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Maine Geological Survey
Maine Department of Conservation
West Quoddy Lighthouse Historical Narrative
For over two centuries and more, many a skipper, many a helmsman felt the surge of deliverance upon first spotting the Quoddy Lighthouse, guardian of the most easterly point of the United States. Its fear-mitigating presence began perpetual vigil from West Quoddy Head with the first lighthouse tower in 1808. The West Quoddy name paradox arose because East Quoddy Head lies farther east and a dozen miles north on Campobello Island, outside the U.S. border in Canada.
A great era of lighthouse construction worldwide came about in the 1850s. High technology of the times developed fresnel lenses, efficiently concentrating light toward the horizon for maximum visibility. The new 1857 West Quoddy tower received such a lens from Paris, together with a spiral iron staircase, . Many new lighthouses replicated the style, creating family resemblances among these beacons of hope and safety.
The Light and the Lens
Preceding the 20th Century fire lit all lighthouses. Weak oil lamps, commonly fueled with whale oil, illuminated the lantern while shiny metal reflectors focused the feeble light toward the horizon. Light keepers carried oil, trimmed wicks, and polished the reflectors. Multiple reflectors, used to span coverage of 300 degrees or more demanded as many lamps.
Solid glass lenses originated before 1600, but became burdensome in large sizes. Enter Augustin Fresnel, French physicist and mathematician, whose computations of optical refraction suggested manufacturing lenses in segments. Today's fresnel (fray-nell) lenses, correctly not capitalized, directionalize lighting from theatrical spots to auto taillights with molded segments making in a thinner, lighter lens. For lighthouse purposes the ease of forming individual glass segments into iron-framed cylinders saved weight.
Even so, West Quoddy's "third order" fresnel, four feet eight inches high and over three feet in diameter, weighs a ton, and it's not the largest. It magnified oil-fueled light for 74 years until electrification in 1932, and continues to this day.
Growing reliability and declining cost of technology quelled need for a live crew. Inevitably automation arrived, including weather telemetering by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The termination ceremony took place on June 30, 1988, with last lightkeeper Malcom "Mac" Rouse in attendance.
The U.S. Coast Guard turned over the property including structures to the State of Maine. Today the Coast Guard maintains the lantern, the entire upper lamp assembly, while the State of Maine holds responsibility for those colorful stripes. But despite radar and GPS, local fishermen and other mariners remain dependent on the old stone tower with its so-human characteristics of warning sound and light.
Abridged from the book Remembering Lubec, © Ronald Pesha, 2009.
Q: When is the Visitor Center open:
A: Open from 10 am - 4 pm Memorial day to July 4th, 10 am - 5 pm from July 4th to Labor Day, 10 am - 4 pm from Labor Day to closing October 15th.
Q. What are the dimensions and specifications of the tower?
A. The dimensions and specifications of the tower are as follows:
• Tower 49 feet (15 meters) high.
• Tower diameter at base, 16 feet (4.88 meters), at top 14 feet
• Tower construction: red brick. Additional courses (veneer) added
in 20th Century.
• Center of lantern 83 feet (25.3 meters) above sea level.
• 1000 watt bulb, 30,000 candlepower.
• Visible 15-18 miles (24-29 kilometers) at sea.
• Light flashes (does not revolve) 24 hours per day in this
2 seconds on, 2 seconds off, 2 seconds on, 9 seconds
• Automated in 1988 ~ still a working lighthouse.
• 50 step circular stairway, then 10 rung ladder to top.
• Lens: Third order Fresnel (about 5.5 feet or 1.68 meters) tall.
• Illumination: Originally oil from sperm whales; to lard oil in
to kerosene about 1880; to electricity in 1932.
Q. Can you tell me if there was any damage to or destruction of
the tower in a storm? Was it ever used in a war? How?
A. The Quoddy Head Lighthouse is a substantial structure which
has received no major damage in the 149 years since it was built.
We did receive a copy of a letter from U. S. Coast Guard architect
Marsha Levy dated June 21, 2004. She wrote,
"A hailstorm that occurred within the last 40 years has severely
damaged the copper dome. The sheet copper is covered with
thousands of indentations, some deep enough to penetrate the
surface. The surface of the copper is also dented and deformed. At
the built-in gutter, which is connected to the dome, large
fractures in the sheet metal have occurred. The weight of the
copper used was also too light, it lacked the strength to
withstand deformation from the high wind loads at the site."
This led to replacement of the copper dome in 2004.
Architect Levy wrote to us in January 2005,
"It is possible that the copper we removed was not original - it
might have been a replacement due to some unknown circumstances.
From my examination of the lighthouse, I can see that the watch
deck panels and the watch deck railing are from the late 19th
century (probably late 1880's or 1890's). This suggests that West
Quoddy had major repairs toward the end of the 19th century.
Perhaps the dome was replaced or altered at this time as well."
During the War of 1812, what is now the City of Eastport, Maine,
was occupied by the British for a couple of years. Eastport is
about eight miles by water from West Quoddy Head. It is said that
the lighthouse was occupied briefly by the British at that time,
which we have been unable to confirm. This was of course before
the present tower was built in 1857. The first tower was wooden,
built in 1808.
We have also heard that the lighthouse, exposed at the easternmost
tip of the U.S., was guarded during the early years of World War
II for fear of attack by German submarines. Apparently nothing
Q. As West Quoddy Head Light stands at the Easternmost point of
the continental United States, do you have any information about
the other extreme geographical points?
