The Two Lights of Cape Elizabeth stand up at the end
of a long and narrow granite ridge raised fifty or sixty feet above the
low ground around it. ...The outlook opened to us here, whether of sea
or shore, of windy cape or tumbling surf, is uncommonly fine, if only
one could get rid of the train of ideas that these roaring reefs on one
hand, and the life-saving station on the other ...so infallibly
suggest. Even in the season of calm seas and serene skies these gray
little cabins by the sea constantly remind us of lurking dangers...
-- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree
the English explorer Captain John Smith sailed along the coast of New
England in 1614, he named a prominent cape in what is now southern
Maine after Princess Elizabeth, sister of Charles I. Two-hundred-acre
Richmond Island, a short distance off Cape Elizabeth to the south, was
the site of the earliest European settlement in this part of Maine,
beginning in 1628. The settlement that later developed on the cape was,
for many years, part of the town of Falmouth.
Cape Elizabeth was
incorporated as a separate town in 1765. In 1895, the northern half of
the town was incorporated as South Portland. It was the development of
Portland Harbor, along the north side of the cape on the Fore River,
that led to the need for better aids to navigation in the vicinity. The
harbor rebounded after the Revolution to become the most important
seaport in the state.
approach to Portland Harbor from the south was treacherous, and as
maritime trade increased, so did shipwrecks. One of the most
heart-rending near Cape Elizabeth was the July 12, 1807, wreck of the
schooner Charles, which was
dashed to pieces on a reef in fog and heavy seas. At least 16 men and
women died in the disaster.
50-foot stone black and white pyramidal stone day beacon was erected in
1811 on a rocky promontory at the southeastern point of Cape Elizabeth,
at the southwestern limit of Casco Bay and about five miles southeast
of Portland Harbor. The beacon was completed by the end of November by
the contractors Edward Robinson and John F. Bartlett.
sum of $4,500 was appropriated for a light station at Cape Elizabeth in
February 1828. It was determined that the station would have two
lights, one fixed and one revolving, to differentiate it from Wood
Island Light (revolving) to the south, and from Portland Head Light
(fixed) to the north. The stone marker was torn down to make way for
the first pair of Cape Elizabeth lighthouses, built by the mason
Jeremiah Berry for $4,250. The east light was built on the former
site of the marker, and the inner or west light was built directly to
the west, 895 feet away.
Elisha Jordan was appointed first keeper at a salary of $450
per year. He remained for six years. Jordan was instructed that he
had to “reside at the station and make it a habit to be at home.”
Circa 1859 view of the east tower and keeper's house.
Both 65-foot towers (to the tops of the lanterns) were
built of rubblestone, with octagonal wrought-iron lanterns. The east
tower had 15 lamps with 16-inch reflectors, showing a fixed white light
129 feet above mean high water. The west tower had 14 lamps with
14-inch reflectors; the apparatus revolved to produce a flashing light,
132 feet above mean high water.
The lights were in service by the end
of October 1828. The lights were considered among the most important on
the coast; mariners approaching Portland Harbor would line them up to
know they were on course.
In his 1843 report to Congress, the
civil engineer I. W. P. Lewis was very critical of the construction of
the towers. Lewis also reported additionally that the fog bell could
not be heard above the roar of the surf. George Fickett, who had
keeper since 1841 at a yearly salary of $500, complained that the great
distance between the two towers made his work arduous, especially when
snow filled the valley between them.
Staples followed Fickett as keeper in 1844. During his tenure in 1847,
it was recorded that the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lived in
Portland, visited the station and climbed the west tower.
William Jordan, who became principal keeper in 1849, complained of the
lack of assistants in an 1852 letter. “I have to hire a boy during the
summer season,” he wrote, “and a man during the winter months, and, if
I did not do so, could not faithfully keep things in order.” The yearly
salary of the keeper was still $500; Jordan asked for a raise of $100
to cover the expense of hiring extra help. Nathan Davis succeeded
Jordan as keeper in 1853, and Davis was provided an assistant at $200
yearly. A second assistant was added a few years later.
In 1853, J. B. Coyle of the Portland Steam Packet Company
that the fog bell was “entirely too small for one occupying so
important position.” At a cost of $2,500, a larger bell and new
striking machinery were installed in the following year. By the end of
1854, the towers got new cast-iron stairways, and both were lined with
brick. Fresnel lenses were installed in the towers around the same
time, replacing the old multiple lamps and reflectors.
the summer of 1855, it was announced that the west light was to be
discontinued, and the characteristic of the east light would be changed
to occulting. Despite protests, the change went into effect on August
1, 1855. Under this arrangement, the single revolving light was often
hard to distinguish from Wood Island Light to the south.
