Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland Head Lighthouse, located in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is a historic beacon known not only for its picturesque charm but also for its important protecting.

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Portland Head Lighthouse: Guiding Light of Cape Elizabeth, Maine

Portland Head Lighthouse, located in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, is a historic beacon known not only for its picturesque charm but also for its vital role in safeguarding the shores of Portland and the surrounding area. This iconic lighthouse, one of the most frequently photographed in the United States, carries a rich history that dates back to the nation's early years.

Sentinel of Independence

Portland Head Lighthouse's history is deeply intertwined with the quest for American independence. In 1776, residents of Cape Elizabeth, driven by their fervor for America's independence from British rule, stationed an eight-man watch at Portland Head to alert the community of impending British threats. This early vigilance would eventually evolve into the erection of a lighthouse on this strategic point.

In 1787, the General Court of Massachusetts allocated $750 to initiate the construction of a lighthouse. When the United States government assumed responsibility for all lighthouses in 1790, Congress provided $1,500 to complete the project. The resulting lighthouse stood 72 feet tall from its base to the lantern deck, featuring 16 whale oil lights. On January 10, 1791, Portland Head Lighthouse was ignited for the first time, becoming the ninth lighthouse established in the United States. A light keeper's dwelling was also constructed adjacent to the lighthouse.

A Beacon Enhanced for Safety

In 1864, the tragic sinking of the 295-foot steamer Bohemian on Alden's Rock, which claimed the lives of forty individuals, prompted Congress to allocate $20,000 for "additional aids to navigation to facilitate the entrance to Portland, Maine, by suitably marking Alden's Rock and Bulwark Shoal." After a comprehensive assessment, the Lighthouse Board determined that elevating the height of Portland Head Lighthouse by twenty feet and installing a second-order Fresnel lens in the lantern room was the most effective solution. This upgrade was particularly critical during the American Civil War when raids on ships entering and exiting Portland Harbor were a significant concern. The taller structure with an improved lens ensured that ships at sea could spot Portland Head Light as swiftly as possible.

A Beacon of Recognition

Portland Head Lighthouse has stood the test of time, with only minimal changes over the years. The 80-foot-tall white conical tower, connected to a keeper's home, boasts a focal height of 101 feet. In 1991, a DCB-224 aerobeacon with a white light flashing every four seconds was added, extending its visibility to up to 24 nautical miles. A reproduction of the foghorn structure from 1880 was reconstructed in 1975.

On April 24, 1973, Portland Head Light was bestowed the honor of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. This recognition underscores its historical significance, celebrating its role in maritime heritage and its enduring appeal. The lighthouse is referenced in the National Register with the number 73000121.

In 2002, the American Society of Civil Engineers bestowed the distinction of a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark upon the lighthouse. This recognition highlights its architectural and engineering significance in American history.

A Shared Custody

Today, the Borough of Cape Elizabeth owns the grounds and the keeper's home, while the U.S. Coast Guard is the custodian of the beacon and fog signal, which continue to serve as contemporary aids to navigation.

Visiting the Icon

Visitors eager to witness the majesty of Portland Head Lighthouse can do so by visiting Fort Williams State Park, nestled along Shore Road in Cape Elizabeth. The park, home to several parking lots with hundreds of spaces, does charge a small fee via self-serve kiosks for parking. Within Fort Williams State Park, Portland Head Lighthouse takes center stage, surrounded by several historic structures, including coastal gun batteries. While the lighthouse's interior isn't accessible to the public, the park offers numerous vantage points to admire its beauty. It's a delightful spot for a picnic, photography, and exploring the history of Cape Elizabeth.

Additionally, visitors can explore the former keeper's residence, home to an award-winning museum featuring various lighthouse lenses and interpretive displays. A seasonal store offering high-quality lighthouse and Maine-themed merchandise is also a part of this delightful site. And to complete the experience, during the summer months, a Cousins Maine Lobster food truck is often parked near the lighthouse, offering the quintessential lobster roll experience with a breathtaking view.

Location Features

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12 Captain Strout Circle, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

GPS Coordinates:
43.623092, -70.207965
Directions to location:
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Directions to parking area:
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Parking Notes:
Portland Head Lighthouse is located within Fort Williams Park. Fort Williams Park is open to the public year-round from dawn to dusk. There is no entry charge, however there is a kiosk to pay for parking. No fees are charged outside of the summer season.


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