top of page

Portland Head Light, Cape Elizabeth, Maine

2018; Photo ⓒ Madeline Cameron

Perhaps the most well-known lighthouse in Maine, if not all of New England, Portland Head Light sits dramatically on a dynamic coast within Fort Williams Park. The lighthouse has the distinction as the oldest lighthouse in Maine.

Portland Harbor, Courtesy of the National Archives

The Portland peninsula was settled by European colonists in 1632. At that time, the settlement was known as Casco. It was renamed Falmouth in 1658, when the Massachusetts Bay Colony took over the area. The town was destroyed numerous times during this tumultuous time in history. Finally, after rebuilding after the Revolutionary War, the town was able to grow and thrive under the new moniker Portland. By the late 1790s, Portland was the United States' 6th busiest port.

A lighthouse was first discussed for Portland Point, also called Portland Head, in 1785. The task was undertaken in earnest after a shipwreck in 1787 claimed 2 lives. George Washington appropriated $750 for the job and hired 2 masons (Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols). Bryant and Nichols began their work using stones from nearby fields and the shoreline. Three years later, the lighthouse had still not been completed, so Congress appropriated an additional $1,500 for the job.

Portland Head Light c. 1860; Courtesy of National Archive

This original tower stood 72-feet high and was lit with 16 whale oil lamps. It was lit for the first time in January 1791 by the first keeper Captain Joseph Greenleaf. This tower is 1 of 4 original colonial lighthouses that have not been rebuilt.

Undated, Courtesy of Boston Public Library

The original Keeper's Dwelling was built in 1790. However, by 1816 a new house was built to replace it. The lighthouse was managed by the US Department of Treasury until 1852, when the US Lighthouse Board was formed.

By the mid-1800s, concerns over the visibility of the lighthouse were raised. Unfortunately, it took the wreck of the steamer Bohemian for a decision to be made. Tragically 40 people lost their lives in the wreck in February of 1864, and later that year a Fourth Order Fresnel lens was installed. However, just a year later the lens was replaced again with a Second Order Fresnel lens and the tower was raised 20 feet. The light was then visible for 21 miles at sea.

Plans for the original lighthouse, 1864; Courtesy of the National Archive

Unfortunately, the 20 foot brick extension to the tower did not hold up very well. In a surprising move, the tower extension was removed and the light was downgraded back to a Fourth Order Fresnel lens in 1883. Halfway Rock Light had been installed in 1871, leading some to think Portland Head Light was too large and bright for what was needed. It's unclear what happened to make the US Lighthouse Board regret this decision, but the tower was raised by 20 feet again and the Second Order Fresnel lens was reinstalled just 2 years later in 1885.

Undated, Courtesy of Griffin Museum of Photography

Despite the lighthouse being returned to its taller height and brightness, the Annie C. Maguire struck the ledge offshore and sank on Christmas Eve in 1886. The crew could not account for why the wreck occurred and thankfully there were no casualties.

Wreck of the Annie C. Maguire; Courtesy of Maine Historical Society

The Keeper's Dwelling was again replaced in 1891, this time with a tw0-story duplex. It still stands today and serves as a museum and seasonal shop. It was home to Portland keepers from 1891 to 1989.

HABS record of the keeper's dwelling, undated; Courtesy of Library of Congress

In 1910, the US Lighthouse Board was reorganized into the Bureau of Lighthouses. The light was electrified in 1929 and the Bureau maintained Portland Head Light until 1939, when the US Coast Guard took control of all aids to navigation. The light was extinguished from 1942 to 1945, so as not to be a target for German submarines.

The Second Order Fresnel lens was replaced with a DCB-36 aerobeacon in 1958. The light was listed on the National Register in 1973 and automated in 1989. It was officially decommissioned in August of that year. The following year the land around the lighthouse was leased to the Town of Cape Elizabeth for public access. In 1993, the land was formally deeded to the town. The USCG still maintains the actual lighthouse.

Today, you can visit Portland Head Light and the 90-acre Fort Williams Park year round, between sunrise and sunset every day. The lighthouse itself is only open one day a year on Maine Open Lighthouse Day in September.

1935-1945; Courtesy of Boston Public Library


  • Captain Joseph Greenleaf (1790-1795)

  • Barzillai Delano (1796-1820)

  • Captain Joshua Freeman (1820-1840)

  • Richard Lee (1840-1849)

  • John F. Watts (1849-1853)

  • James Delano (1854-1861)

  • Elder M. Jordan (1861-1869)

  • Joshua Freeman Stout (1869-1904)

  • Joseph Stout (1904-1928)

  • John W. Cameron (1928-1935)

  • Robert Thayer Sterling (1935-1946)

  • USCG (1946-1989)


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page