Beyond the Beauty: Lighthouses

March 28, 2018 | By: Merritt Carey

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There are few things more emblematic of Maine than its lighthouses. 65 of them dot our islands and coastal shores. Beyond their picturesque appearance, most every lighthouse has a story – a daring rescue or tragic shipwreck. Tales, some fanciful and some true, are the stalwart of every lighthouse. Take Sailor, the famous and beloved lighthouse keeper’s dog at Wood Island, off Biddeford, Maine. As the lore goes, lighthouse keeper Thomas Orcutt taught Sailor to ring the fog bell in two successions at intervals of every 25 seconds in the fog, or when a shipped passed. The dog became a local legend and attracted a following himself.  Sailor died of old age in his keeper’s arms in 1905, his master left the Wood Island post and passed away not long after.

If you’ve spent any amount of time on the water in Maine, and particularly if you ply your trade on the water – lobstering, scalloping, groundfishing – lighthouses are your landmarks, they orient you at a glance, beckon you home. Two Bush Island, with its lighthouse standing against the barren island – it literally has two bushes and marks the outer crown of a cluster of islands known as the Mussel Ridges; Marshall Point light (which featured in the movie Forrest Gump) standing regally at the mouth of Port Clyde.

lighhouse on a cloudy day

Beyond the lore and the beauty, lighthouses mark lobstering territories – the lines that divide up the “bottom” and create lobstering “rights”. These are known by fishermen instinctively, to the rest of us, they are elusive. I once had the boundary of the “northern end” fishermen described to me: “Whitehead light underneath the cement plant stack marks the east side of the northern end guys’ territory, their western boarder is Whitehead Light under the Eastern Haycock, one of the hills in the Camden Hills. Their northern line is Marshall point light touching on the northern end of Mosquito Island.” It was impossible to grasp until I looked at it on a chart, and then, knowing the landmarks myself, understood the boundary – it formed a rectangle above Metinic Island, the southern border of that territory I later learned was marked by posts on the shore of the island.

The mouth of Tenants Harbor is marked by Northern Island and her cousin, Southern Island. Southern, now owned by the Wyeth Family, boasts a lighthouse, keeper’s house and a number of outbuildings, all painted bright white. The Lighthouse sits amid a green, and well-maintained lawn, above the Southern Island bell buoy. The lighthouse on Southern Island was decommissioned in 1934, but coming in from off shore, on a clear day, the white of the lighthouse and out building stands out from the dark green of the spruce-laden shoreline – a beacon bringing you home.

Of course, the real purpose of lighthouses was to guide mariners in the fog, to warn them of the ledges and rocks. When they were originally built, cannons were used to warn sailors, replaced by bells, and ultimately fog horns. As a young girl, before I would hear the water dripping from the fog-laden spruce outside my window, before I would smell the fog – that salty brine – I would be awoken by the fog horn on Whithead Island, some two miles to the east of Tenants Harbor.  As day would break I would look out the window – on a clear day, looking east, I could see across out the mouth of the harbor to the islands of the Mussel Ridges; if I looked west, towards the head of the harbor, I could see the fishing fleet. On foggy days, I often couldn’t see the water at all, the fog hanging so densely.  The lobster boats were usually quite on the “pea soup” days, but occasionally you would hear one or two coming in, the diesel engine echoing through the fog, with the fog horn always a backdrop to those days.

Several years ago, the coast guard decided to decommission the fog horns, now they sound by a “mariner activated system” – where mariners activate the fog horn by VHF radio only if they need them. “On demand” foghorns, to go with the rest of our “on-demand” culture. With the advent of GPS, fewer mariners rely on lighthouses or foghorns. But still, Maine would not be Maine without its lighthouses, their lore, their history. They are as familiar to us as the sound of the diesel engine over the water, the lobster boats coming in each afternoon with their catch, the sweet smell of a freshly cooked lobster. These sights and sounds mean just one thing: Maine.

lighthouse taken by merritt carey