The Machias Seal Island Lighthouse is a beautiful lighthouse on an island that is claimed by both the United States and Canada. The island has been home to several lighthouses over time and the current lighthouse tower was built in 1914 and stands 64 feet tall. Machias Seal Island is located in disputed waters between the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, approximately 10 miles southeast of Cutler, Maine, and 12 miles southwest of Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick. The island’s sovereignty is presently contested by the United States and Canada.
The light station was instrumental in establishing the Canadian-American border in the area. Because early treaties did not specifically name Machias Seal Island, the British colony of New Brunswick assumed ownership of the island when the light station was built. In 1832, two octagonal wooden towers and a keeper’s house were built on the island, each with eight lamps set in 23-inch reflectors to avoid any confusion with the rotating light at Gannet Rock and the fixed light at Head Harbor.
By 1869, one of the two towers had was significantly degraded, and a new lighthouse was commissioned. On November 6, 1869, the light from a strong third-order Fresnel lens was first shown from the new lighthouse. In 1877, eight years after the new tower went into service, George Armstrong was awarded a contract to build a companion tower. Unfortunately, the Chance Brothers Fresnel lens intended for the new lighthouse was destroyed in a great fire on June 20, 1877, at the department’s storage facility in Saint John. A new lens was ordered from the same company. On November 1, 1878, the new lighthouse, an octagonal tower sixty-four yards southeast of the west tower and standing fifty-three feet from base to vane, went into service.
By 1884, the Machias Seal Island Lighthouse was playing a very important role in Grand Manan’s socio-economic development as the town grew into a major fishing community, becoming the world’s largest supplier of smoked herring. The lighthouse also made it easier to navigate to the Bay of Fundy, which helped the region’s economy, which was heavily reliant on trade, shipbuilding, and fishing.
In place of the steam fog whistle, a type “G” diaphone fog alarm with a class “E” duplicate plant was installed in 1914. The following year, an octagonal, sixty-foot-tall reinforced concrete tower, which is still in use today, was erected near the center of the island and began flashing white light. The two wooden towers were demolished because they were no longer needed.
Following the United States’ entry into World War I, a small group of United States Marines was stationed on the island in 1918, with Canadian approval. They posited themselves on the island to assist in protecting the territory and its key lighthouse guarding the entrance to the Bay of Fundy from German U-boat attack. After several months, these troops were withdrawn, and no US presence has been re-established since.
Machias Seal Island Lighthouse is located in the “grey zone,” a 45-mile gap between Canada and the United States defined in 1977. The “grey zone” has few to no mineral or petroleum resources, however, there is an extremely valuable lobster population. Fishermen from both countries are taking advantage of the lack of rules in the “grey zone” by overfishing various species. The island has become a political football because securing it would allow a nation to gain control of the surrounding water. The overarching issue is lobster population conservation; however, the governing bodies from Canada and the United States have differing views on management. The lack of cooperation from both countries perpetuated the conflict, resulting in stock depletion. Both Canadian and American fishermen are worried about conservation and the need for supply security, but the ongoing escalation of the conflict between them only exacerbates stock damage and jeopardizes future harvests for both countries’ fishermen.
Two lightkeepers are permanently stationed at the island’s dwelling. They are changed every four weeks and are flown by helicopter from the coast guard base in Saint John. These Coast Guard personnel also assist the Canadian Wildlife Service in maintaining the Migratory Bird Sanctuary and assist any wildlife researchers who may stay on the island for an extended period of time. The Canadian government declared Machias Seal Island and the surrounding waters a bird sanctuary in 1944. The island is home to the Atlantic Coast’s largest nesting colony of Puffins south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The lighthouse can only be seen by boat. Bold Coast Charter Company does offer a tour of the island.
- Originally constructed: 1832
- Current tower constructed: 1914
- First lit: 1914 (current structure)
- Construction: Concrete
- Tower shape: Octagonal
- Height: 65 feet (19.8 m)
- Focal height: 82 feet (25 m)
- Markings: White tower with red lantern roof
- Characteristic: Foghorn (two 3 s blasts every 60 s)
- Status: Active