A couple of weeks ago we were visiting friends who every summer, spend a month at Rye Beach on the coast of New Hampshire. This is a regular yearly trip, but whenever I get to the shore, I try to spend as much time as possible exploring the unique aspects of the coast. I love the rocks, the surf, and the quaint seaside villages, but, of course, my favorites are the lighthouses. Around Portland Maine, there are six lighthouses, some of which are more accessible than others, and one has a strong claim to being the ultimate classic beacon along the New England coast. In the past, I have explored all of these lights, but since we decided to extend our trip up the coast to Portland, I decided to visit all of them in one afternoon.
You can check out the locations on my map and follow the GPS locations. I decided to tour the lighthouses from south to north starting with the most challenging ones to approach, the Twin Lights.
1-2) Twin Lights, Cape Elizabeth
Only one of the two Twin Lights is still functioning and both are on private property. Both were built around 1828, but in 1924, the government dismantled the West (Rear Range) Tower.
It is closed off and is now part of a private residence. The other light is closer to the shore and, although it is still operating, it can’t be closely approached. Both lights can be seen from the south at the Two Lights State Park parking lot. I found a nice view of the functioning light from the parking lot of the nearby Lobster Shack. I am told that the Shack is famous for its excellent selection of coronary inducing fried food, but even on this mid-week afternoon the line was thankfully endless and the parking lot packed. I stopped for a couple shots of the lighthouses but then moved on to relinquish our spot to the paying customers. I will have to return when the weather is more conducive to photography, that is, dark and foggy, and less attractive to the saturated fat seekers.
The famous American Realist painter, Edward Hopper, painted one of the towers in 1929. In 1970, the painting was reproduced on the first US Postage stamp to depict a lighthouse.
3) Portland Head Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth
A short distance to the north along Route 77 and then Shore Road is Portland Head Lighthouse. It was commissioned by President George Washington and is the oldest lighthouse in Maine. Unquestionably it is the most photographed light in New England. Located inside the forty-one-acre Fort Williams Park, the lighthouse and the surrounding rocky shore make great subjects for photography in any season, and any time of day, but it is most dramatic around sunrise and sunset. On this trip, we first visited on a sunny afternoon. I was hoping that a recent storm might have kicked up some heavy surf, but the waves were just average. I returned the next morning to catch a sunrise. The signs announce that the gates open at sunrise but I was able to drive right in about thirty minutes before dawn.
You never know what you will get from an Atlantic coast sunrise. On this day the clouds were disappointingly few, but the light on the tower was lovely, and I caught some nice waves crashing on the rocks. When shooting an active lighthouse, I try to catch a picture or two with the flash of beacon’s light. Every lighthouse has its own unique timing and, with a little attention, the light can be anticipated. These images don’t need to be your best, since the light can be blended into whichever picture comes out as your favorite.
I enjoy shooting any of our New England lighthouses, but a trip to Portland Head Light is always a magic return to Lighthouse Mecca.
4) Ram Island Light
A visit to Portland Head Light is another two-for-one lighthouse opportunity. Across the entrance to Portland Harbor from Cape Elizabeth is Ram Island Lighthouse. It sits precariously on a ledge that threatens the northern side of the harbor channel. The frequent shipwrecks led to the construction of the granite lighthouse, which was completed in 1905. The lighthouse can be photographed from Fort Williams Park. I like to include Portland Head Light in the frame. I usually stand back as far as possible to allow a long lens shot to enlarge the distant Ram Island Light against Portland Head. When possible, it is worth waiting to capture a passing sailboat or lobsterman. What can be better, two lighthouses, a sunrise, and a boat! The only thing better would be to include massive waves crashing against the lighthouse – an excuse to come back again. The Rams Island Light is now automated and was sold by the government to a private buyer in 2010 for $190,000.
Spring Point Ledge Light
The next lighthouse up the coast is located next to the Campus of Southern Maine Community College. Spring Point Ledge Light was built in 1897 to mark a dangerous Ledge which lies to the west of Portland’s main shipping channel. It is a “spark plug” lighthouse, which traditionally refers to a beacon built on a caisson in open water with the light sitting on top of a cylindrical three-story living area. They look a lot like spark plugs. In 1951 the lighthouse was attached to the mainland with a 600-foot granite breakwater, making it the only caisson-style light in the U.S. that can be walked to by visitors. The lighthouse is owned by the Spring Point Ledge Light Trust, which schedules tours of the structure during the summer.
The final lighthouse in our tour is little Portland Breakwater Light which is also called “Bug Light”. The current structure was built in 1875 and marks the entrance to Portland Harbor. It was designed by Thomas Walter, the architect of the U.S. Capital buildings including dome. The light is easily accessible from Bug Light Park, which includes a memorial to the New England Shipbuilding Corp shipyard. During WW II, the massive yard constructed over 200 of the Liberty Ships that were so crucial in transporting American industrial output across the Atlantic. Now, all that is left is a skeletonized bow, representing one of the ships.
Whether you visit one or all 6 of Portland’s lighthouses you will find endless opportunities to capture much of what makes the Maine coast such a special place for photographers. I hope to see you there.
For more images of Portland’s Six Lighthouses, check out my Portland LIghthouse Gallery
Jeff Newcomer, NEPG