Portland Head Lighthouse – a mini history lesson from our trip









We have been wanting to visit this famous lighthouse for a while now and a cloudy, rainy day proved to be the perfect day to do so!
The kids got a history lesson from Dad on this trip.
President George Washington hired two local masons from the town of Portland in 1787 (Maine was then part of the colony of Massachusetts). He asked them to finish construction of a lighthouse on Portland Head. The men were instructed to use materials to build the lighthouse from local fields and shores. The government did not have a lot of money. The old tower, built of rubblestone, still stands as one of the four colonial lighthouses that have never been rebuilt. The masons had four years to build the lighthouse but funds ran dry. It seemed that the lighthouse would never be finished, but the first Congress made an appropriation and authorized Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, to inform the masons that they could finish the tower. The Portland Head Lighthouse was completed in 1790 and first lighted January 10, 1791.
During the Civil War it was raised 8 feet due to raids on shipping in and out of Portland Harbor.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a native of Portland, often visited the Portland Head Lighthouse and was friends with the keepers. It is believed he received inspiration at the lighthouse for his 1849 poem:
The Lighthouse
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
and on its outer point, some miles away,
the lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
in the white tip and tremor of the face.
And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light,
with strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!
No one alone: from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.
Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night o’er taken mariner to save.
And the great ships sail outward and return
Bending and bowing o’er the billowy swells,
And ever joyful, as they see it burn
They wave their silent welcome and farewells.
They come forth from the darkness, and their sails
Gleam for a moment only in the blaze,
And eager faces, as the light unveils
Gaze at the tower, and vanish while they gaze.
The mariner remembers when a child,
on his first voyage, he saw it fade and sink
And when returning from adventures wild,
He saw it rise again o’er ocean’s brink.
Steadfast, serene, immovable, the same,
Year after year, through all the silent night
Burns on forevermore that quenchless flame,
Shines on that inextinguishable light!
It sees the ocean to its bosum clasp
The rocks and sea-sand with the kiss of peace:
It sees the wild winds lift it in their grasp,
And hold it up, and shake it like a fleece.
The startled waves leap over it; the storm
Smites it with all the scourges of the rain,
And steadily against its solid form
press the great shoulders of the hurricane.
The sea-bird wheeling round it, with the din
of wings and winds and solitary cries,
Blinded and maddened by the light within,
Dashes himself against the glare, and dies.
A new Prometheus, chained upon the rock,
Still grasping in his hand the fire of love,
it does not hear the cry, nor heed the shock,
but hails the mariner with words of love.
“Sail on!” it says: “sail on, ye stately ships!”
And with your floating bridge the ocean span;
Be mine to guard this light from all eclipse.
Be yours to bring man neared unto man.
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