On April 1,
1856, the two lights were returned to their former condition, and the
light at Wood Island was changed from white to red to eliminate any
chance of confusion.
Right: Circa 1859 view of
the west tower. (National Archives)
The 1828 east lighthouse after 1865, when it was painted with red
Courtesy of the American Lighthouse Foundation.
|During the Civil War, Asbury Staples, the assistant
keeper in charge of
the west light, enlisted in the Second Maine Battery Light Artillery.
His father, Michael Staples, who was also an assistant keeper,
requested that his other children be officially appointed as
assistants. His teenaged daughter Amelia and her younger brother,
Charles, became responsible for keeping the light and related
Amelia and Charles assisted in the grim task of draping the
towers in black at the news of President Lincoln’s assassination.
The lights were repainted in 1865 in an effort to make them easier to
recognize in daylight. The west tower received one large vertical red
stripe, while the east tower was painted with four horizontal red
A steam fog whistle with a powerful eight-second blast was installed in
1869, with a new building to house the equipment.The Lighthouse Board
announced that a steam fog whistle with a powerful eight-second blast
was installed in 1869, with and a new building was constructed to house
the equipment. Two more assistant keepers were assigned to the station
at this time. A more powerful fog whistle was installed by 1876.
larger brick fog signal building, 32 by 32 feet, was constructed in
1886. The fog signal was in operation for 1,117 hours in 1888, with
which consumed 71,500 pounds of coal consumed.
In 1872, the Lighthouse Board announced that the two towers had
deteriorated to the point that they had to be rebuilt. A pair of
identical 67-foot cast-iron towers replaced the original towers in
1874, after a congressional appropriation of $30,000. The cast-iron
segments of the towers were manufactured at the Portland Machine Works.
The lighthouses were given delicate Italianate architectural detailing.
Second-order Fresnel lenses were installed in both towers. A new
wood-frame, one-and-one-half-story dwelling was built for the principal
keeper near the east tower in 1878.
The fog signal building with a modern foghorn to the left
The west light was discontinued again in 1882; again it was relighted
after complaints that the remaining light was too easily confused with
Wood Island Light to the south. The towers were painted brown during
two separate periods; they have been white since 1902.
Marcus Aurelius Hanna, a Medal of Honor winner in the
Civil War, was keeper in 1885 during one of the most dramatic episodes
in the history of the light station. On the night of January 28, Hanna
was suffering from a bad cold. A storm hit and increased in severity as
the night progressed.
Hanna sounded the steam fog whistle all night despite
being ill and exhausted. Assistant Keeper Hiram Staples relieved Hanna
at 6:00 a.m. The blizzard was by then "one of the coldest and most
violent storms of snow, wind and vapor... that I ever witnessed," Hanna
later said. The keeper had to crawl through enormous snowdrifts back to
Left: Early view of the east lighthouse. Courtesy of the American
U.S. Coast Guard photo
Hanna was soon asleep. His wife extinguished the lights
in both towers after sunrise. Then, at 8:40 a.m., Mrs. Hanna looked out
toward the ocean and saw a schooner aground on Dyer's Ledge near the
fog signal building. The vessel was the Australia out of
Boothbay. The schooner had been headed for Boston with a cargo of ice
from the Kennebec River in the hold and 150 barrels of mackerel on
deck. The captain had already been swept away by the waves; only two
crew members remained alive. The men had climbed to the rigging and
were practically frozen alive in the bitter cold.
The keeper's wife shouted to her husband, "There is a
vessel ashore near the fog signal!" Hanna rushed to the signal house.
Amazingly, Assistant Keeper Staples hadn't seen the wreck through the
thick snow. Hanna and Staples hurried to the edge of the water near the
The keeper said later, "I felt a terrible responsibility
thrust upon me, and I resolved to attempt the rescue at any hazard."
Hanna tried a number of times to throw a line to the vessel but failed.
Feeling the situation was hopeless, Staples returned to the fog signal
building. Meanwhile, Hanna's wife alerted neighbors.
