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Wandering Up and Over for a Look at Some Down East Lighthouses

Used in its narrowest sense, the term "Down East" refers to the coast of Maine from Penobscot Bay to the Canadian border, a term that originated from the fact that when ships sailed from Boston to ports in Maine - which were to the east of Boston - the wind was at their backs, so they were sailing downwind and hence were heading 'down east'.  These days folks head Down East from all directions in search of delicious seafood, quaint seaside villages, fantastic views, and, of course, lighthouses which is one of the reasons that I pointed the car north and went Down East this past fall along with my friend Claire who was visiting from England.

Our itinerary gave us two nights in the lovey little town of Lubec, the easternmost town in the contiguous United States, and home to one of the most photographed lighthouses on the East Coast - West Quoddy Head Light.

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West Quoddy Head, where the lighthouse is located, overlooks Quoddy Narrows, a strait on Passamaquoddy Bay which itself is an inlet of the Bay of Fundy, home of the highest tides in the world. Most of Passamaquoddy Bay lies within Canada but its western shore extends as far south as Washington County, Maine with its southernmost point formed by West Quoddy Head on the U.S. mainland in Lubec. As the closest point to Europe in the entire United States, it was as close as Claire was going to get to her home in England during her time in the United States but I don't remember if she waved towards home while we were there or not!

Unfortunately, we had missed the last day of the operating season for the Visitor Center located inside the 1858 Light Keeper's House by just a few days so we weren't able to look at the Exhibits or speak to any members of the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association who staff the center and provide visitors with the history of the lighthouse and occasionally offer tours of the tower in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard but something like that has never stopped me from researching an interesting  place's history!

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Local residents first petitioned for a lighthouse to mark the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay which is guarded by dangerous basaltic outcroppings in 1806 and in early 1807, Congress allocated $5,000 for the Secretary of the Treasury “to cause to be erected a light-house on West Passamaquoddy Head, at the entrance into the bay and harbor of Passamaquoddy, in the District of Maine." In 1808, per order of President Thomas Jefferson, a wooden octagonal tower and dwelling was constructed on 100 acres of land ceded by the State of Massachusetts.  The light station became one of the first to be equipped with a fog bell and, later, a steam whistle. A reliable fog signal was deemed more essential in this area than a light since fog shrouded the coast for roughly half the time during the summer months and a light alone would not have been of much use.

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In March of 1831, a second light tower was built, this one of rubble stone construction with ten lamps in its lantern room which were lit on August 1, 1831. It was of pretty poor construction so on August 18, 1856, $15,000 was appropriated “for rebuilding the light-house,” at West Quoddy Head, “and fitting it with proper illuminating apparatus.”

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For years, the U.S. government had refused to install the clearly superior French-made Fresnel lenses in its lighthouses despite the complaints of mariners who declared American lighthouses to be shamefully inadequate in providing proper lighting for ships at sea but when West Quoddy Head Light was rebuilt for the third time, it really was charm as the “proper illuminating apparatus” was a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens manufactured by L. Sautter of Paris.

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The new brick tower and wood-framed dwelling, which remain standing today, were completed in 1858 and to this day, the original third-order Fresnel lens - which stands about 5½ feet tall - is still in operation as the only third-order and one of only eight Fresnel lenses still in use on the Maine Coast. West Quoddy Head Light was automated in 1988 and still serves as an active aid to navigation with its 30,000-candlepower light visible from 15-18 nautical miles flashing in an unusual pattern of 2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 9 seconds off twenty-four hours a day.

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Despite its name, West Quoddy Head Light is the easternmost beacon in the United States and one of only two U.S. lighthouses with red-and-white bands, Assateague Light in Virginia is the other but I don't believe it's anywhere near as picturesque. West Quoddy Light's 49-foot candy cane-striped tower is painted with eight red stripes alternating with seven white stripes, each 25-inches wide, with both the bottom and top stripes being red. There are 50-steps up the circular stairway to the top of the tower and then a ten-rung ladder accessed via an iron bulkhead to also climb in order to access the actual lantern room but, heck, I'd do it to get a chance to look at that Fresnel lens!

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West Quoddy Head Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places as West Quoddy Head Light Station on July 4, 1980 and beginning in 2002, volunteers from the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association have operated the Visitor Center in the keeper's dwelling.

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Located at 973 South Lubec Road, the Visitor Center is open 10 am - 4 pm Memorial Day to July 4th; 10 am - 5 pm from July 4th to Labor Day; 10 am - 4 pm from Labor Day to closing October 15th. The Visitor center is wheelchair accessible and there is handicap parking available. For further information you can telephone: 207-733-2180 or email the West Quoddy Head Light Keepers Association at info@westquoddy.com

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Further to the east and located across the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Bridge at the northern tip of Campobello Island in New Brunswick, Canada is a small rocky, islet - home to Head Harbour Lighthouse also known as East Quoddy Lighthouse in order to differentiate it from West Quoddy Head Light. Sitting at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, it is one of the most visited and photographed lighthouses in all of Canada.

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In 1829, the House of Assembly of New Brunswick appropriated £400 for “defraying the expense of building a Light House on the northern head of Campo Bello Island" and later that same year work commenced on a 51-foot tall wooden octagonal tower, the first lighthouse constructed in New Brunswick outside of Saint John Harbour.

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When first built, the lighthouse was lit by eight lamps set in 22-inch reflectors but in 1842, a larger lantern room was placed atop Head Harbour Lighthouse and the original, smaller lantern room was installed on the St. Andrews Lighthouse, the oldest remaining mainland lighthouse in New Brunswick located in Pendlebury. That same year, a large red cross of Saint George was painted on the eastern side of Head Harbour’s white tower to provide a distinctive daymark for those navigating that portion of the Bay of Fundy.

