Bass Harbor Light is located in Tremont, Maine. You may not know where Tremont is, but you've almost certainly heard of Mount Desert Island (MDI) or Acadia National Park.
Our story starts in 1855, when the US lighthouse inspector for Maine and New Hampshire, W. B. Franklin reported that there was a need for a lighthouse at Bass Harbor Head located on the southwest tip on the "quiet side" of Mount Desert Island. The point marks the Blue Hill Bay and the entrance to Bass Harbor. Franklin recommended $5,000 to build the light and the following year Congress purchased nearly 3 acres for the station. The parcel cost $80, which equates to about $2,700 today.
The light station was built the following year in 1858 with an extra $16.65 left in the budget. John Thurston, the first keeper, lit Bass Harbor Light for the first time on September 1, 1858.
The white cylindrical tower stands 32-feet tall, but due to the high granite cliffs the light sits at about 56 feet above seal level. The original light was a Fifth Order Fresnel lens. The keeper's house was a wood, 1.5-story frame 20x40 foot structure connected to the lighthouse by a 21-foot wooden walkway. A bell tower was added in 1867. By 1878, twenty years after construction, the house needed some work. It was raised 10 inches and the original board-and-batten siding was replaced with clapboards.
A boathouse was constructed in 1893, complete with 100-foot railway. This was the only way to get supplies to the lighthouse until a road was built. But getting supplies wasn't the only challenge for the lighthouse keeper and his family in the early days. They captured rain water on the house's roof and stored it in a 1,800 gallon brick cistern in the cellar. This was their only supply of freshwater.
A brick fog signal was constructed in 1897 and fitted with a 4,000-pound bell. The lens was replaced in 1901 and upgraded to a Fourth Order lens. This lens is still in use today. At this point, a red chimney was installed over the lens to cast a red light. The red light shines for 4 seconds and then flashes off for 1 second, and is visible for 13 nautical miles. The oil house was built in 1902, and a barn was completed in 1905.
In 1919 Acadia National Park was established and 18 years later the National Park Service (NPS) purchased 52 acres from the Worcester family with the goal to allow public access to the lighthouse. The parcel included the entrance road, parking lot, hiking trail, staircase to the shoreline, and a restroom.
The light was automated in 1974 and became living quarters for the Commander of the USCG group Southwest Harbor. In addition to the light being protected on National Park land, it was listed on the National Register in 1988. The original keeper's dwelling from 1858 still stands, although the structure was expanded in 1900--work which is now historic in its own right!
Although the NPS already owned the land around the lighthouse, the USCG offered the lighthouse itself to the NPS in 2017 to become part of Acadia National Park. The house hadn't been occupied since 2012. The NPS accepted the offer, however USCG maintained control of the lighthouse and other structures until July 8, 2020 when they formally transferred the buildings to the NPS. The USCG still retains the right to operate and maintain the light for navigational purposes. In 2020, the red chimney was removed from around the 1901 Fresnel lens and the USCG replaced the lamp with a red LED.
Today, Bass Harbor Light has become a well-known symbol for the park and the island. The light was featured on the National Park Service centennial postage stamp in 2016 and on the America the Beautiful quarter for Maine in 2012. Although most visitors to MDI stay on the eastern half of the island, where the main part of Acadia National Park is, Bass Harbor still gets around 180,000 visitors annually and is a very popular sunset location for photographers.
National Park Service
John Thurston (1858-1861)
John Rick (1861-1865)
John Wilson (1865-1869)
Charles B. Gilley (1869-1872)
James L. Wilson (1872-1880)
Charles F. Chase (1880-1890)
William T. Holbrook (1890-1894)
Willis Dolliver (1894-1921) - longest serving keeper, retired at age 70
Joseph M. Gray (1921-1938)
Elmer Reed (1938-1940)
Leverett S. Stanley (1940-1950)
Eugene L. Coleman (1950-1955)
Morton M. Dyer (1955-1957)