3 Historical Lighthouse Stories from Maine
In Maine, 65 lighthouses line the rocky coast, each with its own interesting history. Much can be found in the meticulous logs often kept by the keepers. Many tell stories of struggle through structure disrepair and hard seasons. Often they shared the triumphs of rescue and the curiosity of unique sightings. Ghostly apparitions reside in many as well, considered to be a resonating presence of souls forever connected to the property they loved.
Lighthouses and their keepers have been a feature in numerous films, giving audiences a taste for coastal living and rugged living conditions from a time long past. We’ve seen glimpses into the challenges of navigating ships to the shores and past rocky channels in the dark. The “keeper of the light” was a position the Keepers took with serious dedication, maintaining the property and assuring the beacon always remained working and fog bells sounding. Automation eventually made the keeper’s position redundant, though the rich history still remains. These three lighthouse stories from Maine take us back to another world.
Owlshead Lighthouse, current day
Owls Head Lighthouse
The love and dedication that keepers felt towards their lighthouses, has led many people to believe their spirits continue to occupy them. Owls Head sits on Coastal Living’s list of ‘most haunted lighthouses’ with common sightings of two ghosts: “Little Lady” in the kitchen and an unidentified previous keeper. The tower was built in 1825, in Birch Point State Park, situated at the summit of a sharply pointed rock, dropping quickly to the sea 90 feet below. To reach it from the dwelling house meant a steep ascent of 120 feet that proved quite dangerous in the winters. Fifty years passed before a walkway and stairs improved this situation.
Owls Head with original walkway, photo: US Coastguard
A long list of rescues accompanies the history of Owls Head. One such rescue occurred on a frigid day in December in 1850, when a schooner became shipwrecked in the harbor. As the ice-cold waves smashed into rocks and started to break the ship apart, one passenger went ashore to find help and a couple became encased in ice on the ship. The keeper found the passenger as he was passing on his sleigh and soon had all three back to the house. The rescuers revived the couple by slowly increasing their temperature in a bath of cold water and massaging their limbs.
Even Spot, a springer spaniel, offered life-saving assistance at one point. As a pet of the lighthouse family between 1930-1945. The family daughters taught him to pull the string on the fog bell and he would receive the sound of a bell or horn from the ships in return. His favorite was the mailboat since the skipper, Stuart Ames, would always bring a treat. Spot came to recognize the sound of the boat’s engine. Once a strong snowstorm blew in and the snowbanks muffled the sound of the bell. There was concern that Ames was lost in the blizzard. Spot started to scratch at the door, and raced to the shoreline, where he barked loudly and incessantly. Soon the mailboat whistled in reply. Ames was able to hear Spots barking, guess his position and avoid a disastrous crash into the rocks.
Owls Head became automated in 1989. In 2010 the tower underwent extensive, though sensitive renovations, restoring its original 1852 appearance.
Marshall Point Lighthouse, current day
Marshall Point Lighthouse
Situated on the tip of the St George Peninsula, the Marshall Point Lighthouse is a photographer’s favorite. A wooden walk connects the tower and the dwelling house. The original lighthouse and keeper’s property were constructed of rubble and wet sand in 1832. Like many lighthouses, it underwent a number of phases of reconstruction updates. A report by the fourth keeper detailed a long list of problems, including numerous leaking rooms at the dwelling house and no rainwater cistern requiring a ½-mile walk to get water. He described the exposed masonry joints of the tower and warned the next winter may bring its destruction. By 1857 work began on the new structure that stands today. At 24-feet in height, built of solid granite, a brick top, and a Fresnal lens showing a fixed white light, it served well.
Marshall Point with original covered walkway and original Keepers dwelling, Photo: National Archives
Charles Clement Skimmer was assigned as keeper in 1874 and remained so for 45 years — the longest-serving keeper in the same lighthouse in all of the US Lighthouse Service. His family’s renovated dwelling house was struck by lightning in 1895 and a new residence was built in a wooden Colonial Revival style. A couple years later a 1018-pound brass bell and tower were installed to warn sailors in the fog. Around this time, many lighthouses were adding this fog bell. The keepers had to wind the mechanism every 4-7 hours so it would toll the bell incrementally. Charles’ logs included many sitings like a stranded 67-foot finback whale and noted shipwrecks like The Cambridge at 4:30 am, all passengers safe to shore.
In 1971 the Marshall Point Lighthouse became automated and in 1990 the dwelling house was renovated into a museum on the first floor. The Skinner daughters were part of the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The lighthouse even lives memorialized in an American movie favorite, Forrest Gump. The lighthouse’s wooden walkway served as the ending point in Forrest Gump’s cross-country run.
Grindle Point Lighthouse
Grindle Point Lighthouse
Grindle Point Lighthouse sits in the town of Islesboro, Maine — dubbed “vacationland’ to wealthy Bostonians and New Yorkers after the Civil War. Celebrities like J.P. Morgan, Eleanor Roosevelt, John Travolta and Kirstie Alley were drawn to Islesboro’s 14-mile island stretch. Prior to, it’s most renowned history laid in commercial shipping. In the 1840s a large percentage of the island’s inhabitants were registered as ship captains and created the largest fleet of sailing vessels in the US at that time. Gilkey Harbor was the best harbor in Maine due to deep waters and easy access. In 1849, the Grindle Lighthouse was built as a one and a half story house with a lantern positioned on its roof.
Grindle Point original (left) and first renovation (right), Photos: National Archives & US Coastguard
The lighthouse fell into disrepair due to the neglect of one keeper, later removed from the position. The rebuilt version included a new, separate dwelling house and a 39-foot-tall tower. The original building was lowered and roofed as covered access between the two new buildings. Though the lighthouse was decommissioned in 1934, a Sailors Memorial Museum was established inside. Later, Isleboro residents successfully lobbied the Coastguard to reactivate the light. A solar-optic flashing green light was placed atop the original tower. Summer visitors have access to the top of the tower — something few lighthouses in Maine offer.
Grindlepoint is not without its own ghost siting stories. There have been reports by museum volunteers of things moving by themselves at night, and a bearded man who disappears into the lighthouse wall — attributed to the first keeper and landowner, Frances Grindle.
The stories go on and we’re lucky to have such meticulous logs available! For the history buffs who want to search deeper, check out the map on Lighthouse Friends. Pick a location from the page, a lighthouse link from the map, and down the rabbit hole you go. Enjoy!
At Grasshopper, experiencing these unique buildings first-hand is part of our Cycle & Kayak the Coast of Maine tour. Lighthouses are just one extraordinary part of the charming experience, along with kayaking, a Shooner cruise, and lots more. Hope to see you soon!