Capt. Joshua Strout, Keeper, Portland Head Light, 1869-1904. Cape Elizabeth Historical Preservation Society

It is impossible to discuss the history of Cape Elizabeth’s rocky shoreline without addressing the shipwrecks that have occurred there.

Millions of sightseers at Portland Head Light are reminded of the events of Christmas Eve 1886 when they read the hand-painted ledge just a few yards to the south of the light tower.

The three-masted British barque Annie C. Maguire, en route from Argentina, came aground and languished there in the frigid mid-winter temperatures on that Dec. 24, a little over 133 years ago.

Quick action by lighthouse keeper Capt. Joshua Strout, his family and a few neighbors on that night saved all of those on board by laying planks and ladders to form a bridge from the rocky shore to the stricken vessel.

The cause of the wreck remains inconclusive even today. Vague reports from crew members suggest that visibility was good and the weather may not have been a major factor. Other reports contradict this assessment.

A salvage operation was soon mounted, recovering some of the ship’s cargo, rigging, etc. But the ship itself was smashed to bits just a week later by a vicious nor’easter.

Joshua Strout’s grandson, John Strout, who later served as assistant keeper at Portland Head as well as head keeper in other locations, celebrated his 21st birthday in 1912 by memorializing the wreck in paint and with a makeshift marker. The message was initially lengthier than what appears today. But even in its abbreviated form, the words “Annie C Maguire Shipwrecked Here Christmas Eve 1886” transport us to a time when navigating Maine’s storied rockbound coast was indeed a perilous undertaking … even under the watchful guard of a venerable lighthouse.