“The lighthouse and the lightship appeal to the interests and better instinct of man because they are symbolic of never-ceasing watchfulness, of steadfast endurance in every exposure, of widespread helpfulness.” – George R. Putnam, Commissioner, United States Lighthouse Service, 1910 to 1935
Maine’s lighthouses have a long and fascinating history as guardians of a rugged and unforgiving coastline. For centuries, these sentinels have stood strong against raging storms, remained vigilant through the black of night and impenetrable fog and garnered the admiration of countless thousands of mariners for their lifesaving powers.
At the same time, the Pine Tree State’s lighthouses have also been incredibly beloved for their romance, mystery and valiant service of their keepers. Though technology continues its ceaseless march straight into the face of time – along the way steadily reducing the critical reliance upon lighthouses for those at sea, the allure and intrigue people have for lighthouses remains undiminished.
Samuel Adams Drake once said, “There is nothing that moves the imagination like a lighthouse.” No truer words have been spoken. In fact, it seems the public’s fascination with lighthouses only grows with the passage of time.
For these reasons and so many more, it is why residents and visitors alike look forward to one special day on the calendar each year – the second Saturday in September when around two dozen coastal sentinels are open to the general public during Maine Open Lighthouse Day. This year’s date is September 10, 2016 from 9 am to 3 pm.
The popular event, sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, Maine Office of Tourism and the American Lighthouse Foundation, attracts 15,000 to 18,000 people each year and focuses on sharing with visitors the Coast Guard’s rich lightkeeping heritage, the importance of preserving these iconic beacons for the future and showcasing the stunning beauty of the Maine coast.
With such a wide-ranging appeal, fun and memories-in-the-making are never in short supply during Maine Open Lighthouse Day. Photogenic sentinels and sparkling seascapes beckon the visitor at every turn, but so too does the longstanding tradition of keeping a good light.
For though Maine’s lighthouses punctuate a rocky coastline with unsurpassed elegance and grace, their commissioned duty to serve as guardians of the sea, remains unchanged at many of the state’s historic light stations.
Today, the time-honored responsibility for “keeping the watch” at the lights belongs to the United States Coast Guard. Just like their predecessor – the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the Coast Guard is dedicated to making sure the twenty-first century mariner is protected by a well-maintained network of aids to navigation, including the beacons and fog horns at lighthouses.
Bygone lighthouse keeper and author Robert Thayer Sterling once said that the keeper of a light “must know his equipment and how to use it. His light, with its delicate mechanism, and his fog signals are instruments which must be kept going perfectly. A slight change in the warnings of a particular light might lead a ship to disaster instead of safety.”
Mr. Sterling penned these words in the 1930s, but as much as things change, they remain the same. Modern Coast Guard lighthouse technicians adhere to the same commitment as those who came before them when it comes to keeping the lights, fog horns and their associated equipment in tip-top shape to help in safeguarding the mariner.
Did you know that the United States Coast Guard still keeps a light shining bright at 56 active Maine lighthouses? In addition, the USCG maintains 36 fog horns at light stations up and down the Maine coast.
Instead of filling lamps with oil or kerosene, winding clockwork mechanisms, polishing brass or keeping a light station inspection-ready at all times, U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse technicians keep a “watch” of a different kind – but make no mistake about, the tradition of vigilance and a commitment to excellence has not waned.
Just as the sea and the dangers it poses remain unchanged over centuries of time, so too does the need for a good light to be exhibited.
To accomplish this vitally important task, the Coast Guard deploys a variety of equipment and technology that ensures that Maine’s lighthouses remain steadfastly effective and efficient. From legacy beacons to cutting-edge light emitting diode technology powered by solar energy, the lights continue to send guiding gleams seaward each and every night.
Even the activation systems for sound signals are keeping pace with modern technology. Today, all of Maine’s fog horns are outfitted with equipment called the Mariner Radio Activated Sound Signal system, which enables the mariner to activate a fog horn on demand by keying the mic of their VHF radio five times in succession on Channel 83A.
On Maine Open Lighthouse Day, visitors will learn that though automation eliminated the need for an on-site lightkeeper to keep the lights and fog horns watching properly, the lighthouses still require human hands to protect those at sea.
Coast Guard lighthouse technicians still inspect and carry out regularly scheduled preventative maintenance on the aids to navigation equipment at the lights – and on those occasions when a beacon goes dark or a fog horn goes silent, these modern day keepers of the lights waste no time repairing the discrepancy.
So when you climb one of Maine’s historic sentinels during Maine Open Lighthouse Day or any other time of the year, rest assure that our rich lighthouse heritage is in good hands – the United States Coast Guard still has the watch!
“Lighthouses, from the earliest times, have fascinated and intrigued members of the human race. To almost every man and woman there is something about a lighted beacon which suggests hope and trust and appeals to the better instincts of all mankind. Standing off by itself in the ocean, a lighthouse symbolizes the eternal vigilance of its keeper, who must be alert and watchful at all times – in sunshine or darkness, in fog or stormy weather.” – Edward Rowe Snow