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New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Bass Harbor Head Light
Mount Desert Island, Maine
Bass Harbor Head Light main page / History / Bibliography / Cruises / Photos / Postcards

History

After turning the high, rusty-red crag, called Bass Harbor Head, where a squat little lighthouse, in white cassock and black cap, sits demurely looking off to sea, we see before us... a large cluster of islands, covering the approaches to a deep indent of the sea, over which the mountains bend down as if to shut it out from all intrusion. These are the Cranberry Islands... and that shut-in water is Somes Sound.

                                           -- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891

Bass Harbor, a picturesque village of the municipality of Tremont, is at the southwestern tip of Mount Desert Island in an area known to locals as “the quiet side.” This pretty lighthouse in its rugged setting is visited by tens of thousands of tourists each year, and it easily ranks as one of the most-photographed lighthouses in all New England.

The 1855 annual report of the Lighthouse Board stated, “There is a very good harbor about four miles west of Mount Desert Harbor, called Bass Harbor. A light is necessary to assist vessels entering it.”

Congress soon appropriated a sum of $5,000, and title to the needed land was secured in 1857. A 32-foot-tall lighthouse was built at rocky Bass Harbor Head in 1858. The cylindrical brick lighthouse tower is attached to the one-and-one-half-story, wood-frame keeper’s house by a covered walkway.
old photo of lighthouse and dwelling from the water
From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow
Courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
old photo of lighthouse
A fixed red light went into service on September 1, 1858. It served to warn mariners of the Bass Harbor Bar at the eastern entrance to Bass Harbor, and also to mark the southeast entrance to Blue Hill Bay. Throughout its history as a staffed light station, Bass Harbor Head was home to a single keeper and his family.

The first keeper was John Thurston, at $350 yearly. Thurston lived at the light station with his wife, Nancy. A baby boy, Charles, was born at the lighthouse to their son, Solomon Thurston, and his wife, Mary.

According to family tradition, when Charles was three years old he fell from a window of the lighthouse. Luckily, he was wearing a long dress, as small boys often did in that era. Someone managed to catch the dress and snatch Charles back to safety before he fell to the rocks below.
The house had four rooms and an attached kitchen. In 1878, the T-shaped dwelling was raised ten inches and the original board-and-batten siding was replaced with clapboards. The kitchen was extended in 1900, and an office was added to the first floor. The station originally had a hand-rung fog bell. A new 4,000-pound fog bell replaced the earlier one in 1898, its striking machinery housed in a new fog signal building that still stands. 
aerial photo of lighthouse station
U.S. Coast Guard photo

An 1,800-gallon cistern in the dwelling’s cellar collected rainwater for the use of the keeper’s family. A 1902 brick oil house, 205 feet northwest of the lighthouse, still remains. There was not originally a pier at the station, and landing a boat was often difficult. A boathouse and boat slip were built in 1894, and a boat winch was added the following year.

The original fifth-order Fresnel lens was replaced in late 1901 by a fourth-order lens, manufactured in Paris by Henry-Lepaute. The lens remains in use today. The light is now automated and shows an occulting red light 56 feet above mean high water.
Surprisingly, for a comfortable family light station, not many keepers stayed more than a few years. The longest stints were by Willis Dolliver (1894–1912) and Joseph M. Gray (1921–38).

In his 1935 book, Maine Lighthouses and the Men Who Keep Them, Robert Thayer Sterling reported that Gray did “not forget to salute all passing craft.”
old photo of lighthouse and fog signal building
The 1876 bell tower is behind the 1898 fog signal building 

Elmer Reed

 Elmer Reed was keeper at Bass Harbor Head 1938-40, at the end of a long career. Courtesy of the Maine Lighthouse Museum.

According to Edwin Valentine Mitchell’s 1940 book Anchor to Windward, Bass Harbor Head for a time had a “fog dog” much like the ones at Owls Head and Wood Island. According to Mitchell, the keeper’s dog would take the fog bell’s rope in his teeth in attempts to ring the bell in reply to salutes from the Maine Seacoast Mission’s boat Sunbeam. “It is a big bell,” Mitchell wrote, “but the dog sometimes succeeded in ringing it.”

Eugene Coleman retired as keeper in 1955 after a long career that included time at Boon Island, Popham Beach, Cape Neddick, and Cape Cod’s Nauset Light. Coleman’s wife said she liked Bass Harbor Head best of all the stations, because she had a telephone and was able to drive to town instead of crossing by water. At Bass Harbor, she was even able to participate in a garden club.
The last civilian keeper was Morton M. Dyer, who arrived at the station in 1955, near the end of a career that included time at White Island Light, New Hampshire, and the Maine lighthouses at the Cuckolds and Deer Island Thorofare. Dyer retired at the age of 70 in 1957, and the station became home to a Coast Guard keeper and his family.

The light was converted to electric operation in 1949. After automation in 1974, the station was retained as housing for a Coast Guard family. Several commanders of Coast Guard Group Southwest Harbor have lived in the keeper’s house.
oil houseThe oil house
Coast Guard sign and dory
When Robert Burchell moved in with his family in 2004, he reported that most tourists at the station were quiet and respectful, but some occasionally tried to open the door to the keeper’s house. “Our children should learn some valuable lessons being here,” he said. “We don’t even have cable TV installed yet.”

old photo of lighthouse

Bass Harbor today is a secluded fishing village and the location of a ferry to Swan’s Island. There is a large parking area near the lighthouse that often fills up in summer. A path leads down to the granite boulders neighboring the light station. To get a good view of the lighthouse it is necessary to climb a distance over the rocks; extreme caution should be taken.

Island Cruises of Bass Harbor offers a cruise that affords the chance to see this lighthouse, one of the most scenic on the New England coast, from the water. 

stairs
The iron stairway inside the tower

Chief Sam Hill, Officer in Charge of Aids to Navigation, USCG Station Southwest Harbor, inside the lantern in May 2004

A view from the top, looking past the fog signal building

A sign near the lighthouse
 

Keepers: John Thurston (1858-1861); John Rick (1861-1865); John Wilson (1865-1869); Charles B. Gilley (1869-1872); James L. Wilson (1872-1880); C. F. Chase (1880-1890); William T. Holbrook (1890-1894); Willis Dolliver (1894-1912); Joseph M. Gray (1921-1938); Elmer Reed (1938-1940); Leverett Stanley (1940-1950); Eugene L. Coleman (1950-1955); Morton M. Dyer (1955-1957)

Last updated 1/25/10
Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.

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