A Signature Flash on the Maine Coast
As continuing needs became more clear, lighthouses became more substantial and their technology improved. Each one developed a distinctive flashing pattern, its own light signature. Some burned large tallow candles. Some burned whale oil in spider lamps with wicks that had to be trimmed so often that their keepers were nicknamed “wickies.” Eventually the lights burned mineral oil or kerosene, with metal reflectors or elaborate lenses to increase their visibility. The most successful of these was the famous Fresnel lens, invented by French physicist Augustin Fresnel: an overlapping series of prisms and a central magnifying lens that completely surrounded the light like a large beehive and enormously intensified its beam. In the 20th century, Maine’s lighthouses began converting to gas and, then, electricity.
Most light stations also had some sort of fog signal. At first these were muzzle-loaded cannons. They were replaced by fog bells, steam-powered whistles and, finally, fog horns.
The early light stations were built from whatever was handy, usually wood. But with constant battering by the sea, wood rotted, structures leaked and were damaged or washed away. They had to be rebuilt, again and again. At the most storm-ravaged sites, wood was replaced by brick and/or local stone, and quaint, four- or eight-sided towers gave way to tall, tapering cylinders better able to withstand the weather.
A Maine Lighthouse: Blending Style and Function
The first “lighthouses” in Maine probably were Native American bonfires with rock piles on two or three sides to protect the flames. Early Colonists used open fires in barrels filled with pitch to guide mariners into difficult harbors. The first light on Ram Island Ledge was a beacon sitting atop a simple tripod. The first light at Whitlock’s Mill Station was a lantern hanging from a tree.