Fort Williams Park, 1000 Shore Road, Cape Elizabeth, Maine
Built in 1791
Marking the entrance to Portland Harbor in Casco Bay, off Shore Road from Route 77 in South Portland, inside Fort Williams State Park.
|Latitude: 43° 37' 24" N
||Longitude: 70° 12' 30" W|
Maine's oldest lighthouse, to one of Maine's busiest ports, Portland Head Lighthouse was erected during George Washington's administration in 1791, as a result of many petitions from merchants after the deaths of two locals in a shipwreck, during a fierce storm in 1787. Its location set atop a rocky cliff on the shoreline marks the picturesque entrance to Maine’s Portland Harbor in Casco Bay.
There were four shipwrecks that occurred in the vicinity of the lighthouse, three a very short distance from the lighthouse, and one a few miles south of the lighthouse near Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse. Two of these, the Wreck of the Annie C Maguire and the Wreck of the Bohemian (see Cape Elizabeth light for story) are the most well known and are rather intriguing in their stories.
After the shipwreck of the Bohemian and public outcry, The Portland Board of Trade investigated the rocks and shoals nearby and had bell buoy markers placed as needed. Portland Head Lighthouse's visibility was also examined and improved by raising the tower 20 feet in 1865. A second-order Fresnel lens was also installed to generate a more powerful light.
Portland Head Lighthouse is also known as having four generations of the Strout family in dedicating over 100 years of combined service to the light, including Joshua Strout’s mother’s tenure as housekeeper, at Portland Head Lighthouse. There were many family members of different lighthouses that would be involved in tending a lighthouse, including wives of keepers, or their sons, but rarely there would be four generations of family members servicing at the same lighthouse.
The poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, born in Portland, frequently came to visit Keeper Joshua Stout. Longfellow would visit the lighthouse a day or two each week and the two men would enjoy many pleasant conversations together, becoming close friends. Longfellow wrote "The Lighthouse" and other poems while relaxing at the site.
On April 3, 1875 a fierce storm knocked out the foghorn and temporarily extinguished the lighthouse.
Portland Head Lighthouse 1891
Courtesy US Coast Guard
The Wreck of the Annie C Maguire
Wreck of Annie C Maguire
Courtesy of Museum of Portland Head Light
On Christmas Eve, in 1886, the Strout family were preparing for bed around 11:30 p.m., when they were awakened when the Annie C Maguire ran aground on the rocks nearly 100 feet from Portland Head lighthouse.
Joshua and his son Joseph quickly ran out followed by Joshua's wife Mary who carried torches to light the area. The men rigged an ordinary ladder as a gangplank between the waves and rocky ledges that separated them from the wreck. One by one, Joshua and Joseph helped each survivor over the makeshift plank to the warm safety of the keeper’s house. They rescued all eighteen people safely while the ship lie wedged on the rocks.
Joshua had been notified a few days earlier to watch out for the vessel as its creditors wanted to seize it. He sent word to the sheriff who came to claim the vessel and had the Strout family remove everything that could be salvaged for the creditors.
Because the ship was so beaten up, the creditors received only $177 at auction. In trying to serve the angry creditors, the sheriff searched the ship’s sea chest for special papers and cash, but came up with nothing.
The crew had been discharged a few days earlier and sent home by the British Vice Counsel. Years later it was discovered that the captain, with the help of his devious wife, had ransacked the chest and carried the cash, papers, and other items of value in her hatbox during the rescue.On his 21st birthday John Strout to decided to paint an inscription to commemorate the location of where years ago the Annie C Maguire wrecked on the rocks close to the lighthouse. He had to chip a large portion of the rock away in order to create a flat surface on which to paint. After mixing mortar, sand, and some paint together, he painted the words “In Memory of the Ship Annie C. Maguire, Wrecked on this point Christmas Eve, 1886."
|The inscription has been periodically repainted over the years. It has evolved into a more simpler inscription reading “Annie C Maguire, shipwrecked here, Christmas Eve 1886” which displays today for residents and tourists alike.|
In 2013, Portland Head Lighthouse was chosen as one of five New England lighthouses, painted by artist Howard Koslow, for the "Forever" stamp collection sold at all US Postal stations.
