fierce storm ravaged Portland Harbor in November 1831, destroying
wharves and buildings. In response, a 2,500-foot protective breakwater
was planned for the south side of the harbor’s entrance, beginning at
Stanford Point and extending out over Stanford Ledge. A lighthouse was
included in the plans for the structure.
Construction on the
breakwater began in 1837, and the foundation was completed by later
that year. The breakwater eventually reached 1,800 feet and was
uncapped for much of its length. Vessels had to pass through a narrow
channel between the breakwater’s end and an obstruction known as Hog
Island Ledge. With no lighthouse at its end, the breakwater became more
of a navigational hindrance than a help.
In September 1853,
Lieut. Thornton A. Jenkins, secretary of the Lighthouse Board,
recommended a sixth-order light at the end of the breakwater. “It is
absolutely necessary to make a safe entrance into the harbor,” he
wrote, “and to guard against striking the breakwater itself, which is
nearly under water at high tide, and therefore on dark nights difficult
to be seen so as to be avoided.”
The Lighthouse Board
asked Congress in 1853 for an appropriation of $3,500 for a lighthouse
and keeper’s house, or for $1,000 if it was deemed that no keeper’s
house was needed. An appropriation of $3,500 was made on August 3,
Plans for the first lighthouse.
Portland Breakwater Light
|Construction took about four months during the
following year, and on
August 1, 1855, a small, octagonal wooden tower went into service. The
first keeper, W. A. Dyer, illuminated the sixth-order Fresnel lens. The
fixed red light was 25 feet above mean high water.
no keeper’s house, the keeper had to walk over the breakwater to the
light. This often became a battle against waves, wind, and ice. Keepers
sometimes had to crawl the 1,800 feet to the lighthouse on their hands
The breakwater was extended by almost 200 feet to the
northeast in the early 1870s, and the wooden lighthouse was reported to
be decayed and no longer fit for service. As the work on the breakwater
was in progress, the light was shown from a temporary wooden
congressional appropriation of $6,000 in June 1874, a new lighthouse
was erected on a granite foundation at the end of the structure. The
original tower was moved to Little Diamond Island, where it became a
lookout tower at a buoy depot.
Plans for the second lighthouse
First lighted in June 1875 by Keeper Stephen Hubbard, the new Portland
Breakwater Light, known locally as “Bug Light,” was modeled after
the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates,
built in Athens, Greece, in the fourth century B.C.
design of the
24-foot-tall (to the tip of the lantern), cast-iron tower is unique.
The cylinder, a little less than 12 feet in diameter, is surrounded by
six fluted columns.
It has been suggested that Thomas Ustick Walter,
who designed the cast-iron dome on the U.S. Capitol building, may have
had something to do with designing the lighthouse.
lighthouse held a sixth order Fresnel lens. The walk on the breakwater
was still difficult, but still no keeper's house was built. The trip
out was made somewhat easier by the addition of an iron hand rail on
the breakwater, 1,990 feet long, in 1886.
||A tiny dwelling, a
wood-frame structure with two rooms, was finally
built adjacent to the lighthouse in 1889.
The house presented an
unusual and precarious-looking appearance as it hung over the edge of
the breakwater on both sides. Two more rooms and an attic were added in
Circa late 1800s. (Maine
1897, a 400-pound fog bell was relocated from the nearby Stanford Ledge
Buoy to the breakwater, and new striking machinery was installed by
1899. A 1,000-pound bell was installed at the base of the tower in
1903. In the following year, 200 tons of riprap stones were piled
around the outer end of the breakwater to afford more protection for
William Tarlton Holbrook, keeper from 1910 to
1919, lived in the dwelling with his wife, Evelyn, along with their
son, Elias, his wife, Florence, and their daughter, Grace. Elias
Holbrook commuted via rowboat to a job at a lobster company on
Portland’s Custom House Wharf.
|Correspondence from February 1914 illustrates a
problem with of light
stations with only one keeper—the keeper couldn't be awake all the
letter (right) to William Holbrook from the district inspector
indicated that a
complaint had been received from the captain of the steamer Bay State
that the station’s fog bell had not been sounding at 3:44 a.m. during a
recent thick fog.
Holbrook replied that he had sounded the bell from
7:30 to 10:30 p.m. The weather was clear at 11:00 p.m., and he went to
bed. He was awakened by a whistle blast from the Bay State, and he
the bell sounding again by 3:45 a.m., one minute after the time of the
The inspector, showing no sympathy, wrote back, “This office
regrets that such reports are received, and you are cautioned to make
every effort in the future to have the fog signal at your station in
operation during foggy weather.”
more children were born to Florence and Elias Holbrook at the
lighthouse: William (Bill) in 1911 and Raymond (Ray) in 1913. Many of
Ray Holbrook’s memories are recorded in a memoir in the collection of
the South Portland Historical Society. Raymond He described the
dwelling: a kitchen, a dining room, and one bedroom downstairs, and two
bedrooms upstairs. Outside the dining room window it was a sheer drop
of around 15 feet to the water. Sometimes the window would break in
storms, letting and the wind and rain swept inside. The only heat in
the house was from a stove in the kitchen, and in the winter the boys
would dress and undress next to the stove. There was no electricity and
Next to the keeper’s house were a storage shed
and, a cistern building, and a two-seater outhouse connected to a shaft
leading to the harbor below. “A draft of wind blew up through the shaft
blew up through the shaft at high tide,” Raymond recalled. “We were
very careful to check the wind and tide before going out there!”
