Sounds of Portland Head

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It stills the mind, listening to the sea. The chattering monkey mind shuts up. Gives in. Surrenders to the inward rush of waves, the rhythmic retreat. But add in the doleful wail of a lighthouse foghorn, and something else happens. A door in the imagination swings wide: images of storm-lashed fishing boats, a ship off course, the warning blast resounding on fog-laden seas,  the tremors of anxiety as seafarers hear that sound and know of invisible danger ahead. Shoals, sandbanks, submerged rocks?

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There was none of this kind of drama on the day we went to Portland Head Light. The morning’s sea mist had dispersed to dreamy afternoon sunshine. We watched a huge cruise ship sail out of Portland. People milled about the gift shop and ate ice creams. September in Maine – what could be nicer?

The Portland Head Light is the state’s oldest lighthouse, built at the behest of President George Washington between 1787 and 1791. Apparently government funds at the time were very tight and the story goes that the President ordered the masons, Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols of  Portland, to use materials taken from the fields and shore and haul them to the site by oxen.

The original plan was for a 58-foot tower (17 metres), but when it was done it was realized that the light would not be visible beyond the headlands to the south. A further 14 feet (4 metres) was required, at which point Mr. Bryant quit, leaving Nichols to finish the job and build the small house beside it. The Light was dedicated by the Marquis de Lafayette and first lit on January 10 1791 using 16 lamps fuelled by whale oil.

The first keeper was Captain Joseph Greenleaf, an American Revolution veteran. For his pains of manning the Portland Head Light, Greenleaf was allowed to live in the keeper’s house and fish and farm nearby. He received no pay. By June the following year he had had enough. He wrote to the authorities telling them of his travails. For one thing in the winter the ice would form so thickly on the lantern glass it obscured the light, and he would have to go up there and melt it off. It is hard to imagine what kind of effort this would have involved, and in alarming conditions too. In 1793, until his death two years later, he received an annual salary of $160, which by today’s values would be around $4-5,000.  Not exactly riches for saving life and property from treacherous seas.

Portland Headlight

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Ailsa’s travel challenge: noise

copyright 2014 Tish Farrell

9 thoughts on “Sounds of Portland Head

  1. I love our New England lights. I particularly love the ones on Martha’s Vineyard. They are always in the most magnificent places, on bluff above rocky shores. And they are so New England. I know there are west coast light houses and lighthouses down along the east coast but to me, they are a symbol of home. Seagulls, the sound of the tide, the smell of the salt. And the lighthouse.

    1. Glad this lighthouse struck a chord. But you are right about their settings. Obviously there are practical reasons, but somehow a lighthouse on a rocky eminence is intrinsically fascinating – like a silent guardian I suppose.

  2. Love your first paragraph and your vivid imagination, Tish. I agree with you that lighthouses are magical places, often times the difference between life and death. What it must have been like to be a lighthouse keeper before the advent of modern amenities, though….

    1. Thanks, Annette. Yes, the conditions and loneliness for lighthouse keepers must have been extraordinary. I keep thinking of Captain Greenleaf trying to ensure the light is functioning through an ice storm!

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