It is hard to believe that it is already September and that summer is coming to an end. But, in an effort to grab the last moments of warm weather and calm seas, I took a trip from Brunswick to Saco by boat to see an old friend. It was laughably easy to find our way — simply putting a point into GPS and following the line around the various islands and ledges. Aside from keeping an eye out for other boats and lobster buoys, there wasn’t much to do but look around and enjoy the scenery. When we got close to Portland, a view of Portland Head’s lighthouse reminded me of just how easy modern mariners have it when navigating the waters of Casco Bay.

It also happens that this coming Saturday, Sept. 11, is Maine Open Lighthouse Day. This is a day to celebrate the history and heritage of the many lighthouses along Maine’s coast. Some of them are even open to the public this coming as a part of the event. You can find out more of the details at

Lighthouses have long been a way for people both to navigate coastal areas as well as to find their way. The lights serve as markers of particular locations. Each one has a unique combination of characteristics including its exterior markings along with patterns of its light and foghorn blasts so that it is discernible from others in the area. Often lighthouses work together to guide ships in and out of tricky spots. This is true of the Kennebec River which is notoriously challenging to navigate. Lining up particular lighthouses ensures that you are in a safe zone.

Compared to the rest of the Maine coast, Casco Bay does not have a great number of lighthouses, just seven out of Maine’s 65 lights. Casco Bay does get to claim, however, the oldest lighthouse – Portland Head Light, built in 1791. Each one has a unique story including when it was built, what technology has been used over the years, and whether it had a keeper that lived on the island or traveled frequently to maintain it.

Stories of lighthouses are a rich part of Maine’s tradition. Take the story of Abbie Burgess, documented in the children’s book, “Keep the Lights Burning Abbie,” about a nine-year-old girl who kept Matinicus light burning while her father was away at sea for two weeks during a storm. I got to read this book to my girls one night from the Seguin light while staying at the keeper’s house there a few years ago. Connie Scoville Small, known as the “First Lady of Light” kept the light there as well as several others along the coast, with her husband. She spent 28 years tending lighthouses and lived to be 103. Her story, “The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife,” is another favorite story of mine.

As technology changed, lighthouses were less commonly tended by keepers. Lights were electrified, so the oil didn’t need to be refilled. Then, they were automated, which meant someone didn’t need to be there to operate them. Over time, some lighthouses were no longer maintained and began to deteriorate. But, an interest in preservation has led to several successful restoration projects that have turned these lighthouses into museums or guest houses. If you are interested in the history of lighthouses, the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath has excellent displays full of photos and stories, and even a replica of the Cape Elizabeth light and its sparkly Fresnel lens.

Of course, lighthouses are just one of the many navigation markers along the coast. Green cans and red nuns also help mark channels for boats coming and going. And, there are other types of markers like the stone pyramid on Mark Island designed to provide a place of refuge for those who were shipwrecked. The inside of the structure was actually designed to store safety items for stranded mariners. In addition to structure, there are also printed charts with an amazing amount of detail like depths, obstacles, and subsea cables to name a few.

That brings us to the current era of navigation which is primarily electronic. Electronic navigation systems became commonplace starting in the 1970s after decades of development both through the military and space programs. It has gotten more and more sophisticated over the years and can now essentially work as an autopilot for a boat.

My trip to Saco gave me a great appreciation for the ease with which we can now find our way along the coast. But, a whole bunch of stories about people using their GPS don’t make for tales nearly as colorful and varied as those of the people who were a part of Maine’s lighthouse era.

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