The city of Portland took its name from the headland
where the lighthouse now stands, but Portland Head is now actually
within the present boundaries of the town of Cape Elizabeth. Portland,
which was known as Falmouth until 1786, was America’s sixth busiest
port by the 1790s. There were no lighthouses on the coast of Maine when
74 merchants petitioned the Massachusetts government (Maine was part of
Massachusetts at the time) in 1784 for a light at Portland Head, on the
northeast coast of Cape Elizabeth, to mark the entrance to Portland
Harbor. The deaths of two people in a 1787 shipwreck at Bangs (now
Cushing) Island, near Portland Head, led to the appropriation of $750
for a lighthouse, and construction began.
The project was delayed by insufficient funds, and construction didn't progress until 1790 when Congress appropriated an additional $1,500, after the nation's lighthouses had been ceded to the federal government.
The stone lighthouse was built by local masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower, but when it was realized that the light would be blocked from the south it was decided to make the tower 72 feet in height instead. Bryant resigned over the change, and Nichols finished the lighthouse in January 1791.
President George Washington approved the appointment of Capt. Joseph Greenleaf, a veteran of the American Revolution, as first keeper. The light went into service on January 10, 1791, with whale oil lamps showing a fixed white light. At first, Greenleaf received no salary as keeper; his payment was the right to fish and farm and to live in the keeper’s house. As early as November 1791, Greenleaf wrote that he couldn’t afford to remain keeper without financial compensation. In a June 1792 letter, he complained of many hardships. During the previous winter, he wrote, the ice on the lantern glass was often so thick that he had to melt it off. In 1793, Greenleaf was granted an annual salary of $160.
Greenleaf died of an apparent stroke while in his boat on the Fore River in October 1795. According to the Eastern Argus, he had “faithfully discharged his duty to the satisfaction of those who occupy their business on great waters.”
After a short stay by David Duncan, Barzillai Delano, a
blacksmith who had lobbied for the appointment when the lighthouse was
first built, became keeper in 1796. Delano’s salary of $225 yearly was
raised to $300 in 1812, after a petition with 22 signatures was
submitted on his behalf.
By 1810, the woodwork in the lighthouse and keeper’s house were in poor condition; the woodwork was damp and rotting. Part of the problem was that the keeper was storing a year’s supply of oil in one room, which putting great stress on the floor. Repairs were made, and an oil shed was added.
The tower continued to have problems with leaks. In November 1812, the contractor Winslow Lewis offered the opinion that the upper 20 feet of the tower was very poorly built. The lantern, which was only 5 feet in diameter, was also badly constructed. Lewis recommended reducing the tower’s height by 20 feet in height, along with the addition of a new lantern. Lewis carried out these changes in 1813, along with the installation of a system of lamps and reflectors designed by Lewis himself, at a cost of $2,100. About 25 feet of stonework at the top of the tower was removed.
The contractor Henry Dyer of Cape Elizabeth built a new
keeper’s house in 1816 for $1,175. The one-story stone cottage was 20
by 34 feet, with and comprised two rooms, an attached kitchen, and an
attic. The kitchen ell was attached to outbuildings, which, in turn,
were joined to the tower. The joining of the house to the tower had
been requested in 1809 by Delano, the keeper, who complained that the
space between the buildings was often frozen over in winter and that
the sea sometimes washed over the area.
Barzillai Delano died in 1820; his son, James Delano, later served as keeper from 1854 to 1861. Joshua Freeman, who would become known for his jovial hospitality, became keeper in 1820. Freeman kept a supply of rum and other spirits in a cupboard, and he’d sell it drinks for three cents a glass to visitors who came to fish. The top- shelf liquor was reserved for the local minister.
An 1825 article in the Eastern Argus
described the pleasures of a visit to Portland Head:
I know of no excursion as pleasant as a jaunt to the Light House. There our friend Freeman is always at home, and ready to serve you. There you can angle in safety and comfort for the cunning cunner, while old ocean is rolling majestically at your feet, and when wearied and fatigued with this amusement, you will find a pleasant relaxation in tumbling the huge rocks from the brinks of the steep and rocky precipices. . . . I know of no equal to a ride or sail to the Light House and earnestly recommend it to all poor devils who, like myself, are afflicted with the dyspepsia, gout, or any of the diseases to which human flesh is heir.
New lamps and reflectors were installed in 1850. in the following year, an inspection found much to be desired. The new reflectors were found to be badly scratched already. The house was leaky and cracking and the tower was being undermined by rats. The keeper was apparently poorly trained and had received no written instructions on the operation of the light. He had been forced to hire a man himself to train him for two days.