Places to Visit Nearby:
Portland is one of the largest seaports in New England, Maine’s largest city, and offers many specialty restaurants, shops, and art galleries at its old port waterfront district and within the city. Portland is also considered the art cultural center of the state with plenty of galleries and museums to visit. You can also follow various urban Portland Trails through the city.
|The lighthouse is located inside a 41-acre park inside Fort Williams for hiking long the cliff edges, exploring the old fort or just for picnicking and kite flying in its open areas. The tower is not open to the public but visitors can explore the Museum at Portland Head Light at the Keeper’s house.|
There are many boat tours leaving the Portland waterfront where some pass by the lighthouse. Casco Bay Cruise Lines allow visitors to some of the nearby islands to relax and recharge. Once on one of the islands, you may find yourself renting a bike to explore or simply hike along the quiet roads. You'll also find sailing, whale watching, fishing, lobstering, and other adventure tours leaving the Portland waterfront.
Quiet Rocky Coast of Peaks Island
The Portland Discovery not only provides special lighthouse tours, but also trolley tours to navigate around the city. For those that want a unique experience, try a narrated historic tour aboard Downeast Duck Tours where you can ride these amphibious vehicles through Portland and into the water as they pass by Portland Breakwater and Spring Point Light. There are many other boat tours leaving the Portland waterfront where some pass by Portland Head Lighthouse, Spring Point Light, or Portland Breakwater Light.
For authentic schooner sailing of early 1900s vessels, the Portland Schooner Company provides two-hour windjammer sails out of Portland, and overnight excursions aboard their unique schooners Wendameen and Bagheera. You can also sail the Frances, with Maine Sailing Adventures. She is a replica of a working coastal pilot cutter that would have sailed the waters of Maine and New England between 1790 and 1812 as a commercial vessel. They provide sunset and wine sails, and they sail out to Peaks Island. Odyssey Whale Watch provides whale watching and deep-sea fishing tours. You can also charter special sailing tours aboard a classic 36-foot Hinckley Yawl vessel.
|North of Portland lie the towns of Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Freeport where you’ll find the largest boot sculpture in front of the LL Bean store, among 170 other name brand retailers in the area. Check out Eartha, the world’s largest revolving and rotating 3D globe of nearly forty-two feet in diameter at the DeLorme (Map) Headquarters in Yarmouth. It revolves and rotates as if seen from space.|
A short distance away you can get back to the outdoors and explore 200 acres of Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, especially if you want to observe ospreys. The park rangers provide one-hour guided tours. There are lots of parks and preserves for those who want to explore the outdoors, and places to shop.
- From US Route 1 North outside of Portland to 1A take Route 77 South through South Portland till you come to Shore Road on the left.
- Follow along until you arrive at Fort Williams State Park on the left. You'll also find lighthouse signs along the way.
Museum at Portland Head Light
1000 Shore Road
Cape Elizabeth, ME 04107
Local Boat Tours
Boat cruises and tours mentioned below may offer many types of cruises. While some may offer specific lighthouse cruises that pass by Portland Head Lighthouse, some will pass by the lighthouse as part of special charters, narrated wildlife and historic tours, while ferrying passengers, during sailing adventures, whale watching expeditions, fishing tours, and other types of excursions. Weather is also a major factor in New England, especially on sailing excursions. Contact info is provided to help you plan your special trips ahead of time and to answer questions before you arrive at any of New England’s destinations. Enjoy!
Downeast Portland Duck Tours
Ride these amphibious vehicles through Portland and as they also pass by Portland Head and Portland Breakwater (Bug) Lighthouses as part their tours.
177 Commercial Street
Portland, ME 04101
Phone: (207) 774-DUCK(3825)
Specific lighthouse cruises like the "Lighthouse Lover's Cruise", and "Sunset Lighthouse Cruise." They also provide a trolley tour of Portland and a lighthouse cruise on Casco Bay for Portland's lighthouses.
Phone: (207) 774-0808
Casco Bay Lines
Use Bailey Island Cruise to view lighthouses on occasion. Check ahead of time.
56 Commercial Street
Portland, Maine 04112
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, published by Schiffer Publishing, provides human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with the coastal attractions and tours near each beacon, and contact info to plan your special trips. You'll find over 360 images inside as well. I'll be happy to sign it for you here, or you'll find it in any fine bookstore.
In the book you'll find more detailed information about the wreck of the Annie C Maguire and the Bohemian that occurred at or near Portland Head Lighthouse, along with lots more attractions.