Portland Head Light, Maine



Trade is an important economic activity for all countries. It can even be said to be vital for some parts of the world that have no other way of obtaining certain commodities. In today’s modern world, trading anything can be done relatively easy. There’s the internet, which facilitates orders and shipments of merchandise on a global level. When you want a certain item or object, you need only go out and visit a specialized store that sells what you need. For example, if you need to do some repair work in or around your home, you just have to pop down to the hardware store. If you need parts for your car, you just take a walk to an authorized dealer or a second-hand shop and get what you need there. If it’s clothes that you’re looking for, you can usually find some at a mall (or a designer boutique).



The Old Ways



On the other hand, all of these are the conveniences of living in the 21st century. We today are used to simply buying whatever we need right away and with little or no delay. But, have you ever wondered how trade was conducted in the past? Remember what you studied in school, how was trading done internationally in the 18th and 19th centuries? Since there were no airplanes back then, ships were the only means of transport that could cross oceans and reach other continents. Even before then, ships were the only way some of the earliest explorers could travel the world and bring stuff like silk, spices and exotic food from India back to Europe.



You Better Knew How To Swim



So, the general conclusion is – ships are great, right? Yeah….well, not so much. You see, the thing about ships is…they can sink. They can be stranded, too. The former is perhaps scarier and can occur in the middle of the ocean, away from any shoreline. But on the other hand, the latter is also very dangerous, especially when it happens at night or during foggy weather. Precisely because of the latter, lighthouses were invented to warn ships of their position relative to a shore.  And one of the most interesting lighthouses in the state of Maine happens to be the Portland Head Light.



A Respectful Age



The Portland Head Light’s home is Cape Elizabeth in the state of Maine. More precisely, the Gulf of Maine’s Casco Bay is actually where the light station is located. The entrance into Portland Harbor’s primary shipping channel has a head of land on which the Portland Head Light was built. Officially, speaking, the Portland Head Light is the state of Maine’s oldest lighthouse, whose construction was actually completed way back in 1791. The United States Coast Guard is in charge of the maintenance of the foghorn, beacon and tower of this fully automated light station. Additionally, Fort Williams Park is home to the maritime museum that was once the lighthouse keeper’s house.



Portland Head Light – The Symbol Of A Nation



The Portland Head Light’s history dates back to the early beginnings of the American nation. It is officially the most photographed, painted and visited lighthouse in New England. It was also the first lighthouse ever completed by the government of the United States. There are interesting stories to be told about the Portland Head Light. For example, one particular keeper believed that it was the most desirable place in the world he could serve. Another keeper enjoyed countless visits to the Portland Head Light with a famous poet. Yet another exploited the appeal of the area and obtained a financial gain. There are numerous interesting tales about this place, but unfortunately, not enough room to tell them all here.



Improvements With Time



It was George Washington himself who gave the directive to start construction of the Portland Head Light in 1787. Construction was finally completed on the 10th of January, 1791. Originally, whale oil lamps were used for illumination. However, after the Lighthouse Board’s formation, a Fresnel lens (fourth-order) was installed in 1855. This lens was subsequently replaced with another Fresnel lens (a more powerful second-order one). Then, in 1958, an aero beacon replaced the second-order Fresnel lens. Finally, in 1991, a DCB-224 aero beacon updated the existing lighthouse lens.



An On-Location Decision



George Washington charged two masons from the town of Portland to build a lighthouse in 1787. The names of the masons were John Nichols and Jonathan Bryant and the location of the future Portland Head Light was, obviously, Portland Head. Originally, the tower was supposed to be 58 feet tall. However, once the masons achieved this height, they climbed to the top of the tower and experienced a disappointment. They realized that the tower would not be visible beyond the southern headlands, so they added another 20 feet to the overall height of the tower.



The Most Important Day In Its History



Made from rubblestone, the masons had four years to fully construct a ready-to-use lighthouse. Between 1789 and 1790 there were uncertainties regarding the financing and thus, the completion of the almost-finished Portland Head Light.  However, in 1790 those uncertainties were resolved on the second session of congress, when “a sum not to exceed $1,500” was approved under the direction of the President in the purpose of completing and finishing the construction of the lighthouse. During the same year, construction was indeed completed and the 10th of January, 1791 was the first time it was officially lit.



No Sense In Changing Something That Works



Since its original construction in 1791, the light station has barely changed at all. The only significant alteration was the rebuilding of the whistle house that was severely damaged by a storm in 1975. To this day, the lighthouse stands 101 feet (or 31 meters) above water level and 80 feet (or 24 meters) above ground level. The aerobeacon in the lighthouse can be easily seen from as far as 24 nautical miles (or 28 miles – 44 kilometers). The fog signal and the beacon within the lighthouse are the property of the United States Coast Guard, which also handles the maintenance of the two. They are also used as a current navigational aid. On the other hand, the town of Cape Elizabeth owns the keeper’s house and the grounds of the tower. Since 1973, the Portland Head Light has been on the National Register of Historic Places. All visitors are more than welcome to see this genuine slice of history considered to be one of the pioneers of a young, but great nation.

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