Portland Head Lighthouse

Cape Elizabeth, Maine

  • Site Established: 1787
  • Current Bldg. Erected: 1791
  • Height of Light Structure: 80 ft.
  • Focal Plane of Light: 101 ft.
  • Active: Yes
  • Lens: DCB-224
  • Information: (207) 799-2661

Historic Significance Score: 5

Portland Head Lighthouse was the first lighthouse on the coast of what is present-day Cape Elizabeth Maine and the 13th to be built in the young country of America (it was built in 1791).

It was completed after the first Congress of the newborn country appropriated $1,500 in 1790 to complete the project, which began in 1787 but had been delayed a few years because of lack of financing. With this authorization, Portland Head Light was the second light to be commissioned by the new government.

President George Washington appointed Capt. Joseph Greenleaf, who was a veteran of the Revolutionary War, as the first keeper of the light. Greenleaf’s duties began in 1791.

Portland Head Lighthouse underwent many renovations and tower height adjustments between 1813 and 1883. The tower’s height was increased in 1865 after public opinion sounded!

Some of this public outcry came after the vessel Bohemian sank off the shores of Portland Head in 1864, a vessel that was carrying immigrants to the New World.

Another shipwreck more than 20 years later had a bit of holiday luck. On Christmas Eve 1886, the vessel Annie C. Maguire ran aground into the rocks at the base of Portland Head Lighthouse. Although soaked and freezing, the 14 people aboard crossed a makeshift plank from the grounded ship to the lighthouse grounds to safety. Unexpected Christmas guests!

The famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a resident of the Portland area who wrote Paul Rever’s Ride, befriended a keeper of the beacon, Joshua Strout, and became a frequent visitor to the light. Longfellow would sit on the rocks on the south side of the beacon and write, exploiting the point’s serenity. It is believed his poem “The Lighthouse” was inspired by Portland Head Light!

Majesty Score: 5

Portland Head Lighthouse is perhaps the most picturesque and photographed lighthouse in the country!

At a tower height of only 80 feet, this lighthouse’s strong presence and aesthetic appeal easily bridges the gap in height and helps it score a 5 on majesty!

The lighthouse’s position on the shoreline also contributes to its majesty. Those who visit in person will notice that the lighthouse and keeper’s buildings are jutted out on a lip of the rocks

This really gives the feel that the lighthouse is at the vanguard of protecting the shores while making for great photo ops from both sides of it on land!

Water View Score: 5

The water view at Portland Head is awe inspiring and beautiful!

Understanding that Portland Head Lighthouse is really a bay light, guarding Casco Bay, and not an ocean beacon, the surrounding water still has an ocean feel to it. The waves break on the rocks on both sides of the lighthouse and rush to shore further inland past the lighthouse, which is out on its perch.

The coastline at Portland Head is rugged with dark sky-pointed rocks, and Ram Island Ledge Light can be seen as an isolated tower in the distance. There are a few islands to been seen as well.

Preservation Score: 5

Portland Head Lighthouse and Fort Williams Park, which houses the landmark, are both PRISTINELY preserved!

This setting is one of the best-maintained lighthouse parks we have seen! There are tons of green lawns perfectly manicured throughout the park that would make weekend gardeners envious (see right).

The light itself is extremely well preserved and lends itself to the taking of rolls and rolls of photographs.

There is a great, elevated picnic and barbecue area on a hill a few yards from the lighthouse that makes for an awe-inspiring view during a cookout.

Equally as impressive is what is called the “Cliff Walk Trail” to the north side of the lighthouse. This is a very well-maintained pebble trail (see below right) that winds up and down the coast near the lighthouse, seemingly offering better photo ops at each turn and with each overlook stop.

The site is managed by the Town of Cape Elizabeth, which obviously realizes what this light means to its community.

Surrounding Area Score: 4

Situated in the 90 acres of Fort Williams Park, as mentioned, the surrounding area of Portland Head Light is pristine.

Outside of the park area, the nearest town to stop in is actually South Portland, which could pass for any town in America and you would never know it is so close to this magnificent light.

This neighborhood around the light gets more exclusive the closer you get to the light on Shore Road.

Accessibility Score: 4

Unfortunately, the tower is closed for climbing. The lightkeeper’s buildings have a museum and there is a gift shop on the grounds as well.

The lighthouse museum is open daily from Memorial Day to Columbus Day. It is also open some weekends at other times during the year. There is a small admission fee. Please consult the below link for specifics.

Beacon Score: 3

Currently, Portland Head Lighthouse features a DCB-224 beacon that is active and flashes every 4 seconds. The on-site museum features a second-order Fresnel lens.

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