Where & Why: West Quoddy Head Light
A Beacon for Heavy Shipping Traffic - 200 Years Ago
The light is one of the six oldest lights in Maine, an indication of the heavy shipping traffic into Passamaquoddy Bay two hundred years ago. This was the earliest light built in far Down East Maine. It was first lit in 1808, nine years before Petit Manan and 14 years before Libby Island Light. The station was built first by order of President Thomas Jefferson, and rebuilt fifty years later, in 1858, under President James Buchanan. The first keeper here, appointed by Jefferson, was Thomas Dexter.
The job was not much of a political plum financially. Dexter collected only $250 a year and complained that this was not enough for a family man to support his wife and children. His gripe was that the soil near the light, where the tundra grows today, was so poor that he could not raise a garden; in addition, he had to travel to Lubec, five miles of hard pulling or sailing away, to get supplies. So in 1810, Dexter's pay was raised to $300.
West Quoddy also got one of the first fog signals. This was installed in 1820… The fog signal here was in almost constant use. The keeper, in blunt words, told his superiors just how much extra work he had to put in with ringing the fog bell. Seven years after its installation, the keeper was paid an extra 70 dollars a year for constantly ringing the bell to warn ships off from the dangers of Sail Rocks, as they made their turn into Lubec Channel. But ship captains had trouble hearing the bell and wrote lots of complaints from the start. So the bell was continually changed; four different kinds of bells were tried in 17 years.
The first bell in 1820 was a 500-pound affair, and was replaced by a 241-pounder, supposed to send out a higher-pitched, more penetrating sound. It did not. So, in turn, it was replaced by a huge 1,565-pounder. This still didn't solve the problem. The authorities took a quite different tack: They installed a triangular steel bar that measured 14 feet in overall length. In 1837, lighthouse inspector Captain Joseph Smith, aboard the revenue cutter Morris, surveyed the effectiveness of this cast steel bar and found it poor: "I believe that a sharp-toned bell of some 4,000 pounds weight, struck by machinery properly constructed and proportioned to the bell, would answer all the purposes," he wrote in his report. In 1858, the light and the fog signal were entirely rebuilt.
Now the light, standing 85 feet above the sea, flashes twice every 15 seconds, sending out a beam visible 18 miles away. The station is equipped with a radio beacon and the diaphone horn is as powerful as they make them. West Quoddy Head Light is one of the few candy-striped lights, painted in conspicuous red and white stripes. The lighthouse was automated in 1988, though unlike most of the Maine lighthouses, it has kept its original optic — a third-order Fresnel lens.
Excerpted from Lighthouses of Maine, by Bill Caldwell; published by Down East