Monday, June 10, 2024

Maine Lighthouse Museum

One of the best things we've discovered about a road trip is that many times we don't know what we'll come across, and when unplanned or unexpected, all the better.
That's what happened in Rockland, Maine, on our recent anniversary road trip when we visited the Maine Lighthouse Museum. This museum houses the largest collections of lighthouse lenses, lighthouse artifacts and United States Coast Guard memorabilia (USCG) in the nation. The goal of the museum is to educate and promote not only the lighthouse but lifesaving as well.
Who knew?
Certainly not us and this museum is right here in New England, almost in our backyard so to speak. Along New England's 6,000 miles of coastline there are 200 lighthouses remaining and every state has at least one. 

Lighthouses were made from a variety of materials: wood, rough-hewn stone, brick, reinforced concrete, iron, steel, even aluminum and fiberglass. They were built on land, in the water, on islands, on top of ledges and cliffs, on breakwaters and piers and on caissons; at least five are on fort walls. Some are squat, others are tall and dignified. No matter their size, lighthouse are always impressive, even more so were lighthouse keepers who are included in the museum exhibits.. 

As we were driving through Rockland, we saw a sign for the museum and made a detour from our planned route to find the museum. Luckily, it was open on a weekday as the switch to summer hours came the week before after Memorial Day. Maybe, because it was a weekday with schools not yet out and limited vacationeers, but the day (Monday) and time of our visit (afternoon), we were the only visitors..

What's to See?
Everything to do with New England lighthouses. Museum exhibits include vintage Fresnel lenses, foghorns, marine instruments, life saving equipment, photographs, flags, buoys, fog horns and bells, lighthouse and ship models and Coast Guard memorabilia. There’s an exhibit dedicated to the fascinating and largely untold history of female lighthouse keepers. Many items on display are one of a kind and not found elsewhere. For anyone interested in lighthouses or American maritime history, it's a must-see stop. Patrick is a Navy veteran, so we couldn't bypass this chance to visit.

CWO4 Kenneth Black, USCG 
How Did It Begin?
The Maine Lighthouse Museum was founded by the late CWO4, Kenneth Black, who is recognized as one of the leading lighthouse preservationists in the U.S. A WW II Coast Guard veteran, Black saw action at the invasion of Okinawa. After the war, he served throughout New England and the Great Lakes in various capacities. He ended his Coast Guard career as Commander of the Rockland Coast Guard Station.

As the Officer in Charge of Coast Guard Station Rockland, Black gradually assembled the beginnings of the museum collection as he visited Coast Guard stations and bases in New England. He realized that while Maine doesn't have the most lighthouses (65 compared to over 150 in Michigan), it has some of the most historic and oldest ones. 

Black was Mr Lighthouse
When he retired from the Coast Guard, Black was the official curator of the First Coast Guard District. As a Coast Guard Commander, he had overseen the operation of many of the nation’s lighthouses. His interest is saving lighthouse artifacts began after he learned that many were being discarded as automation changed the way lighthouses had been operating since the late 1700s. 

He coined the phrase, Lighthouses are like people, they come in many different sizes, shapes and colors, and used it to promote the importance of lighthouse preservation.

USCG Station, Rockland, ME
After gathering countless maritime artifacts, Black received Coast Guard permission to set up a display at the Coast Guard Station in Rockland, ME, which evolved into the largest collection of lighthouses lenses and equipment in the country. When the exhibits overflowed this space, Black arranged for them to be loaned to the Shore Village Museum, 
which housed Civil War artifacts and some lighthouse memorabilia, now, working foghorns, ship models, flashing lights, search and rescue gear, bells, buoys and boats were added to the museum. For many, this was the first time, they were able to see so much maritime memorabilia. Black took on a new role as curator of the Shore Village Museum. 

Internet source
Black wasn't done collecting as he traveled throughout New England searching out more artifacts. His goal was not only to preserve the nation’s heritage, but to promote the study and appreciation of maritime history for future generations. The public responded as people stepped forward with donations. Some were easy to transport, others, like priceless Fresnel lenses, fog bells and foghorns weighing thousands of pounds took more effort. 

