“Lighthouses are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other.” – Virginia Woolf.
Lighthouses live along the New England coast and we love them, not just for the work they do, but for their stark beauty. They have a long history—lighthouses were pictured on Roman coins. Before engineers learned how to design them, keeping them standing in rough weather and the light burning, fires were built on hills to warn sailors of dangerous and rocky coasts. These fires also marked the entrance to good ports. They have saved countless ships and lives.
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Along New England’s 6,000 miles of coastline there are still 200 lighthouses. Every New England state has one, even New Hampshire with its 17 miles of shore. Some are squat and made of rough-hewn stone, others are tall and dignified. One has red-and-white candy stripes. Some lighthouses welcome visitors, a few have gift shops, and others must be loved from a distance.
The first American lighthouse was built in 1716 at Boston Harbor. It didn’t take long for others to rise up, from the jagged coasts of North Carolina to Delaware. They were made of wood, harvested from nearby forests. After several devastating fires, masonry towers were built.
On March 3, 1851, the U.S. Congress passed “An Act Making Appropriations for Light House, Light Boats, Buoys, &c.” The act lead to the creation of the United States Lighthouse Board; it was responsible for the construction and maintenance of all lighthouses and navigation aids in the United States. (It was abolished in 1910.)
With 66 lighthouses, Maine is the crowned gem in Lighthouse Country. West Quoddy Head Light—a terrific name!—marks the entrance to Passamaquoddy Bay. The current lighthouse, built in 1858, stands on the most eastern tip of the United States. It is the closest continental point in the U.S. to Africa and was a hotbed for smugglers. It’s still active and is the only red-and-white striped, candy-cane lighthouse.
Go to Port Clyde, Maine, and you’ll see a lighthouse, built in 1858, that may look familiar. The Marshall Point Lighthouse, in an authentic fishing village, was in the movie Forrest Gump. You can run, or walk, up the same gangway Forrest did when he ran as far to the east as he could go. This lighthouse was also a favorite of the artist, Andrew Wyeth.
Portland, Maine was the busiest harbor on the east coast at one time, outdoing even Boston. There are six lighthouses near Maine’s largest city. The most glamorous is Portland Head Light. Originally built in 1791, Maine’s oldest lighthouse has helped sailors get safely around this dangerous part of the coast. She is an impressive 80-feet-tall and has a keeper’s quarters with a red roof. Maine even has its own, “Lighthouse Day.”
Massachusetts has 50 lighthouses, and one of the best-known sits on Cape Cod. Known as the “Ocean’s Graveyard,” the cape runs 70 miles into the wild Atlantic Ocean. There are shoals, roiling waters, and the ancient hulks of shipwrecks. It was an obvious place to build an early lighthouse; the first was called Highland Light in North Truro, established in 1796 by George Washington himself. Explore the observation deck if you dare—it’s perched on a cliff 120-feet above the Atlantic. Highland is still active, and is the highest and oldest lighthouse on Cape Cod.
Just outside Boston, on Massachusetts’ south shore, you’ll find Scituate Lighthouse. Very few people visit, which makes it enticing. (Scituate itself is one of the oldest towns is New England and is still sleepy.) The lighthouse is the oldest complete building of its kind in America, built in 1811. It is preserved and well-loved.
A wooden tower was built in Jamestown, Rhode Island in 1749, becoming the third lighthouse in the original thirteen colonies. As was common then, a fire was lit at the top of the tower. As is not surprising now, it burned down four years after it was built and a stone tower was erected on the same spot. The finest lighthouse in Rhode Island, though, is Beavertail, built in 1856. The 64-foot tower marks the entrance to Narragansett Bay. Beacons have stood there since the 1700’s.
Long Island Sound is tricky business, and the Connecticut settlers put up a lighthouse as soon as they could afford one. The oldest is New London’s Harbor Light, built in 1761. There’s also a lovely 144-year-old lighthouse, Sheffield Island, by ferry out of Norwalk. (The beaches are beautiful.)
There are only two lighthouses in New Hampshire—she only has 17 miles of coastline—and the Portsmouth Harbor Light, from 1771, is a beauty. This was the first lighthouse north of Boston, and you’re welcome to take a tour. There are 44 stairs up to the watch room, and then you climb a seven-rung ladder to reach the lantern room. Prepare to be amazed!
Interested in exploring the treasures of the East coast? Discover our New England itineraries.