Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Lighthouse of the week: Cape Elizabeth Light, Maine

For many years, the approach to Portland Harbor from the south was treacherous, and as maritime trade increased, so did shipwrecks. A 50-foot black and white pyramidal stone day beacon was erected in 1811 on a rocky promontory at the southeastern point of Cape Elizabeth, at the southwestern limit of Casco Bay and about five miles southeast of Portland Harbor.

Shipping in the vicinity continued to increase, and officials recognized the need for a light station. A sum of $4,500 was appropriated in February 1828. It was determined that the station would have two lights, one fixed and one revolving, to differentiate it from Wood Island Light (revolving) to the south, and from Portland Head Light (fixed) to the north.

The station was established on 12 acres of land. The east light was built on the former site of the stone day beacon, and the inner or west light was built directly to the west, 895 feet away. The lights were considered among the most important on the coast; mariners approaching Portland Harbor would line them up to know they were on course.

In 1872, the Lighthouse Board announced that the two towers had deteriorated to the point that they had to be rebuilt. A pair of identical 67-foot cast-iron towers replaced the original towers in 1874, after a congressional appropriation of $30,000. The lighthouses were given delicate Italianate architectural detailing. Second-order Fresnel lenses were installed in both towers.

Marcus Aurelius Hanna, the best-known keeper in this station’s history, was born in 1842 while his father, James Tolman Hanna, was keeper of Franklin Island Light. His grandfather had been one of the first keepers of Boon Island Light.

Marcus Hanna went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 10. During his service in the Civil War, he was praised for exposing himself to enemy fire while retrieving water for his men, an action that later earned him the Medal of Honor.

On the night of January 28, 1885, Marcus Hanna was suffering from a bad cold. A storm hit and increased in severity as the night progressed. Hanna sounded the steam fog whistle all night despite being ill and exhausted. Hiram Staples, the assistant keeper, relieved Hanna at 6:00 a.m. The blizzard was by then “one of the coldest and most violent storms of snow, wind and vapor . . . that I ever witnessed,” Hanna later said. He had to crawl through enormous snowdrifts back to the house.

Hanna was soon asleep. His wife, Louise (Davis), who held one of the assistant keeper positions for some years, extinguished the lights in both towers after sunrise. Then, at 8:40 a.m., she looked out toward the ocean and saw a schooner aground on Dyer’s Ledge, near the fog signal building. The vessel was the Australia out of Boothbay, which had been headed for Boston with a cargo of ice from the Kennebec River in the hold and 150 barrels of mackerel on deck. The captain had already been swept away by the waves; only two crew members remained alive. The men had climbed to the rigging and were practically frozen alive in the bitter cold.

Louise Hanna shouted to her husband, informing him that a vessel was ashore. The keeper rushed to the signal house. Staples hadn’t seen the wreck through the thick snow. The two men hurried to the edge of the water near the schooner. Hanna later recalled, “I felt a terrible responsibility thrust upon me, and I resolved to attempt the rescue at any hazard.” He tried a number of times to throw a line to the vessel but failed. Staples returned to the fog signal building. Meanwhile, Hanna’s wife alerted neighbors.

Hanna, practically frozen by this time, waded waist-deep into the ocean and again threw a line to the schooner, this time hitting his target. One of the crewmen, Irving Pierce, managed to pull himself from the rigging and tied the line around himself. Hanna somehow pulled the helpless man through the waves and over the rocks to the shore. According to Hanna, “Pierce’s jaws were set; he was totally blind from exposure to the cold, and the expression of his face I shall not soon forget.”

After several tries, Hanna landed the line on the Australia again. The other crewman, William Kellar, tied the rope around himself. Hanna’s strength was giving out and he faltered as he tried to pull the man to safety. Just then, Staples and two neighbors arrived. The four men hauled Kellar to the shore, and then carried the two sailors to the fog signal building. The men were given dry clothes and, once they had thawed enough, hot food and drink. After two days they had recovered enough to be taken to Portland by sled.

Six months later, Marcus Hanna received a gold lifesaving medal for “heroism involving great peril to his life,” in recognition of one of the greatest lifesaving feats at an American lighthouse.

In 1924, government officials decided to change the station to a single light, and the west light was extinguished for good on June 14. In May 2000, the east tower was licensed by the Coast Guard to the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). The tower’s foundation was repaired in the fall of 2008.

Unfortunately, public access to this very handsome lighthouse is limited because it's surrounded by private property. You can get a nice view from the nearby Two Lights Lobster Shack.

For more, information, visit these sites: and You can also read much more about this lighthouse in the book The Lighthouses of Maine, to be published by Commonwealth Editions in June 2009.