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In 1887, the lantern room was replaced again, this time with an iron lantern room with large plate glass windows that was installed to house a new third-order Fresnel lens. The current light station includes five structures: the original light tower constructed in 1829, the adjoining dwelling (construction date unknown), a fog alarm building and work shed built 1914-15, and a boathouse that was added in 1947.

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Head Harbour Lighthouse was manned by Coast Guard personnel until 1986 when the fixed red light visible up to 13 nautical miles, was automated. In 1988, the original 1829 tower, the oldest surviving lighthouse in New Brunswick, received classified status from the Federal Heritage Building Review Office while in 2000, the Friends of The Head Harbour Lightstation was formed. The group was established by local Campobello residents with the mission to preserve and protect the history and future of the lighthouse along with its surrounding buildings. In 2002, the small island located just south of the lighthouse was deeded to the Friends of the Head Harbour Lightstation but it wasn't until August 26, 2006 that the official deed to the lighthouse and the surrounding property was finally presented to the Friends.

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The nearest community to Head Harbour Lightstation, Wilson's Beach, is about two and a half miles away but a road brings visitors to a parking area within walking distance of the lightstation. The lightstation is accessible via foot but it's a bit tricky as the rocky outcropping on which the station is set becomes an island at high tide so visitors must time their excursions to this popular lighthouse carefully as it is only accessible an hour and a half before, and one hour after, low tide.  When the sign says "Extreme Hazard" it means just that as when the tide starts coming back in, it does so at the rate of 5-feet per hour and it moves very swiftly.

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In addition to having to make your way carefully down the steep iron stairs (which is more like a ladder) pictured just to the left of the sign above, you then have to make your way across the rocky ocean floor, up another steep set of iron stairs (just visible in the photo below), make your way across the first island, and then access the second island that the lighthouse actually sits on via a wooden bridge. Whew!  Unfortunately the timing of our visit wasn't right so Claire and I didn't get to venture out to the lightstation (much to my disappointment) but if you'd like to see some photos of the ladders and bridge that visitors use, please check out HeadHarbourLight's Flickr stream.  They've got some great photos of the Fresnel lens in the lantern room, too!

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Before I post my last photo of Head Harbour Light which shows the closest I was able to get - I simply have to share this photo that was taken on December 8, 2008 by one of the Friends of The Head Harbour Lightstation that I found on their Flickr page as I just love the sea smoke and the waves crashing against the island.  To say that it makes me want to head out there in the dead of winter with my trusty Nikon is an understatement and then some! Frozen fingers be damned!

Sea smoke, Head Harbour Lightstation
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Wow, that definitely makes my own calm and placid photo look pretty darned tame in comparison, doesn't it?  Ah well ... guess I'll just have to wander back up that way again sometime and make sure I time it right in order to actually get to the lighthouse itself!

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The other lighthouse on the island is located on the west side of Campobello on the grounds of Roosevelt Campobello International Park.  Mulholland Point Lighthouse was constructed following an appropriation by Parliament in 1882 for the construction of a lighthouse to guide vessels through Lubec Narrows, the small passage between the island and the United States mainland.

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A wooden octagonal tower standing forty-four feet from its base to the vane on its lantern, the lighthouse was completed in 1884 but its seventh-order, dioptric, oil-fueled lamp which displayed a fixed white light that was visible for 13 nautical miles was not exhibited until 1885. For over 75 years, the little lighthouse served as a guide for the many small coasters, passenger ships, and freighters traversing the narrow Lubec Channel en route to or from the United States or Canadian ports on Grand Manan Island.

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When the light was decommissioned in 1963 following the building of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt International Bridge which was equipped with navigational lights that made the lighthouse unnecessary, it was purchased by Clifford Calder, a Campobello resident. The lighthouse was later bought by the Look Family, who owned an adjacent Lobster pound, and on December 4, 1984, the Look siblings donated the lighthouse to Roosevelt Campobello International Park in memory of Clifford Calder.

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From the picnic area at Mulholland Point Lighthouse, visitors can enjoy a view of Lubec as well as watch the harbor seals which are frequently found feeding in the narrows at the base of the lighthouse as well as observe a variety of seabirds.  All in all, it's a darned pretty spot and it doesn't require careful timing of the tides to visit!

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One other lighthouse in the area that I pretty much forgot about until the last rainy day that we were there is Lubec Channel Light, also referred to as “The Sparkplug.”  Located in the Narrows between Lubec and Campobello Island approximately 500-feet from the Canadian border, the 53-foot, brick-lined cast iron tower was built in 1890 following the dredging of the channel in the 1880s to make it more accessible by commercial boat traffic. Unfortunately, the only photo I have of the lighthouse is this distant one taken from Mulholland Point Lighthouse - and that was an accident as I was really only taking a photo of the bridge!

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Lubec Channel Light was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as Lubec Channel Light Station on March 14, 1988 and in July of 2007, the lighthouse was auctioned off for $46,000 when no new stewards were interested in taking over care of the lighthouse under the auspices of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Ownership of the lighthouse went to Gary Zaremba, an American restoration architect who also owns the Cleveland Harbor East Pierhead Light and Conneaut West Breakwater Lighthouse, both in Ohio.

If you're looking for lighthouses yourself, I highly recommend a wander Down East - I promise that you won't be disappointed in the least and if you manage to get the timing right and head over to Head Harbour Light, please come back and tell me about it.  I'll be sure to be jealous! Just keep in mind that you need a Passport to get back and forth!


Comments

  1. You need to head west now... I know of the perfect place. Cape Flattery.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Very nice!I wanna get up there one day!

    ReplyDelete

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