouses are beautiful, some have a particularly storied past—haunted, artistic or otherwise—that makes them especially interesting places to stop on your next visit to "Vacationland." 

With Maine Open Lighthouse Day happening September 13, now is a perfect time to check out Maine's coastal lighthouses. On Open Lighthouse Day—an annual event which attracts between 15,000 and 18,000 visitors—lighthouses open to the public, with free tours and information sessions between 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Four of the lighthouses mentioned on our list are open to the public this year: Portland Head, Owl's Head, West Quoddy and Pemaquid Point. If you want to climb Portland Head's 85-plus steps and take in the spectacular view from the top, be sure to get there early, as the lighthouse is only giving out 280 tickets on a first-come-first-serve basis.

Portland Head Lighthouse: Founding Fathers, Confederate Raiders and Poets

Located at the entrance to Portland Harbor, Portland Head Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in the state of Maine—and one of the oldest in the entire United States. Commissioned by George Washington even before the federal government officially existed, and while Maine was still a part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, construction for the lighthouse began in 1787 and was completed three years later. Frugally-minded Washington urged workers to construct the lighthouse from local rubblestones collected from the coastline and fields. The resulting tower still stands, one of only a handful of colonial-era lighthouses that have never been torn down and rebuilt.

Although Maine isn't usually thought of as a Civil War battleground, the northernmost naval battle of the Civil War occurred right off the shore of Portland Head. On the night of June 26, 1863, Charles W. Read, a Confederate second lieutenant, and his crew disguised as fishermen, snuck past the lighthouse and into Portland harbor aboard a stolen vessel. Read's plan was to commandeer the Caleb Cushing, a well-armed United States Revenue Cutter, sail it safely to open water, and then return the same night to bombard the city and burn the harbor and gunboats under construction there.

Under cover of darkness, Read's rebels successfully took the Caleb Cushing without resistance, but as they attempted to sail out of the harbor, the rebels discovered the bay's tides had turned against them, slowing their escape and making it impossible to return the same night. By dawn, Portlanders discovered the missing ship and a quickly assembled regiment of soldiers, civilian volunteers (and a brass band) set off in pursuit aboard a steamer. The wind proved poor and the Cushing was quickly overtaken. After exhausting their supply of ammunition (not knowing a secret compartment in the ship hid most of the ship's gunpowder) Read and his crew were captured after setting the vessel on fire in an attempt to escape by lifeboat.

"It's easy for us to smile about it now," says Portland historian Herb Adams said on a program on the Maine Public Broadcasting Network, "but [Read's] designs were absolutely serious. And had he succeeded this would have been considered one of the great calamities of the Civil War."

The lighthouse has also inspired literary references; poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow would often visit the lighthouse —some think his poem "The Lighthouse" describes Portland Head with its lines "a dim, gigantic shape, Holding its lantern o’er the restless sea." Other artists have been inspired by the lighthouse as well—it was the scene of Edward Hopper's Portland Head-Light, and is still one of the most photographed lighthouses in Maine.

Owl's Head Lighthouse: Friendly Ghosts

Listed as the number one haunted lighthouse in America by Coastal Living Magazine, Owl's Head, built in 1824, supposedly has at least two (rather friendly) ghosts living there. One ghost, known as the "Little Lady," is often said to be seen in the kitchen, staring out the window or making her presence known by rattling windows, drawers or silver.

The second ghost is thought to be an old lighthouse keeper or sailor who, legend has it, frequents the grounds doing helpful chores, like turning down the thermostat. One story involves a former lighthouse keeper's two-year-old daughter, who one night met her father at the stairs after his watch, saying "Fog’s rolling in! Time to put the foghorn on!" When asked where she learned these phrases—which her parents hadn't taught her—the girl described being alerted by a bearded man wearing a seaman's cap.

Another story, told by a former Coast Guard keeper's wife, describes a more intimate encounter. One night she woke to find that her husband had left the bed. She rolled over and began to go back to sleep, only to feel someone lie down next to her. She asked her husband a question, but he didn't reply—and when she rolled over to talk to him, she found no one there, only the indentation of a body on the sheets next to her.

