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Bug Light, Portland, Maine

lighthouse with rainbow and clouds in the background
Bug Light, 2018; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

If you've been to Maine, you've probably been to Portland. The city is known for many things. It's the lobster capital of America. There is an amazing food scene and a vibrant Arts District. Portland was the home of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and the birthplace of Stephen King as well as Anna Kendrick. The city also has an impressive architectural history, and...the list could go on.

Since you're here, you're probably a lighthouse enthusiast, so you've probably visited Portland for its high concentration of lighthouses. Portland Head Light, of course, Spring Point, Cape Elizabeth, Ram Island, and Bug Light also called Portland Breakwater Lighthouse.

You might be wondering why there are so many lighthouses in a relatively small area. The geography of Casco Bay can make navigation difficult. Portland Harbor is nestled behind numerous small islands and underwater reefs lurk below the surface.

old map showing lighthouse locations
1898 First Lighthouse District Map; Courtesy of The New York Public Library

It doesn't help that Portland also has a reputation for destruction. The city has been effectively destroyed a number of times. The colonial settlement, then known as Falmouth Neck, was destroyed by French Canadians and their allied Native Americans in 1676 and again in 1688. The British navy destroyed the town in 1775, and from those ashes, the city was rebuilt and renamed Portland. It became the capital of Maine in 1820 and was officially incorporated as a city in 1832. A year prior, a storm destroyed the harbor.

After decades without a serious disaster, the Great Fire of 1866 took out two-thirds of the port city. Much of Portland's famed brick Victorian architecture beloved today is from the rebuilding efforts after this great fire.

lithograph of ruined buildings with smoke
Ruins fo the Great Fire of 1866, drawn by Joseph E. Baker; Public Domain

Following the destruction of the harbor in 1831, a 2,500-foot breakwater was proposed to prevent future disasters. Part of this plan was to build a lighthouse at the end to mark the entrance to the harbor. Construction began in 1836, but unfortunately, funding ran out when the breakwater had only reached 1,800 feet.

It wasn't until 1856, that a small wooden octagonal lighthouse was built at the end of the breakwater as planned. Since there wasn't a keeper's house built alongside the light, the keepers had to brave the 1,800-foot walk every time the light needed refueling or tending. You can imagine how miserable that long walk was battling wind, high waves, and ice in the winter. This original Portland Breakwater Light was fitted with a Sixth Order Fresnel lens.

small wooden lighthouse with 2 men
1855; Courtesy USCG

When the breakwater was extended an additional 200 feet in 1877, a new lighthouse was constructed. The original light was relocated to nearby Little Diamond Island to be used as a lookout tower.

For so small a light, Bug Light as it came to be known locally, a lot of thought went into the new breakwater light. Architect Thomas Ustick Walter was in charge of the project. While the name might not be familiar, his work probably is. Walter more than doubled the size of the existing United States Capitol building in the 1850s and added the iconic cast-iron dome. He served as the 4th Architect of the Capitol from 1851-1865 under Presidents Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, & Johnson.

black and white portrait of a bearded man
Architect Thomas Ustick Walter; Courtesy Library of Congress

The design of Walter's lighthouse was based upon the 4th-century Greek Choragic Monument of Lysicrates. The monument stands near the Acropolis in Athens and is famously known as the first use of the Corinthian order of columns on an exterior. The monument has been reproduced many, many times over the centuries around the world.

black and white photo of a main with a horse drawn buggy and a greek monument
Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, c. 1900; Public Domain

Numerous iterations of it are found as memorials and fountains in the British Isles. A replica stands in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, Australia. In the United States, other than the Portland Breakwater Light, the Choragic Monument was also used as a model for the cupola on the Philadelphia Merchants' Exchange and the cupola of the Tennessee State Capitol. It was the inspiration behind the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument in New York City. If you're an architecture buff, you may be familiar with the Richard H. Driehaus Prize awarded annually. Their logo is a replica of the Choragic Monument and the prize is a miniature replica. You get the point...Bug Light is part of a worldwide legacy of the Choragic Monument.

collage of two buildings and a monument that are all similar in design
Merchants Exchange in Philadelphia, Soldier's and Sailor's Monument, & The Richard H. Driehaus Prize; Courtesy Library of Congress & University of Notre Dame

The design of the lighthouse cleverly concealed its construction. The lighthouse is made of cast-iron and the seams of the panels are hidden by the columns on the lower section. It was outfitted with a Sixth Order Fresnel lens, likely the one from the original lighthouse. The tower is 11 feet 8 inches at the base and rests atop a granite foundation. To combat the harsh weather in the harbor, the 6-inch walls are 4 inches of brick, a layer of plaster, and 1-inch thick cast iron sheets.

