Angeles Juarez and Tom Pickering lined up in Fort Williams Park on Saturday for a rare opportunity to step inside Portland Head Light and climb the 85 steps to see the view from the top.
The iconic lighthouse, one of the most photographed and visited in the country, would be open for limited interior visits for a single day. Tickets were given out on a first-come, first-served basis, and later arriving visitors were told that no further inside tours were available, although they could admire the museum and the scenery without precedent of the park. Some checked other nearby lighthouses.
Juarez and Pickering traveled from New Jersey specifically to see Portland Head Light. Because they arrived at 7:30 a.m. Saturday, they were among about 300 people who snagged tickets to enter, climb to the top and take in the view 80 feet above the ground.
“She wanted to see this lighthouse. She loves headlights,” Pickering said.
Saturday was Maine Open Lighthouse Day, and about 18,000 people visited the state’s 19 lighthouses that opened to the public — the state has about 65 lighthouses in all. The Coast Guard partners with the American Lighthouse Foundation to offer the annual Open House.
“It’s beautiful! I love it. The view is, oh my! said Juárez.
Kris Taylor from Cape Elizabeth celebrated her birthday by climbing the stairs to the lighthouse. “The view is amazing,” she said.
“This lighthouse is extremely popular,” said Peter Poulin of the Coast Guard Auxiliary. “Tours are free, but we can only bring 12 people at a time so there is no congestion on the stairs and people have plenty of time at the top to enjoy the view,” said he declared. “We started giving out tickets at 8:45 a.m..” By 9:30 a.m. the tickets were gone.
It takes a few minutes to climb the spiral staircase and ticket holders have been warned to hold on to the railing. Going up, voices echo in the narrow staircase.
After climbing to the top, tourists were greeted by Coast Guard Senior Chief Clayton Franklin. The Coast Guard maintains the lighthouse lights, but most are owned by individuals or nonprofit organizations, he said. Portland Head Lighthouse is owned by the City of Cape Elizabeth.
“It’s great to interact with the public, to share what we’re doing and to offer a bit of history,” he said. Portland Head Light was commissioned by George Washington decades before Maine became a state.
“This lighthouse was first lit on January 10, 1791, by 16 whale oil lamps,” Franklin said. “It’s fun to tell the story.”
Another story surrounding the lighthouse is the wreck of the Annie C. Maguire, which struck the ledge a little offshore on Christmas Eve 1886. The ship, from Argentina, was heading for Quebec with 18 people on board, Poulin said. All 18 were rescued by lighthouse keeper Joshua Strout, his family and volunteers.
“He fed them…a Christmas meal,” Poulin said.
Although the lighthouses are no longer manned, they remain essential to navigation, according to the Coast Guard.
“Professional sailors use headlights to take their visual cues,” Franklin said. Often, port pilots use headlights to verify the location indicated by their electronic devices. When they look at a lighthouse, “they know their location”.
Lighthouses are also a big draw for tourists, and Portland Head Lighthouse is one of the most visited in the world.
On Saturday, tourist buses dropped off hundreds of tourists. Vehicles in the parking lot bore license plates from Florida, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Texas, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Maine and elsewhere.
Portland Head Light is one of the tallest lighthouses in Maine, but the tallest is the 133-foot Boon Island Lighthouse, visible from York Beach, said Ann-Marie Trapani, associate director of the American Flagship Foundation. Boon Island, however, was not open to the public on Saturday.
Those that were open included some on islands accessible only by boat – Wood Island Light off Biddeford Pool and Burnt Island Light off Southport. Others included South Portland’s Spring Point Ledge, Pemaquid Point, and Owls Head lighthouses. Trapani was welcoming visitors to Owls Head and said it had been a busy day.
“People love it,” she said. “Many lighthouses cannot be opened every day. This is a day we coordinate with the Maine Office of Tourism, the US Coast Guard and our organization, the American Lighthouse Foundation.
The goal of the annual post-Labor Day event is to draw attention to the preservation and historical significance of Maine’s lighthouses, Trapani said, and allow Maineans “to explore and see their headlights”.
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