More than a beautiful backdrop, the ocean has always been significant to the region's livelihood and to its defense in wartime. Mainers respect the enduring relationship the state has had with the sea, and ample opportunities exist for you to learn about our rich maritime heritage. Visit some of the following landmarks and museums to steep yourself in Maine's seafaring lore.
In 1807, ships entering Portland Harbor could not be seen from the city's docks until they were almost upon them. Lemuel Moody, sea-captain turned entrepreneur, capitalized on the situation by erecting an 86-foot high tower that allowed incoming sailing ships to be identified from 30 miles away. Moody charged merchants for the service of signaling the arrival of their vessels with a system of colored flags; hoisting the signal flag of a particular merchant would alert them in enough time to have a crew ready at the wharf to meet and unload the ship. Today you can climb the stairs of Moody's octagonal wooden tower and take in magnificent views over Portland and Casco Bay. Named as a National Historic Landmark in 2006, the Portland Observatory is the only remaining historic maritime signal station in the US. It is open for guided tours Memorial Day – Columbus Day and for sunset tours Thursday evenings from late July - mid September.
Constructed in 1897 to mark a dangerous ledge, Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, now fully automated, continues to steer mariners away from its treacherous location. In the 1950s the Army Corps of Engineers built a 900-foot granite breakwater between the lighthouse and shore, making Spring Point one of the only caisson-style lighthouses accessible by land. Every year thousands of pedestrians cross the breakwater to walk around its cast-iron base and enjoy an expansive view of Portland's waterfront and nearby islands. The lighthouse offers public tours at Open House events on summer, and some fall, Saturdays; check their website (www.springpointlight.org) for a list of dates.
Certainly the most-photographed lighthouse in Maine, Portland Head Light was also the State's first lighthouse, commissioned in 1791 by President George Washington. Since then, the 80-foot conical tower of white fieldstone and brick has shone its beacon continuously at the entrance to Portland Harbor. Situated on the spectacular shores of Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, the Museum at Portland Head Light occupies the former Keeper's Quarters and chronicles the history of the lighthouse and the park. See lighthouse lenses and interpretative displays during the museum's season from Memorial Day – Columbus Day.
Several forts dot the islands of Casco Bay though many are only accessible by private boat or kayak. Enjoy scampering around the battlements of Fort Preble on the campus of Southern Maine Community College in South Portland or the WWII battery at Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth.
Just 30 miles north of Portland, in the shipbuilding city of Bath, Maine Maritime Museum's campus sprawls along the scenic banks of the Kennebec River. Here you'll find exhibits brimming with art and artifacts on everything from sea trading to lobstering to shipbuilding. The Percy & Small Shipyard, the only intact shipyard in the US that built the large wooden sailing vessels of yore, contains five of its original 19th century buildings. The museum grounds also host a life-size sculptural representation of the Wyoming, the largest wooden sailing vessel ever built. So step back in time and also enjoy contemporary interactive exhibits as you explore the wonders of Maine's maritime culture.
by Amy Tolk