Bill and Ray played on a wooden platform outside the dwelling. A
favorite pastime was throwing things into the water and watching them
float away, but that wasn’t so much fun for Ray when Bill threw his
prized teddy bear overboard. During World War I, Ray and Bill marched
and drilled on the platform with wooden guns, drums, and flags.
family was often isolated during icy periods in winter, and sometimes
horse-drawn sleighs could be seen traveling over the ice to some of the
nearby islands. If any family members were on shore and couldn’t return
because of the weather, they stayed at a friend’s house. Ray started
school during the last year the family lived at the lighthouse, but he
had to repeat the first grade because he missed so many days when it
was impossible to get to the school.
One of Ray Holbrook’s last
memories of the lighthouse was November 11, 1918, when whistles blew
from every boat and factory in the area at 11:00 a.m. to celebrate the
end of World War I.
light was electrified in 1934, and the job of tending the station went
to the keeper at Spring Point Ledge. The last keeper at Portland
Breakwater was Preston L. Marr, the son and grandson of keepers at
Hendricks Head Light.
The keeper’s house on the breakwater was
demolished in late February 1935. In the early 1940s, shipyards
expanded into the harbor, shortening the breakwater until the
lighthouse stood only 100 feet from the shore.
Breakwater Light was extinguished in 1942, like many lighthouses during
World War II. The fog bell was operated electrically for a while, but
the electrical cable was badly damaged by dredging operations. It was
subsequently decided, in May 1943, that the light and fog signal were
no longer needed for local navigation.
lighthouse was declared surplus property and was sold into private
hands. For some years, the Greater Portland Public Development
Commission owned the lighthouse and adjacent land, and the General
Electric Company leased the property and maintained a facility nearby.
|In 1985, Al Glickman of Spring
Point Associates donated the property to
the City of South Portland. The Maine Historical Preservation
Commission secured $26,000 from the Lighthouse Bicentennial Fund and
the South Portland–/Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club; the funds paid, paying
for a 1989 renovation of the lighthouse that included structural
repairs and a new coat of paint.
A park has been established adjacent
to the lighthouse, officially named “Bug Light Park.”
Liberty Ship Memorial at Bug Light Park
Liberty Ship memorial in the park, sponsored by the Portland Harbor
Museum, was dedicated in November 2001. A total of 274 ships were built
on the site during World War II. Most of them were Liberty Ships, which
played an important role carrying supplies across the Atlantic during
the war. Interpretive signs at the memorial tell the story of the ships
built in South Portland.
Through the 1990s, the tower's condition deteriorated
and the ventilator ball was stolen from the top of the lantern. The
South Portland/Cape Elizabeth Rotary Club and the Spring Point Ledge
Light Trust completed a new restoration culminating in a relighting
ceremony on August 14, 2002.
|A replacement ventilator ball was installed,
donated by the U.S. Coast Guard Aids to Navigation Team South Portland.
The tower was painted inside and out, and a 250 mm optic was added.
South Portland Mayor William Dale declared at the relighting ceremony,
"This harbor is alive and well, and this lighthouse is representative
Jack Roberts, president of the South Portland-Cape
Elizabeth Rotary Club and chairman of the town council of neighboring
Cape Elizabeth, added:
Bug Light has a new lease on life. It
will shine as the crown jewel of Bug Light Park. . . This lighthouse is
so much more than stone and iron. It is living history This lighthouse
has stood the test of time for 127 years. With loving care it will be
here for another century and beyond.
spoke at the recomissioning event on August 14, 2002
in attendance at the recommissioning toured the lighthouse
|Senior Chief Tommy Dutton of U.S. Coast Guard
Aids to Navigation Team South Portland had the honor of turning on the
light at the event. Portland Breakwater Light's 250 mm optic now
exhibits a white flash every four seconds, welcoming visitors to South
Portland and historic Portland Harbor.
The lighthouse's concrete foundation was repaired in 2010.
reach Bug Light Park, follow Broadway in South Portland to its northern
end. When you reach the stop sign in front of the Spring Point Marina,
turn left. Turn right onto Madison Street and follow it into Bug Light
Park. Bear right to the free parking along the water, near the
lighthouse. You can also see the unusual little lighthouse
many excursion boats out of Portland
Keepers:The following list of keepers is
a work in progress. Additional information is welcomed and appreciated;
you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you copy this list to
another site, you do so at your own risk. I can't guarantee its
W.A. Dyer (1855-1857); William L. Willard (1857-1860); Benjamin F.
Willard (1860-1861); Benjamin B. Walton (1861-1866); Len Strout
(1866-1867); Paul McKenna (McKenney ?) (1867-1875); Stephen Hubbard
(1875-1887); Albus R. Angell (1887-1900); Parker O. Haley (1900 -1908);
William T. Holbrook (July 1908 - November 1908); Parker O. Haley (1908
-1909); William T. Holbrook (1909-1919); Preston Marr (?)