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Portland Head Light

Portland Head Light
Jul 24, 2017

Portland Head Light is one of the most photographed lighthouses in the world; hundreds of thousands visit it each year. In 1787 the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, by citizens' request, began construction on a lighthouse at Portland Head. After the Federal government was created, work increased steadily due to appropriation of $1500 and the tower was finished by December 1790. The whale oil lamps beacon was first lighted on January 10, 1791. Three days previously President George Washington had appointed Captain Joseph Greenleaf as the light's first keeper. The lighthouse, which eventually stood 72 feet, was built by local stone masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols.

During the tenure of keeper Elder M. Jordan, a steamer from Liverpool, the R.M.S. Bohemian, was wrecked off Cape Elizabeth on Washington's Birthday February 22, 1864. The ship, carrying precious cargo, as well as 218 passengers and 99 crew members, was a total loss. 42 people drowned in the chaos following the wreck, many of them immigrants from County Galway, Ireland. This tragic incident precipitated improvements on the lighthouse, including raising the tower by twenty feet and installing a new second-order Fresnel lens (a fourth-order Fresnel lens had replaced the lamps and reflectors in 1855).

The story of another shipwreck, on Christmas Eve 1886, is replete with Irish characters. The bark Anne C. Maguire (as spelled in newspaper accounts of the time, although later rendered Annie C. Maguire), under command of Captain Daniel O'Neil, an Irish-Canadian, struck the cliff in front of Portland Head Light; the captain said he "couldn't tell how near he was to the cliff and that she struck bow on before he knew where he was. As soon as she struck the heavy sea and wind swung her around broadside to the cliff in the position" she eventually settled.

The 217-ton bark was originally the well-known clipper ship Golden State, built and finished in New York on January 10, 1852. "Many were the fine passages she made between New York and San Francisco in the palmy days of the California trade," as a local newspaper described it (see Daily Eastern Argus, 28 December 1886). The ship was later purchased by the Irish-Canadian firm of D. & J. Maguire of Quebec, renamed, and put under the British flag to be engaged in the South American trade. Capt. O'Neil made many trips between Buenos Ayres, Argentina, and Portland, Maine before the climatic finale. A local paper sympathized with her captain by stating, "it seems most unfortunate for her master, that knowing Portland harbor so well he should have laid her bones so near port." The paper also wrote that it "speaks well of her New York builders that after nearly 35 years constant buffeting in every port of the globe her frame and timbers were in splendid condition" and she would have had many more seafaring days ahead of her. On December 27th, Captain A. D. Boyd and Charles Goddard (who lived near the lighthouse) surveyed the wreck and said there was no hope of saving her. The vessel was bilged, her bottom was "badly stove" and she would "undoubtedly go to pieces in the first storm." "Wreckers" saved the ship's chains, anchors, spars, and rigging; nothing but the hull, masts and standing rigging remained. (Daily Eastern Argus, 28 December 1886). A local deputy sheriff attached the ship on a writ of debt, as the owners of the ill-fated vessel were heavily in arrears; ironically the authorities had already been waiting to seize her before she struck Portland Head. On December 29th, the ship was put up for auction and a local man had the highest bid of $177.50. But before even what was left of the ship could be salvaged, a New Year's Day storm finished the job of destroying her.

The crew of nine men, plus the captain, his wife, and two mates, were all safely brought ashore by lighthouse keeper Joshua F. Strout and his son Joseph, who had been alerted by the cries of the crew. Mrs. Strout prepared a meal for the crew, which she served in the engine room of the lighthouse. According to one legend, two cases of Scotch whisky were also brought ashore and the crew members quickly became "three sheets to the wind." On the afternoon of December 26th, the crew went to Portland and took up quarters at the popular Sailor's Home of Mrs. Margaret Barry Musgrave (a native of County Cork) and her son John on Fore Street. Capt. O'Neil and his wife Catherine went to stay with their friends Capt. James Patrick and Mary Duddy Bogan in Portland (they were the grandparents of noted poet and critic Louise Bogan of NYC). O'Neil moved into a home on Danforth Street early in 1887 and spent the remainder of his days as a master mariner out of Portland. To this day there is speculation that the entire wreck affair was part of an insurance scam.

Portland Head Light was overseen by private keepers until 1946, when the U. S. Coast Guard took over operations. Between 1946 and 1977, at least three Coast Guard keepers were of Irish extraction, Archie McLaughlin, William T. Burns, and Roy Cavanaugh. The Museum at Portland Head Light was opened in 1992 and remains available to tourists from June 1 to October 31.

Nearby Fort Williams State Park was the site of a military battery as early as 1871, but only three guns had been installed there by 1898. In 1899, by order of President McKinley, Fort Williams became an active military base, and remained so until deactivated in June 1963. Generations of Irish and Irish-American soldiers, of course, were stationed here. From 1905-1911, Catholic Masses were said here by local priests. As a historical aside, the Portland Coast Artillery presented the local Sisters of Mercy with a Munich glass window for their St. Joseph's Academy in recognition of the work the Mercys had accomplished at Fort Williams.

Note: A photograph of the wreck of the Annie C. Maguire can be viewed on mainememory.net.

Related sites: Fort Preble, Portland Waterfront

Author Matt Barker
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