A parrot named Billy was a well-known member of the Strout household at Portland Head for many years. When bad weather approached, Billy would tell Keeper Strout, "Joe, let's start the horn. It's foggy!" Billy reportedly became an avid fan of radio in his declining years and lived to be over 80.
In an 1898 interview, Joshua Strout said that he had gone as long as 17 years in a stretch without taking time off, and as long as two years without going as far as Portland. Strout, the oldest keeper on the Maine coast at the time, retired in 1904. He died three years later, at 81.
Joshua and Mary's son Joseph became principal keeper in 1904, and he remained until 1928, ending 59 years of the Strout family at Portland Head. In his 1935 book Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, Robert Thayer Sterling called Joseph Strout "one of the most popular lightkeepers of his day or any yet to come. His genial disposition, his hearty laugh, together with his good stories of the sea, won him the admiration of all who met him."
With the completion of Halfway Rock Light in 1871, the Lighthouse Board felt that Portland Head Light had become less important. The tower was shortened by 20 feet in 1883 and the second-order lens was replaced by a weaker fourth-order lens.
This met with many complaints. A year later, the tower was restored to its former height and a second-order lens was again installed, first lighted January 15, 1885. A new Victorian two-family keeper's house was built in 1891, on the same foundation as the 1816 one-story stone dwelling. The old stone house was reportedly moved to become a private home in Cape Cottage. The lighthouse station has changed very little since that time, except for a 1900 renovation during which many of the tower's stones were replaced.
In his 1876 book Portland and Vicinity, Edward H. Elwell reported that a few years earlier a party had gone to Portland Head to watch the crashing waves during a storm. Two carriage drivers who had brought the group out ventured too far out on the rocks and were swept away. Their bodies were recovered several days later.
For a time, the buildings at Portland Head Light received serious damage from practice gunfire from neighboring Fort Williams. The U.S. Lighthouse Service Bulletin of September 1, 1916, reported that "windows were forced out, finish ripped off, roof torn open," and also reported "injury to the brickwork of the three chimneys of the double dwelling." On one occasion two of the chimneys were completely severed at the bottom. Casings were installed to protect the chimneys.
On August 7, 1989, a celebration was held at Portland Head Light commemorating the 200th anniversary of the creation of the Lighthouse Service. The day also marked the automation of Portland Head Light and the removal of the Coast Guard keepers. Maine Senator George Mitchell, Congressman Joseph Brennan and lighthouse historian F. Ross Holland (video below) spoke at the celebration while the Nantucket Lightship (click to hear the lightship's foghorn followed by Portland Head Light's fog signal) paraded offshore with a flotilla of Coast Guard vessels.
Rear Admiral Richard Rybacki, the Coast Guard's First District commander, said in his address to the crowd, "I can think of nothing more noble. The lighthouse symbolizes all that is good in mankind. We are not here to celebrate an ending. We are here to immortalize a tradition."
(This 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 email@example.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Joseph K. Greenleaf (1791-1795); David Duncan (1796); Barzillai Delano (1796-1820); Joshua Freeman (1820-1840); Richard Lee (1840-1849); John F. Watts (1849-1853); John W. Coolidge (1853-1854); James S. Williams (1854); James Delano (1854-1861); Elder M. Jordan (1861-1869); Joshua F. Strout (1869-1904); Mary Strout (assistant, 1869-1877); Joseph W. Strout (assistant 1877-1904, principal keeper 1904-1928); John W. Cameron (assistant 1904-1928, principal keeper 1928-1929); Frank. O. Hilt (1929-1944); Robert Thayer Sterling, (assistant 1928-1944, principal keeper 1944-1946); Archie McLaughlin (Coast Guard, c. 1946); William L. Lockhart (Coast Guard 1946-1950); William F. Yost (Coast Guard, c. 1950); William T. Burns (Coast Guard, 1950-1956?); Earle E. Benson (Coast Guard, 1952-?); Archie McLaughlin (Coast Guard, c. 1954); Edward Frank (Coast Guard 1956-?); Weston E. Gamage Jr. (Coast Guard, c. early 1960s); Armand Hood (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1963); Walter Dodge (Coast Guard, 1963); Thomas Reed (Coast Guard, 1966-1967); Robert Allen (Coast Guard, c. 1972); Kenneth A. Perry (Coast Guard, ?); Roy Cavanaugh (Coast Guard, c. 1971-1977); Jerry Poliskey (Coast Guard, c. 1977); Ray Barber (Coast Guard officer in charge, 1979-82); Marion P. Danna (Coast Guard, 1980-83); Michael Cook (Coast Guard officer in charge, 1982-85); Davis Simpson (Coast Guard, ?-1989), Nathan Wasserstrom (Coast Guard, ?-1989)