As with the first-generation lighthouse, a keeper's house was not built alongside the light, so the keepers now had to make an even longer trek 2,000 feet down the breakwater to service the light.

side by side architectural drawings of monuments
(L) Choragic Monument of Lysicrates drawn by James Stuart, 1762: Courtesy Smithsonian Libraries; (R) USCG architectural drawings of Bug Light; Courtesy Library of Congress

Thankfully, a small wooden keeper's dwelling was built next to the light along the breakwater 20 years later in 1889. Over time, additional rooms and an attic were added. Although the house made the keeper's lives easier, it must have been quite isolating.

It is unclear if the lighthouse was painted dark from the very beginning or if this was an addition with the house. Regardless, today the light is a glowing white so the historic photos can be jarring.

black and white photo of lighthouse
Undated; Courtesy Library of Congress

By 1897, things shifted again for Bug Light. Construction was completed to the southeast at Spring Point Ledge Light and with a neighbor so close, life at Bug Light was not quite as isolating.

black and white photo showing breakwater with lighthouse and keeper's house at the end
"In and About Portland," 1908; Courtesy of Library of Congress

In 1934, the Coast Guard electrified both Bug & Spring Point Light. It was decided that the keeper for Spring Point could manage both lights because of their proximity, so the houses and various additions were removed from around Bug Light...leaving it alone at the end of the breakwater once more.

map of portland and islands
"Birds eye view of Casco Bay, Portland, Maine, and surroundings." c. 1906 with Bug Light at the center labeled "Breakwater"; Courtesy Library of Congress

Sadly, Bug Light was declared excess by the Coast Guard in 1942, and the light was extinguished. It was sold privately and fell into disrepair over the years. The breakwater also was slowly retaken by nature. Despite its condition, Bug Light was added to the National Register in 1973. There was a glimmer of hope in 1985 when the light was donated to the City of Portland. It was then partially restored and became part of Bug Light Park.

lighthouse in disrepair
State of Bug Light in 1962; Courtesy of Library of Congress

Bug Light Park is comprised of nearly 14 acres built on infill land from the mid-20th century. During the Second World War, this area was a bustling shipbuilding operation and churned out 274 Liberty and Ocean ships between 1941 and 1945.

black and white aerial photo showing waterfront commercial buildings
Shipbuilding operation in 1944 with Bug Light marked; Courtesy Maine Geological Survey

In the mid-1990s, Irving Oil had purchased land on the waterfront with plans to build a fuel storage terminal. However, locals advocated for a park instead. South Portland voters successfully approved a bond for the city to purchase the land and create a park.

lighthouse with waves and sailboats
Bug Light, 2018; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

The park opened in 1999, and as a reminder of the area's history, the Liberty Ship Memorial was built and dedicated in 2001. The parking lot is also in the shape of a Liberty Ship! Bug Light Park was also added to the Greenbelt Greenway, a 6-mile trail connecting the park to the Wainwright Rec Complex through South Portland. After its restoration, Bug Light was relit in 2002 and continues to serve as a private aid to navigation.

aerial image of park on the water
Modern-day Bug Light Park; Courtesy Google Earth

Today, Bug Light no longer stands alone isolated at the end of the breakwater, but enjoys daily visitors out flying kites, watching the ships go by, joggers, dog walkers, photographers, and everyone else you can imagine. It is also a fantastic place to watch Portland's 4th of July fireworks in the summer. Prepare for a crowd though and get there early!

fireworks with lighthouse in foreground
Fourth of July at Bug Light, 2018; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron


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