Lighthouse History and Traditions
On the waterfront of Rockland, Maine, an extensive collection of lighthouse-related artifacts was opened to the public in June 2005. Founded by the late Chief Warrant Officer Ken Black, U.S. Coast Guard, the Maine Lighthouse Museum features the finest collection of Fresnel lenses on public exhibit in the country.
The museum's name reflects location more than the scope of its exhibits, which cover lighthouses and their related technology, as well as the history of the organizations that ran them. Included are more than a dozen Fresnel lenses of various sizes, and lighthouse lighting equipment from candles to solar-powered light-emitting diodes. The museum includes exhibits on all types of lighted navigation aids: lighthouses, lightships, beacons, and buoys.
The exhibit emphasizes the importance of these lighted aids, recalling the time when most of the nation's commerce moved by water along our coastlines, bays, rivers, and lakes. Displays cover the history of U.S. lighthouse administration, first by the Treasury Department, then the Department of Commerce, and, after 1939, the Coast Guard.
Since the museum's opening, two expansions have been undertaken, most recently in the spring of 2007. At that time, the Maine Lighthouse Museum was joined by a partner, the American Lighthouse Foundation, formerly of Wells, Maine. The foundation added its own collection of artifacts to the museum. Its holdings focused on the keeper, who, with his (or occasionally her) family, lived in the lighthouse to ensure the lamp remained illuminated. This was often no easy task, involving at times heroic efforts. In storms, lightkeepers often risked their own lives to keep the lights burning and sometimes to rescue shipwrecked mariners.
The evolution of the keeper is covered, from political appointee to career civilian professional and, finally, Coast Guard military personnel. Items on display include a full-size reconstruction of a boathouse at a typical light station, complete with a real lighthouse peapod boat that was once that of a Maine lighthouse. Mannequins are dressed in 1900s keepers' uniforms. The tools of daily work and life are shown, and the visitor can imagine the sparse, often difficult existence of a family at the light station. Today, of course, all lighthouses in the United States are unmanned (except for maintenance and technical personnel as needed). This museum evokes the memory of past dedicated public servants, male and female, that made the system operate effectively.
Fog remains the bane of the mariner, and before the advent of radar and the global positioning system, the primary means for warning of danger and assisting in safe navigation was sound, in the form of the fog signal. The Maine Lighthouse Museum includes an extensive collection of these signals: bells up to 2,000 pounds, mechanical bell strikers, fog whistles, and horns. Early compressed-air horns are shown, and later electric horns with automatic fog detectors to activate them.
The museum encompasses the history of the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor organizations, the U.S. Life-Saving Service (founded in 1878) and Revenue Cutter Service (1790). To represent the Life-Saving Service, a fully rigged beach apparatus is displayed, with a breaches buoy, beach cart, and drill pole for the mast of a shipwrecked vessel. Videos show how crews rigged the equipment and practiced with surfboats and motor lifeboats; included is footage of a real rescue filmed on Cape Cod in 1922.
A section on the Revenue Cutter Service displays the evolution of this oldest federal law-enforcement agency, which complemented the Life-Saving Service in the rescue of mariners in distress at sea. In 1915, the two joined to form the U.S. Coast Guard. Aspects of that service and its current missions are also displayed.
A current rotating exhibit on the technology of compasses includes a unique ca. 1889 magnetic compass that was interfaced with an electrically powered recording and alarm system designed to prevent shipwrecks. Because the museum founder's passion was preserving lighthouses, two lighthouse organizations are invited every six months to participate. Thus visitors become familiarized with ongoing efforts to care for these symbols of our maritime heritage.
Maine Lighthouse Museum
1 Park Drive
P.O. Box 1116, Rockland, ME 04841
Open year-round; call for winter hours
1 June-1 Nov.: Mon.-Fri.: 0900-1700; Sat.-Sun.: 1000-1600
Other times by appointment
Adults $5, seniors $4, children under 12 free