PORT CLYDE, Maine — Even if you’ve never been there yourself, you’ve probably seen Marshall Point Lighthouse, with its white stone tower, protruding wooden walkway and its rocky surroundings that slowly give way to the sea.
The lighthouse was featured in the film “Forrest Gump”, used in countless advertisements for companies like Nautica and Mercedes-Benz, and you seemingly can’t pick up a Maine-themed calendar without seeing a month dedicated to it.
But the ability for the public to access this pristine property today is all thanks to the efforts of a group of locals who banded together in the 1980s to save the site from potential development. In the years since, the keeper’s house has been restored to its original glory and is home to the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum, which attracted a record 19,000 visitors last year and is celebrating its 30th anniversary this summer.
“All we cared about in those days was that we had the freedom to sit and come look at the water, bring the kids to play, watch the storm action on the surf,” said Irene Rizkalla, one of the St. George residents who initially pushed to save the keeper’s house. “You could say what this place has become is a dream come true.”
Marshall Point Lighthouse sits at the opening of the harbor in Port Clyde, a village located in the town of St. George. The lighthouse was originally built in 1832, though the tower that stands there today was built in 1858. A house for the lighthouse keeper was built directly next to the light. But there was no need for a lighthouse keeper after 1971 when the U.S. Coast Guard automated the light.
The house sat vacant well into the 1980s, and there was speculation that the house and grounds were going to be sold to a developer who intended to build a private hotel. Faced with the possibility of losing access to their beloved lighthouse, a group of seven people gathered in Rizkalla’s kitchen one night in 1987 to hatch a plan to save it.
“Those of us who have been here all our lives didn’t want a hotel sitting there so we couldn’t come down and enjoy this view. Everyone was truly upset about that,” Rizkalla said.
The St. George Historical Society formed a lighthouse committee tasked with raising money to restore the keeper’s house. The group worked with the town to show the Coast Guard that they had serious intentions to revive the site and ultimately entered into a long-term lease for the house and grounds.
At the start, the fundraising effort consisted of a lot of bake sales and book sales, resulting in ample but small donations, Rizkalla said. But momentum slowly grew and the historical society ended up receiving a $30,000 grant from the state for the restoration of the keeper’s house.
In 1990, the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum opened in the keeper’s house. The museum pays tribute to the lighthouse’s history but also to the history of St. George, featuring exhibits on the quarrying and lobstering industries that have flourished on the peninsula.
“It’s not just important for the townspeople to have a place to access its history, but for people who are from other states just to wander around and look at the history of this area,” Dave Percival, a Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum volunteer, said. “They get appreciation for what this small town is about.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has limited this year’s season, with fewer visitors and the museum operating only four days a week. Despite that, this is the year that Rizkalla returned to serve the mission of the Marshall Point Lighthouse Museum. After helping start the restoration effort, Rizkalla then shifted focus to her career in real estate. This year she retired, and is now happy to spend her time volunteering at the museum.
“Once you fall for this place you want to be involved,” she said.