BATH — Maine Maritime Museum is bringing a lighthouse to life in its newest exhibit, “Into the Lantern: A Lighthouse Experience.”

Centered around the second-order Fresnel lens that once sat in one of the towers of Cape Elizabeth Two Lights, the exhibit is a perfect 1:1 scale replica of the peak of the tower. Guests get to feel like they’re standing at the peak of the lighthouse, looking out over the ocean when viewing the exhibit which opened June 17.

Giant screens, composing a 180-degree view, will showcase the view from the top of the lighthouse through the seasons. Camera crews have been recording footage for months, in all kinds of weather; from rain to snow to sleet and sun.

The interior of “Into the Lantern: A lighthouse Experience.” Courtesy photo

“As far as we know, nothing like this has been done before,” said Katie Meyers, marketing and communications manager for the museum.

The centerpiece of the exhibit, the lens, was installed by Jim Dunlap and Tommy Cumella of the Lighthouse and Lens Restoration Corp., from Staten Island, New York over Memorial Day weekend.

Dunlap is a certified Coast Guard “lampist,” one of a handful of individuals qualified to handle lenses like the one from Cape Elizabeth. He has been involved in the care of lighthouse lenses for a number of years, traveling all over the country to reassemble lenses of varying sizes, from small enough to fit on his kitchen table to the large first-order lenses that weigh thousands of pounds.

Being a lampist takes a special eye for detail, along with the ability to travel. There are only a handful of Coast Guard certified lampists in the country.

“You have to be at a place in your life where you can just take off,” said Dunlap, a former member of the U.S. Coast Guard. He learned his trade from some of the last lighthouse keepers for the Coast Guard and uses some of the same techniques keepers would have used back in the 1800s.

Reassembling lenses is largely based on experience and intuition. “There are no manuals or anything like that,” he said. “Having done this type of work before, you know a few tricks.” Patience is a big part of being a good lampist, too, as each lens piece is one-of-a-kind and often irreplaceable.

A strong back helps, as lens parts often weigh upwards of 80 pounds, with larger lenses requiring teams to lift 200 pounds of fragile material into place.

Cumella met Dunlap through his mother, and decided to try out the work. He plans on taking up the career once Dunlap retires. “I love the work,” he said. “You get around something like this, 200 years old, 175 years old, it’s kind of mystical.”

Tony Cumella’s head is distorted to fun-house proportions as Jim Dunlap looks on while working to assemble the second-order Fresnel lens. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Maine Maritime Museum began to look for a good Fresnel lens for an exhibit a few years ago. Chris Hall, curator of exhibits at Maine Maritime Museum, stood at the top of Two Lights east tower several years ago, and thought replicating the view would be a great way to show off what it’s like to be in a lighthouse.

Cape Elizabeth had the Two Lights lens inside its town offices, on a small display. However, new Coast Guard policies meant the town was going to have to shell out lots of money for insurance, so the town gave it back to the Coast Guard.

That’s when the museum got a fortuitous call.

“We got a call from the Coast Guard curator,” said Hall. “They said, ‘It’s already in Maine, and you’re already in Maine, are you interested in taking this on?’ We had two or three days to decide.”

The 1,800 pound, 5-foot diameter lens – which was used from 1874 through the 1990s – was a great fit for what the museum wanted. “We already have the insurance coverage that was needed, and we already have the climate control that’s needed, so it wasn’t a big stretch for us,” said Hall.

Dunlap was the one who packed the lens up and brought it to the museum. Over the last few months Eric and Luke Winne, of Georgetown, have been working on the enclosure. It is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the first lighthouse they’ve built.

“We hope to do it again,” said Eric.

To get the proportions on the replica right, they used some of the original plans from the Coast Guard, obtained by Hall. However, the more than 100-year-old plans didn’t have all the information, so Luke had to cart a ladder up the tower in Cape Elizabeth and take measurements by hand.

Eric Winne working on Maine Maritime Museum’s 1:1 scale replica of Cape Elizabeth Two Lights back in May. Staff photo by Chris Chase

“We just had to kind of reverse-engineer it,” said Eric. The measurements they took were put into modeling software to create a digital version of the lighthouse, which was used as a blueprint for making all the parts and pieces necessary to recreate it.

Getting parts for a one-of-a-kind, 19th-century lighthouse isn’t as simple as heading down to the local hardware store. Nearly every single piece of the enclosure had to be custom fabricated, either by the Winnes or by companies with larger equipment. Pieces like brass handles on the exterior of the lighthouse were machined to match the original, with the only differences being the techniques and modern materials.

Just outside the enclosure, a small “keepers’ hut” will show off lots of information about the lighthouse, and about the Fresnel lens that makes up the centerpiece of the exhibit.
The exhibit is made possible by a fundraising campaign that has raised a million dollars, which allowed Maine Maritime Museum to break ground on the exhibit back in December.

“For the past three years we’ve been planning an exhibit that would honor the history of this particular lighthouse, the technology that makes Fresnel lenses so effective, and create an immersive experience unlike anything else we know of,” said Amy Lent, executive director.

The new exhibit has even managed to get itself a stamp on the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Passport Program, which allows people to collect unique stamps for each lighthouse or museum across the country.

Tickets are $6 for adults, and free for children under 12. For more information, visit mainemaritimemusuem.org.