Hanna, practically frozen by this time, waded waist-deep into
the ocean and again threw a line to the schooner, this time hitting his
target. Crewman Irving Pierce managed to pull himself from the rigging
and tied the line around himself. Hanna somehow pulled the helpless man
through the waves and over the rocks to the shore. According to Hanna,
"Pierce's jaws were set; he was totally blind from exposure to the
cold, and the expression of his face I shall not soon forget."
After several tries, Hanna landed the line on the Australia
again. The other crewman, William Kellar, tied the rope around himself.
Hanna's strength was giving out and he faltered as he tried to pull the
man to safety. Just then, Assistant Keeper Staples and two neighbors
arrived. The four men hauled Kellar to the shore, then carried the two
sailors to the fog signal building. The men were given dry clothes and,
once they had thawed enough, hot food and drink. After two days they
had recovered enough to be taken to Portland by sled.
Six months later, Marcus Hanna received a gold lifesaving
medal for "heroism involving great peril to his life," after what has
to rank as one of the greatest lifesaving feats at an American
lighthouse. In August 1997, the Coast Guard launched a new $12.5
buoy tender named the Marcus Hanna. A replica of
Hanna's lifesaving medal is mounted on board. The cutter's home port is
South Portland, Maine.
Hannas left in 1888, and Leander White of New Castle, New Hampshire,
became the new principal keeper. White stayed until 1909, when he
became the keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in New Hampshire.
When he left Cape Elizabeth, a newspaper called Coast Watch
reported:, “Capt. White is the fourth oldest keeper in point of service
in this district, having served 37 years in the lighthouse dept. He is
one of the best men in this dept. of the government.”
the old stone dwelling occupied by the second assistant keeper was torn
down, and a new wood-frame dwelling was constructed. The Lighthouse
Board announced in 1891 that four families were living in three houses,
with two dwellings near the east tower and one near the west tower. A
fourth dwelling, said the board, was urgently needed. No action was
taken until 1901, when the dwelling residence at the west tower was
enlarged and improved.
October 1911, one of the keepers, William P. Richardson, was fishing in
one of the station's rowboats. Increasingly heavy seas swept the boat
into the rocks and broke it apart. Richardson was thrown into the waves
and began to swim for shore, a few hundred feet away. Crewmen at the
nearby lifesaving station spotted Richardson and swiftly launched a
surfboat. They pulled the keeper from the cold sea and got him safely
This building, left from the U.S.
Coast Guard station at Cape Elizabeth, still serves as Coast Guard
The west tower can be seen in the
distance at the left.
Frank Lewis Cotton was principal keeper
1909 to 1926.
World War I, military personnel patrolled the grounds around the
station. One of the assistant keepers at the time was James Anderson,
and his daughter, Edwina Davis, later recalled that the soldiers swept
off a pond so the lighthouse families could ice skate.
and the other lighthouse children walked four miles each way to school
each every day, as there was no other way for them to get there.
In 1924, the government decided to change all twin
light stations to single lights. The west light was extinguished for
On December 20, 1925, the east light was electrified
and increased to 500,000 candlepower, which at the time made it the
second most powerful light in New England (after Highland Light on Cape
During World War II, the lantern was removed from
the discontinued west light and the tower was converted into an
|In 1934, Keeper Joseph H. Upton, 65
years old, went to the tower to light an auxiliary light in place of
the main light, which had failed. About 11:30 p.m., his wife went to
the tower and found Upton unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.
A fall down the stairs had fractured his skull, and he died in a
hospital a short time later. Upton had previously been keeper at White
Island Light and assistant keeper at Matinicus Rock.
The last civilian keeper at Cape Elizabeth was Edward Elliot.
During World War II, Elliot was ordered to extinguish the light during
a coastal blackout. The keeper also owned a nearby cottage that he
rented to a woman who often complained about the lighthouse beam
disturbing her sleep. The night he was ordered to turn off the light,
Elliot visited the woman and told her he had decided to turn it off so
she could sleep better. It wasn't until she read the newspaper that the
tenant realized Elliot had been joking.
U.S. Coast Guard photo
||Another famous wreck near Two Lights was the coal
collier Oakey L. Alexander in 1947. The vessel broke in two
eight miles from Cape Elizabeth in a March gale. The stern half, with
32 crew members aboard, drifted onto the rocks near the lighthouse
Earle Drinkwater and his crew at the nearby Cape Elizabeth Lifeboat
Station, with help from other Coast Guardsmen and local fishermen,
rescued the entire crew by breeches buoy. The wrecked Alexander remained
just offshore at Cape Elizabeth for years and was viewed by countless
Left: The rescue of the
men aboard the Oakey Alexander
by breeches buoy. Courtesy of the Museum at Portland Head Lighthouse.
