My mother was a big lighthouse fan; every time she visited, we made sure to go see one. Marshall Point, Rockland Breakwater, Pemaquid and Owls Head were always some of her favorite lighthouses to visit.

Whenever our scuba group dove on the wreck of City of Portland, we usually left by boat from Owls Head town dock. I always tried to arrive early for those dives for time to go over and see the lighthouse. There is just something pretty cool and classic about this 20-foot tower on a ledge 100 feet above the water.

This early photo of Owls Head Lighthouse was likely taken prior to 1856. Courtesy of the National Archives

Even before Maine achieved statehood, there was a demand for a light to mark the end of the Muscle Ridge Channel and entrance to Rockland Harbor’s south side. Rockland and Thomaston’s growing lime trade amplified the need. Maritime traffic increased dramatically in the early years of the 19th century and so did demand for a lighthouse.

Finally in 1824, Congress authorized the idea and approved $4,000 for construction. Nearly 18 acres were acquired for $258.75 from the heirs of Nathaniel Merryman. The rocky headland had been originally referred to as Bedabedec, an Indian term meaning “cape of the winds.” Others thought that from the water, the rocky point resembled the head of an owl. Owls Head stuck.

The contract to build the light was won by Jeremiah Berry, Capt. Ballard Green, and Maj. Robert Foster. Berry would also be instrumental in the building of Pemaquid Lighthouse in 1827. The Owls Head light tower and keeper’s house were finished during John Quincy Adams’ administration and the light first illuminated Sept. 10, 1826.

The first light was a series of eight oil lamps with reflectors that measured 15 inches. Contractors built a small stone structure which contained a kitchen and two rooms. A tiny attic was divided into an additional two small rooms. Isaac Stearns, an 1812 war veteran, was appointed by Adams to be the first of 30 subsequent Owls Head lightkeepers. His yearly salary was $350.

Within a few years, however, Owls Head Light was considered to be the most miserable posting on the Maine coast. Its stone tower quickly came apart, the mortar softened and washed out by storms and moisture. The walls of the keeper’s house were open at the joints, winds whistled through the gaps. The roof leaked and the woodwork quickly rotted.

It was also difficult to get from the keeper’s house to the tower atop the ledge — the 120-foot mostly vertical distance was challenging, especially in winter. There were many slips and falls. A walkway with connecting stairs was eventually built in 1874. By 1903, it was covered to offer protection from rain and snow, but the covering was removed in the 1930s. Great Depression austerity had deemed it too expensive to maintain, besides its being a natural fire hazard.

A new tower was built in 1852 and, four years later, a Fresnel lens replaced the reflectors. A bell was added after the Civil War; it hung from the tower porch so keepers could warn ships in heavy fog. In 1879, the bell was automated to ring every 15 seconds in bad weather. The foghorn became electric in 1954.

Pictured is the Owls Head Lighthouse after 1879 construction of new automatic fog bell. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Owls Head Lighthouse got its first telephone line in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, as well as a boundary fence around the perimeter. The last civilian lightkeeper retired in 1963 and Coast Guard personnel maintained the station until 1989, when the light was fully automated.

This 1931 photo shows the lighthouse with its covered walkway from the lightkeeper house to the tower. Courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

One lightkeeper, named Gus, brought his springer spaniel dog named Spot with him to the station. Gus’ daughters taught the dog how to ring the bell at passing ships. The dog enjoyed doing this, especially when ships would return the favor with a horn blast of its own.

During a blizzard, the Matinicus mailboat without knowing it came dangerously close to the lighthouse rocks. Spot tried to ring the bell but found it frozen. He ran to the edge of the rocks and barked until he gained the attention of the mailboat. The captain credited the dog with saving the vessel. Spot is buried at the lighthouse, his stone near the keeper’s house.

Pictured is the memorial marker for the lighthouse dog, Spot. Photo by Charles H. Lagerbom

One of the more dramatic moments for Owls Head lighthouse was the story of the frozen lovers. In the winter of 1850, a major storm hit the coast and a small coastal schooner anchored off Jameson’s Point in Rockland.

Apparently, the captain decided to go ashore. Stories swirled that he had been fired, others say he had had a premonition. Those remaining aboard were mate Richard B. Ingraham, crewman Roger Elliott and Ingraham’s fiancé, Lydia Dyer.

In the crashing waves, the schooner parted its anchor chain and drifted onto ledges at Spruce Head where it began to take on water. The three aboard huddled at the stern beneath a thick wool blanket.

With freezing temperatures, spray from the waves coated everything in ice. Slowly but surely, it built up around them. By 6 a.m., Roger Elliot managed to break himself free and scrambled ashore. He found a road and soon encountered the Owls Head Lightkeeper, Henry Achorn.

Achorn got the delirious sailor to the lighthouse where he revived him and learned about Ingraham and Dyer still aboard the schooner. When he got to the vessel, Achorn discovered the couple completely encased in a frozen block of ice.

He thought them dead, but still cut them free from their ice prison and managed to get the unresponsive couple back to the lighthouse. There, he submerged them in a large bathtub basin and slowly increased the water temperature. As the water grew warmer, Achorn’s family helped move the limbs of Ingraham and Dyer.

After two hours, Lydia showed some response. Ingraham took three hours, but both came back to life. They later married and became local celebrities as the Frozen Lovers of Owls Head. They had four children. Elliot, who saved them by getting to shore, never fully recovered and never went back to sea.

Pictured is a postcard of Owls Head Lighthouse and covered walkway, ca. 1929. From the collection of Charles H. Lagerbom

Owls Head light is also considered to be haunted. Coastal Living magazine has ranked it the number one most haunted lighthouse. It is said at least two ghosts inhabit the site. Coast Guard members and their families residing there in the 1980s told stories of strange happenings.

It is believed a former lightkeeper, who may have died there, always keeps the heat down in the place; his cold presence seems to fill the keeper’s house. For no known reason, silverware has been heard to jangle and drinking glasses have been known to vibrate. The occasional door slams shut. Some have seen shadowy images outside quickly flit by a window. Approaching the house, people have reported seeing shadowy figures in the upstairs windows.

The keeper’s house is located 200 feet down a slanted boardwalk from the light tower. After a snowfall or a heavy dew, footprints of a man’s thick-soled boots have been seen. They seem to trail only up to the light tower, never back down. Following those footprints, a keeper once found the locked iron door to the light tower open, and so was the case around the Fresnel light.

Visiting Owls Head Lighthouse is always a treat, but it is easy to come away with a sense of unease or eeriness. One time I asked the person working there if they had ever seen or experienced anything supernatural. He just smiled and said, “Would you believe me if I did?” Come to think of it — I am pretty sure I would!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP U.S. History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He is author of “Whaling in Maine” and “Maine to Cape Horn,” available through Historypress.com.

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