In the 48 adjacent states:
Northernmost Point: Northwest Angle,
Minnesota, the only part of the 48 States north of the 49th
Westernmost Point: Cape Alvala, Washington.
Southernmost Point: Ballast Key, Florida.
In the entire United States:
Northernmost Point: Point Barrow, Alaska 71° 23' N 156° 29' W
Southernmost Point: Ka Lae, Hawaii 18° 55' N 155° 41' W
Westernmost Point: Cape Wrangell, Alaska 52° 55' N 172° 27' E
Easternmost Point: West Quoddy, Maine 44° 49' N 66° 57' W
Q. How many steps are there to the tower?
A. There are fifty steps up to the tower, which, looking down from
the top, climb clockwise. As you walk up the inside of the tower,
the wall is on your left side. Above the steps one passes through
a bulkhead and finds ten more steps to the deck, so steep as to be
Q. Do you have any details about the original construction of
the Light House?
A. Because of the early date the details of this light house's
construction are shadowy at best. Lubec citizens, concerned about
the dangerous basaltic outcroppings at the narrowing entrance to
Passamaquoddy Bay, urged construction of a light station as early
as 1806. The federal government wanted to establish a U.S.
presence at a time when the boundary between our nation and Canada
The first tower, wooden, was built in 1808 by order of President
Thomas Jefferson. It has been reported that the first officer of
the U.S. Coast Guard, Hopley Yeaton, was involved. Yeaton had been
appointed as an officer in the Cutter Service, which eventually
became the Coast Guard, by George Washington. He had partially
retired to North Lubec and his assertive nature involved him in
public service here.
Border disputes flared in the War of 1812. Indeed, the British
occupied the community of Eastport, just three miles north of
Lubec, for a few years, and are said to have occupied West Quoddy
Light Station very briefly.
A treaty dated November 24, 1817, clearly placed West Quoddy Head
within the U.S., but did not firmly define the exact course of the
boundary line. That required almost a hundred years, to the treaty
of April 11,1908! (Maine in the Northeastern Bounday Controvery,
by Henry S. Burrage, Maine State Historian, published in 1919).
During those years the tower, which stands and operates today, was
built...1857 to be exact.
There is a modern song about West Quoddy Head Light (actually
about its 1988 automation) written by Mr. Noel Vielleux. We
suggest that you write to him at
firstname.lastname@example.org and ask if you may quote from his
copyrighted lyrics for a school project.
Q. Is West Quoddy Head the oldest lighthouse in Maine?
A. No. The oldest lighthouse in Maine is Portland Head Light in
Cape Elizabeth. Construction began under orders of John Hancock,
Governor of Massachusetts. At that time Maine was part of
Massachusetts. When the federal government took over all of
America's lighthouses the construction was completed in 1791.
President George Washington personally appointed the first keeper.
Q. What does the name "Quoddy Head" mean?
A. Passamaquoddy is a bay on the coast of Maine and also the name
of the Native American Tribe - the Passamaquoddy. The
Passamaquoddy people are known in English as "People of the Dawn".
Passamaquoddy is an Indian word meaning "pollock ground" or "pollock-plenty
space". Pollock, meaning the fish known as 'pollock'. 'Quoddy' is
a Micmac word (Micmac are a Canadian Indian people) meaning
"fertile or beautiful place".
'Head' is the shortened term of the word 'headland', which means a
point of land running out into the sea. Thus, Quoddy Head means:
'a fertile or beautiful point of land running out into the sea'.
Q. What is the significance of the bell located in front of the
A. The bell has resided on the property for many decades.
Earlier photos show it closer to the edge of the cliff, about
where the Easternmost Point granite marker rests now. The State
Park Manager tells us that it is an old U.S. Coast Guard bell, but
not used at West Quoddy. Its original location is unknown.
Q. What was the red brick building on the property used for,
and which building housed the oil for the lighthouse years ago?
A. The brick building apparently was built with the keepers'
house, or very shortly thereafter, but it has been much enlarged.
It functioned as the boiler house, a coal-fired steam plant for
the assorted whistles, and diaphones, used as fog-warning devices.
And possibly for house heating? We don't know. It now houses
emergency auto-start diesel generators and fuel tanks, and
telemetering apparatus in contact with U.S. Coast Guard Aids to
Navigation in Southwest Harbor, Maine. Old photos show a large
smokestack along with other buildings - long gone. The frame
building on the left was a barn. We do not know the function of
the building between the house and the boiler building.
The lantern was oil fired for many years before later
electrification. The former U.S. Lighthouse Service is said to
have been very conservative and traditional before it passed to
the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939.The small white structure about
one-third of the way along the patch is unidentified. To the right
of the barn is a clothesline with a few items drying. Between the
house and the brick building (then paintd white) are people
watching the airplane/helicopter? On the rear of the house note
the two back doors, for it was then still a duplex. The back door
on the side away from the sea is now the main entrance to the
Visitor Center. The autos and the trailer identify this as a
mid-20th Century photo. The family of Keeper Howard "Bob" Gray
(1934-52) have told me that the small red building was his
The oil house is the small
building to left side of the photo below, a pathway leading to it.
Q. What do the folks at West Quoddy Light think of the West
Quoddy Replica on Lake Havasu.
A. The working 1/3 size West Quoddy model at Lake Havasu,
Arizona, was (we believe) either their first or second replica.
About five years ago they sent photos of the model in progress,
and then when finished. Some of these photos were posted in our
Visitor Center for one season. As we host tourists from all over
the nation, people from the southwest often remarked on the Lake