In 2005, when the collection, once again, outgrew its exhibit space, it was relocated to its present location, the restored Courier Newspaper building on Rockland's waterfront and renamed the Maine Lighthouse Museum. (The Shore Village Museum later closed.) The new museum now featured the largest collection of rare lighthouse lenses (especially Fresnel) of any U.S. museum. In 2007, the Museum of Lighthouse History in Wells, ME, merged its collection with the Maine Lighthouse Museum. This merger created the largest lighthouse museum in the U.S.

What are Fresnel Lenses?
Augustin-Jean Fresnel
The Fresnel lens was named after its inventor Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a French civil engineer and physicist. His research in optics in the 1820s led to the acceptance of the wave theory of light. The catadioptric (reflective/refractive) lens he invented was specifically for use in lighthouses and replaced metal reflectors with revolutionary stepped lenses of his design. This extended the visibility of lighthouses, saving countless lives.

Compared to other lenses of the time, Fresnel lens were thinner and lighter in design, which allowed more light to pass through them. Lighthouse lights became more visible at longer distances serving as guides to mariners and lessening shipwrecks. Fresnel lenses became the standard optical system for lighthouse lighting for years, many are still in use today. Sadly, Fresnel died at age 39 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis. His name is forever associated with his invention.
Nearly all U.S. National Park lighthouses originally had a Fresnel lens. Many have been removed or replaced with more modern lighting mechanisms through advancements in technology. 
Fresnel lenses on display in the museum were amazingly beautiful to see up close.
Fresnel lens from Bakers Island Light, Salem, MA
The above lens was made by Chance Brothers Co. of England, a principal manufacturer or lenses and other lighting equipment and competitor to France in the production of Fresnel lenses. An innovation from Chance Brothers was the introduction of rotating optics, allowing adjacent lighthouses to be distinguished from each other by the number of times per revolution that the light flashed. Noted English physicist and engineer John Hopkinson invented this system while employed at Chance.
There are several dioramas and detailed lighthouse models on display. All of these were made to exacting detail to display the lighthouses and harbor scenes.
Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, South Portland, ME
The above model is the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, ME. It's the only caisson-style (sparkplug or bug light) style light station in the U.S. that visitors can walk to on the breakwater. The superstructure of this type of lighthouse type is built on concrete or metal. This lighthouse has been an integral part of the history of Portland harbor and Casco Bay since 1897; it was listed on the National Historic Register in 1988.
Fog bell formerly on Matinicus Rock Light
This 2000-pound bell was cast in Philadelphia, PA, in 1855 and installed on a wooden frame at the Matinicus Rock Light in Maine. Fog bells were crucial when dense fog interfered with the light's visibility. This one was in use during most of the tenure of Abbie Burgess as assistant light keeper from 1654 to 1875. She became well known for her bravery in tending the Matinicus Rock Light during an 1856 winter storm. She did so for a month when her father, the head light keeper, was away from the island. 
Many vintage photos and personal items of famous lighthouse keepers can be seen in display cases, including Robert Sterling, Fanny Mae Salter, Abbie Burgess, Ida Lewis and others. These individuals are as important to Maine’s lighthouse history as their artifacts. The museum ensures their extraordinary contributions to maritime history are not forgotten.
Early lifeboat, breeches buoy, foghorn displays
What looks like a round personal flotation device with a leg harness attached and works like a zip line is called a breeches buoy. This rope-based rescue device was used to extract people from wrecked vessels, or to transfer people from one place to another in situations of danger. Foghorns provide audible warnings of dangers to shipping like rocky coastlines, shoals, of the presence of other vessels when visual navigation aids are obscured in foggy conditions. 
Exhibits in the museum display different stories of bravery and dedication to the service of the men and women in the United States Coast Guard and United States Life-Saving Services. 
Display cases featured light house lamps and other memorabilia and artifacts.
As stated earlier, our stop at this museum wasn't planned, but was definitely an informative experience. The best part of a road trip is finding and learning about special places along the route and sharing, so now you know as well.
The Maine Lighthouse Museum is at 1 Park Drive in Rockland, ME, the heart of the Midcoast. The museum has summer hours after Memorial Day, Monday through Friday 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. Saturday and Sunday 10:00 am to 4:00 pm. After Columbus Day, hours are limited so it's best to call ahead. The museum closes January and February and in spring operates Thursday, Friday and Saturday.


David M. Gascoigne, said...

For those of us given to bouts of nostalgia, it seems quite sad that so many lighthouses, most in fact, have now been decommissioned and that lighthouse keepers no longer maintain their vigil. In reality, however, it must have been a strange and lonely life.