The 1878 Victorian principal keeper's house is now privately owned. An
assistant keeper's house was incorporated into a new home, and another
assistant keeper's house was torn down.
After its military use in World War II, the west tower passed
into private ownership. It was sold to the highest bidder in 1959 along
with several buildings and 10.5 acres of land. In 1971, it was
purchased by actor Gary Merrill (Bette Davis' ex-husband) for $28,000.
During his time at Cape Elizabeth, Merrill was regarded as an
eccentric. Among other things, he gained attention by putting a donkey
in the back of his Cadillac convertible and driving through town. He
later ran unsuccessfully for the Maine state legislature. The west
light was sold twice in the 1980s.
The west tower today
||Cape Elizabeth Light was
immortalized in a few of Edward Hopper's paintings in the 1920s, one of
which was reproduced on a 1970 postage stamp commemorating the 150th
anniversary of Maine's statehood.
Hopper's painting "Lighthouse at Two Lights"
The light was automated in 1963, and the 1,800-pound
second order Fresnel lens was removed in 1994.
Local residents lobbied for the preservation and display
of the lens. It was the last lens floating on a mercury bath in use in
New England. The lens (right) is now on display at Cape Elizabeth Town
Hall and is insured for up to $500,000.
In 1998, William Kourakos, owner of the keeper's house
by the east light, announced that he planned to tear down some
additions made to the house in 1979, then enlarge the house and add a
built-in garage. The house today is a vastly changed dwelling from the
one that was immortalized by Edward Hopper.
Before and after the remodeling of
the keeper's house
In May 2000, this historic treasure was licensed by the Coast
Guard to the American
Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). Cape Elizabeth Light, one of the
most handsome cast-iron lighthouses in New England, remains an active
aid to navigation, and the optic and related equipment are still
maintained by the Coast Guard. The grounds immediately around the
lighthouse are not open to the public.
In the fall of 2008, the American Lighthouse Foundation
contracted Leslie Masonry to carry out repairs on the lighthouse
here for details.
Some pictures from a February 2002 visit to the lighthouse:
The VRB-25 optic now in the
A view from the top
The view on the left includes the
former keeper's house in the foreground and the West Tower in the
The view on the right is looking out
at Casco Bay.
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Elijah Jordan (1828-1834); Charles Staples (1834-1835); George
Fickett (1841-1844); Hiram Staples (1844-1849); William Jordan
(1849-1853); Ivory Jordan (1853); Nathan Davis (1853-1859); James
Tolman Hanna (assistant, 1853-1876); Milton Sibby (1859-1861); J.
Mariner (1861-1869); Enoch Dyer (1869-1872); Hezekiah Long (1872-1873);
Michael Staples (assistant, c.1860s); Asbury Staples (assistant, c.
1860s); Louise A. Hanna (third assistant (1874-?); William Henry Hanna
(assistant, c. 1873-1876); Harry S. Libby (first assistant, 1876-1881);
Joseph W. Girty (second assistant, 1878-1880); Charles E. Chase (second
assistant, 1880); Albert R. Angell (second assistant, 1880-1881, first
assistant 1881-c.1900); Hiram Staples (second assistant (1881-1886);
William G. Williams (second assistant, 1886); Fernando Wallace (second
assistant, 1886); Marcus A. Hanna (1873-1888); Leander White
(1888-1909); Henry M. Cuskley (assistant, 1897-1903); Arnold B. White
(third assistant, 1904-1909); J. M. Austin (assistant, c. early 1900s);
William P. Richardson (c. 1911); James Anderson (assistant, 1917-?);
Frank Lewis Cotton (assistant ?-1909, principal keeper 1909-1926); John
W. Cameron (third assistant, c. 1920s); Joseph H. Upton (1926-1934,
died in service); Edward Elliot (?-1946); William Woodward
(1946-1947); Everett Lincoln Marston (Coast Guard assistant
Between 1947 and the automation of the light in 1960, Coast
Guard personnel from the Two Lights station cared for the light. Some
of the personnel during that period were: John Mason (Coast Guard
officer in charge, 1952-1953, 1953-1957 and 1959-1962); Clifford Morong
(1946-1955); Joseph Bakken (c. 1953)