The lighthouse is open to the public on Wednesdays and weekends from Memorial Day through Columbus Day, so you can check out the legends for yourself.

The Nubble Lighthouse: Alien Encounters

Located off of Cape Neddick, the Cape Neddick Lighthouse, also called the "Nubble" Lighthouse, has a history that's out of this world—literally. The Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977, carries a "Golden Record" etched with sounds and photos of the world's people, animals and most celebrated natural and man-made wonders to display to any aliens the spacecraft might encounter. A photo of the Nubble Lighthouse, titled "Seashore," is one of the select 115 images chosen to represent Earth. If discovered, exterrestrials will find the lighthouse archived among photos of architectural marvels like the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China, recordings of whale vocalizations and an odd but, arguably, informative image of a scientist demonstrating the human mouth's function by licking an ice cream cone. Why was the Nubble Lighthouse chosen for inclusion on the Golden Record? According to the Voyager Record's Design Director Jon Lomberg, the record's creators wanted to depict the diversity of life and landscapes on Earth.

"[The] picture shows a seashore, emphasizing humans' preferred proximity to water. The wave splashes might be used to deduce some details of our gravity, atmospheric composition and surface pressure. The buildings are similar to buildings in other shots, but the tower form of the lighthouse might even give a clue as to its function—lighthouses might be required on the shores of many worlds. We'll never know how much of this is understood—or even if the record is ever found," he explained via e-mail. "But the handsome, rugged shore of Maine is a fitting snapshot of the beauty of our planet, whatever else it says."

Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse: Daring Rescue

Located at Cape Elizabeth, Two Lights State Park, which is home to two different lighthouses, is considered by mariners and residents to be one of the most treacherous stretches along the Maine coast. Between 1780 and 1990, at least 98 vessels met their demise near Cape Elizabeth. Because of its dangerous nature, it's no surprise that one of the most historic moments in Cape Elizabeth history involves the daring rescue of crewmen from a sinking ship by lighthouse keeper Marcus Aurelius Hanna. 

In January of 1885, Hanna was finishing up his night watch. It was swirling snow outside and 10 degrees below zero. Hanna recorded in his logbook that it was "one of the coldest and most violent storms of snow, wind and vapor…that [he had] ever witnessed." Hanna, suffering from a bad cold, was reportedly so weak that he had to crawl through the snow to make his way back to the keeper's house. When he got there, he fell asleep—but was soon awoken by his wife, an assistant keeper, who cried that she had spotted a wrecked ship off the coastline.

Hanna raced outside to discover that the ship's captain had already been dragged into the sea and drowned, leaving two crewmen clinging to the rigging as frigid waves crashed over the deck. Knowing they would soon freeze to death, Hanna climbed over the perilous icy rocks of the coastline to throw them a lifeline—a single misstep meaning a fatal slip into the crashing waves. Working to the point of collapse, Hanna managed to drag the two men to safety. For his efforts, Hanna was awarded the Gold Life Saving medal in 1885—one of only three awarded between 1876 and 1915—for "heroism involving great peril to his life."

West Quoddy Head Light: Marking the East

Commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson, West Quoddy Head Lighthouse might have the most misleading name of any lighthouse—that's because it's actually located on the easternmost point in the contiguous United States. The lighthouse is one of the oldest in Maine, built in 1808 and rebuilt even taller (85 feet tall) in 1858. It's also one of only two lighthouses in the United States to have red and white bands painted along the tower—to make it easier to see.

The body of water over which the lighthouse sits, the Bay of Fundy, is often obscured by fog—because of this Quoddy Lighthouse was one of the first lighthouses to employ a fog bell and steam whistle. When ships would approach the bay, they would fire a signal gun, and the lighthouse keeper would respond by tolling the fog bell.

Pemaquid Point Lighthouse: State Symbol

Constructed in 1827, Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, the first lighthouse to mark Pemaquid Point had to be rebuilt eight years later due to poor construction the first time around. Today, the stunning image of Pemaquid Point's lighthouse will continue in perpetuity, because Mainers voted for Pemaquid Point Lighthouse to represent Maine on their official state quarter—it's the only U.S. money to ever bear the image of a lighthouse.