Tom said...

...lighthouses are a wonderful throwback to simpler times.

kathyinozarks said...

This was so interesting thank you, Have an awesome new week

Marie Smith said...

Love lighthouses. Great post, as always!

gigi-hawaii said...

There is a lighthouse on Makapuu point on my island of Oahu. I don't think it still works, but it is a landmark, often pictured in paintings and photos.

MadSnapper said...

it would be worth the visit for me to see just the old oil lamps and those stunning sparkling lenses... what a great place to visit

Marcia said...

What an interesting find in your travels. We do the same unless we have somewhere to be by a set time.
In your trip did you get to climb any light houses?

Emma Springfield said...

This was fascinating. I've already read it twice. I didn't realize so much went into creating the lights for a lighthouse. Amazing.

photowannabe said...

What an amazing museum. I'm so glad you stopped and must have walked your legs off to see it all.
Those Fresnel lenses are so beautiful..fantastic captures. I love the old oil lamps too.
Thanks for sharing your side trip with us.

Bijoux said...

That looks like an interesting find. Wow on the size of that lens from Bakers Island. We do not have many lighthouses in the Midwest, so when we stumble upon one on a trip, we always go see it.

Ginny Hartzler said...

I saw a lighthouse show once that talked about the Fresnel lights. Some of your lights here are like a work of art. This museum is such a great idea. Especially because lighthouses seem to be disappearing so quickly. We just saw a show last night about the destruction of the Great Lighthouse in ancient Alexandria Egypt.

Salty Pumpkin Studio said...

That is a fascinating museum, a must vist place!
Thank you for the great post

DUTA said...

Fascinating read about a fascinating place! As far as I remember, I've been to lighthouses in two countries: South Africa, and Portugal. Got impressed on both occasions.

Linda G. said...

What an informative post! I enjoyed reading your post and looking at the accompanying pictures. We have passed by the small lighthouse museum on Chincoteague Island many times. We have planned to stop in but haven’t yet. Perhaps our next stay on the island.

Rita said...

I never thought about female lighthouse keepers. Glad we had some!
What a fascinating side trip! :)

Pamela M. Steiner said...

How wonderful that you discovered this and had the time to go and tour it! Lighthouses are such an integral part of the New England coastline...they are fascinating to see. Thank you for sharing this with us. It looks like a fun and interesting place to visit.

David said...

Hi Beatrice, I don't know how we missed the Maine Lighthouse Museum on our foray along the Maine coast a few years back. It's the kind of place we love to visit and we spent a lot of time exploring the coastal towns. Thanks for all the information and history! Take Care, Big Daddy Dave

Barbara Rogers said...

Hi, and thanks for this thorough tour. I will have to come back when I have more time and walk slowly with you through it. But now it's an artifact on Blogger, so hopefully will be available for a while!

Jim and Barb's Adventures said...

Living in South Dakota, we are probably as far away from lighthouses as you can get. We have been to both coasts however and seen almost every one there is. The lenses are truly fascinating!

Jim and Barb's Adventures said...

Living in South Dakota, we are probably as far away from lighthouses as you can get. We have been to both coasts however and seen almost every one there is. The lenses are truly fascinating!

nick said...

That looks like a very interesting chance discovery. A neat idea to link lighthouses with life-saving. I shudder to think how many ships and lives were lost before lighthouses were invented. And I never knew there were female lighthouse keepers, like many others I guess, I assumed they were all men. Good that they have a special exhibit.

Jeanie said...

I love lighthouses and if I had been on this trip, it's a stop I would have made. Since I'm not, I'm so glad you took us there!

Linda P said...

You'll probably know that we have many lighthouses situated around the coast of Britain that keep our sailors safe especially when the sea is very rough. Many are situated on islands out to sea and others are placed on cliff sites. The museum must have been very interesting especially the exhibits of the Fresnel lights and reflectors that were used in the past.

Michelle said...

I would like to visit this in person, but your post is excellent! Maine is a beautiful place and I look forward to going back.

My name is Erika. said...

I'm catching up since Monday is a work morning for me. Wow, I didn't know there was a light house museum, but Maine a good place for it. There were so many keeper and their families who were out to help ships by running light houses before they became automated. I wonder if there are any left that aren't? Hope it's been a good week so far. hugs-Erika