SOUTH PORTLAND – Jack Roberts gazed skyward at the freshly painted white tower of the Portland Breakwater Lighthouse Saturday.

“These are an integral part of our maritime heritage,” said Roberts of the lighthouse, squinting under a midday sun. “And kids, for some reason, are fascinated by lighthouses. They grin from ear to ear.”

Saturday was the third annual Open Lighthouse Day, and 63-year-old Roberts was among the volunteers greeting visitors at 25 Maine lighthouses that opened to the public.

“When you are from here you take them for granted a little,” said Sean Dougherty of Oakland, who climbed to the top of Breakwater Lighthouse, also called Bug Light, Saturday. “It’s cool to get inside and appreciate it.”

Bob Trapani, executive director of Rockland-based American Lighthouse Foundation, expected thousands of visitors Saturday.

He said the event, organized by his group, the U.S. Coast Guard and the state, attracted some 15,000 people last year.

Some of the Bug Light visitors traveled far for a close-up view.

Raylene Studley came from South Dennis, Mass., on Cape Cod, for Open Lighthouse Day. Her friend Kate Neal came from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Joe Labombard and his wife, Jen, traveled from their home in Plattsburgh, N.Y., to mark their one year anniversary with a lighthouse tour. They had celebrated their engagement at Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth.

The couple are longtime lighthouse enthusiasts: Joe said his mom turned him on to lighthouses years ago; Jen visited them on Long Island as a girl.

Trapani called Open Lighthouse Day an chance for Americans to learn about the nation’s rich maritime history. He said lighthouses kindle a sense of romance and evoke youthful memories of family vacations.

“They are part of the fabric of who we are, and part of the charm and mystique of the Maine coast. We have a real attachment to lighthouses,” he said.

Trapani added that he wants visitors to consider the light keepers, who once kept the lanterns lit and the glass clean.

“I hope that as people are ascending (the lighthouses) they give mind to the keepers, who helped safeguard our fellow man,” he said.

Trapani said there are some 700 lighthouses in the United States, 400 of which are operational.

Most are owned or run by nonprofit groups. The American Lighthouse Foundation maintains 23 towers in New England, including 10 in Maine. The city of South Portland owns Bug Light, but the Rotary Club of South Portland-Cape Elizabeth maintains it.

Rotary club member Roberts, who volunteered Saturday with his wife, said the group donated $13,000 in seed money to fund Bug Light’s restoration in 1989.

The first lighthouse in the United States was built in 1716 in Boston Harbor. Portland Head Light was built around 1790; Bug Light dates to 1875, but a wooden structure preceded it.

Trapani said lighthouses, initially fueled by whale oil, were built primarily for economic reasons. He said the towers made seaborne trade more reliable and helped protect cargo.

“It’s more romantic to say (they were) built to save lives, but to fund them you had to have an economic reason,” he said.

Jonathan Hemmerdinger can be reached at 791-6316 or:

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