Saturday’s cool weather provided ideal conditions for a walk along the breakwater to the fabled lighthouse, and visitors from across the globe took advantage of the opportunity during the first Maine Open Lighthouse Day.
Eric Davis, volunteer coordinator of Friends of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, said he expected more than 400 visitors by the day’s end.
“It’s a pretty incredible turnout,” Davis said.
Davis already had welcomed tourists from Germany, England, New York, Canada, Indiana, Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Colorado, California, Maryland, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine that morning as a steady stream of visitors continued the 1-mile trek along the granite breakwater.
Sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, Maine Office of Tourism and American Lighthouse Foundation, the event featured 29 lighthouses from Portland to West Quoddy Head.
Owls Head Light, which was turned over to the community two years ago and is one of three lighthouses that will share an $800,000 federal grant for repairs, also attracted a steady line of visitors Saturday. It was the first time in years that the light overlooking Muscle Ridge Channel was opened to the public.
“It’s a great day because it gives people an opportunity to go inside lighthouses that normally aren’t open,” Davis said. “Lighthouse lovers are very happy today.”
The lighthouse and keeper’s quarters were turned over to the city in 1999 and the friends have undertaken restoration projects since then. Asbestos and lead paint had to be removed before the historic site could be opened to the public.
“It was pretty trashed. It had been sitting unoccupied since the 1960s,” Davis said.
This year, the breakwater lighthouse has been opened every weekend since Memorial Day. More than 12,500 people have paid a visit since then, about the same as visited all of last year by the time the friends closed for the season on Columbus Day, Davis said.
Peter and Suzanne James, of Hampden, Mass., were in the area for a wedding and were glad they decided to walk to the light. The couple, who own a vacation home on Long Lake in Naples, said the lighthouse was well worth the trip.
“It’s very nice out here. It’s a great view,” Suzanne James said. “We’re staying at the Samoset and are going to a wedding this afternoon and thought we’d walk out here. It’s great and it’s good exercise.”
Chris Nicholson of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and friends from Fredericton and Moncton, New Brunswick, were in the area to attend the Maine Fare celebration in Camden and decided to visit the lighthouse as well. Nicholson said he and his friends love Maine and enjoyed their visit.
“It’s great,” Nicholson said as he climbed the ladder to the light tower. “It’s a real piece of history.”
The lighthouse was built in 1902 at a cost of $30,000, including $317 for plumbing. The first assistant lighthouse keeper, Clifford M. Robbins, stayed at the light until 1909, when the winters and isolation finally got to him. He was paid $480 a year.
Among the artifacts on display is a photograph of Robbins standing beside the lighthouse on a frozen Rockland Harbor covered with 18 inches of ice. The caption quotes him as saying, “Three or four winters like that in a row and I got fed up with lighthouse keeping.” The Coast Guard manned the lighthouse until June 2, 1964, and its last keeper was Boson’s Mate First Class Murray R. Bergen. It was automated in the 1980s.
The lighthouse is at the end of the Rockland Breakwater, a mile-long stretch of granite quarried from the nearby island of Vinalhaven, according to volunteer Aurora Aiken, a 14-year-old from Cushing who was guiding visitors to the light tower. Work on the breakwater began in 1881 and was completed in 1889. It cost $750,000 and contains more than 732,000 tons of granite.
“I love volunteering. I’ve learned quite a bit about the breakwater and lighthouse,” the Georges Valley High School student said. “It’s pretty interesting history. I like it a lot, it’s nice to learn these things.”