The intertwined history of Rockland’s breakwater and lighthouse began in 1827, when a small lantern was set on the northern side of the harbor entrance at Jameson Point. Then in 1832, Jeremiah Berry, the mason that built the first Pemaquid Lighthouse, erected a little wall across part of the harbor. Lack of funds forced construction of a bigger and better breakwater to be postponed for several decades.
Trade and steamship travel combined to make Rockport’s harbor one of the busiest in Maine. During 1879, keepers at nearby Owls Head Lighthouse counted 21,539 ships during the daytime and estimated another 10,000 sailed by at night. Backed by a citizens’ petition and a key Senator’s support, work finally began on the breakwater in 1881. Unfortunately, this created another problem.
“The breakwater, which the United States engineers are building, extending 1,600 feet from the shore, was, with the exception of a small portion of the outer end, entirely submerged at half-tide and presented a serious obstruction to the navigation of the harbor,” reported the Lighthouse Board in 1888. “The appropriation for building this breakwater being exhausted the engineer in charge was unable to mark the obstacle with a light. The Board, therefore, in view of the extreme danger to navigation of this submerged work, erected a temporary wooden beacon on the outer end, from which is shown a lantern light.”
Between 1888 and 1895, as the length of the breakwater was extended farther, the beacon was moved four times to mark the outer end. The original beacon was a fixed white lens lantern that hung on an iron crane set atop a stone beacon. On August 15, 1892, the white lantern was replaced by two fixed red lanterns, one mounted six feet above the other. Starting on April 23, 1888, Eba Ring, a part-time laborer, took responsibility for the light, rowing out to the breakwater to tend it.
The original plan for a short breakwater changed to two breakwaters, before ending up as a single, 7/8-mile-long, twenty-foot-wide breakwater completed on November 24, 1899. Severe storms that winter, however, showed that the breakwater needed to be taller, and a four-foot-tall cap, which included a forty-three-foot wide pad on its outer end for a lighthouse, was completed in 1901. Both the total cost of and the amount of stone needed for the breakwater greatly exceeded the 1856 estimates of $156,742 and 94,307 tons of granite. The final tallies were $880,093 and 768,774 tons.
In 1895, a six-foot square building was erected at the base of the beacon mast, and Llewelyn Charles Ames began serving as the beacon attendant, earning $300 per year. After the breakwater was completed, Ames walked to the light, unless the breakwater was iced over. One of Ames’ duties was striking a metal triangle during foggy weather. Ames must have had strong arms, because after the lighthouse was built and a fog trumpet installed, the signal would sound for as many as 900 hours per year or over ten percent of the time.
The Lighthouse Board report for 1899 appealed for a formal lighthouse at the end of the breakwater, citing the number of steamships that used the harbor and the “dense fogs in summer and the blinding snowstorms in winter” that obscured the man-made hazard. Congress approved $30,000, and in June 1901 the beacon was moved to the extreme tip of the breakwater to make way for the lighthouse.
When built, Rockland Breakwater Light Station consisted of a red-brick fog signal building at the outer end of the breakwater with a square, twenty-five-foot-tall light tower rising from one side of its pitched roof. Connected to the lighthouse and fog signal building, were a one-and-a-half-story, gambrel-roofed, wood-frame keeper’s house and a boathouse. All the structures were built atop a stone pier, and the interior of the light tower and fog signal building was lined with ceramic-faced brick. The dwelling’s cellar contained two 1,500-gallon cisterns for collecting rainwater for the use of the keepers. Similar cisterns were also located beneath the fog signal building to provide water to cool the fog trumpet engine. To increase visibility of the fog house and tower, the red brick was painted white in 1906, and remained white until 1991, when the original red brick color was restored.
Howard P. Robbins was appointed the first head keeper of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse in June 1902. Just a few months later, his annual salary was raised from $500 to $540, and his son Clifford was made his assistant. Father and son jointly resigned in 1909 after a series of harsh winters at the station surrounded by heavy ice. “Three or four winters like that in a row,” Clifford said, “and I got fed up with lighthouse keeping!” The next keeper, Charles W. Thurston, lasted only six months before passing away on Christmas Eve 1909 following surgery. Assistant keeper Leroy S. Elwell was promoted to principal keeper on Thurston’s death.
As Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse was so near town, it was initially designated a “stag station,” where keepers lived without their families. Perhaps the keepers tired of this or their wives did, as in August 1915, the men received permission for their wives to join them. In a case of “be careful what you wish for,” almost immediately Elwell dispatched a letter to the district inspector begging the permission be revoked: “I now think it the best for the authority granted to be discontinued as it is not agreeable for two separate families to live in the same quarters, so I respectfully ask of you that the authority granted be discontinued at once.”
One of the station’s assistant keepers, Albert P.N. Tribou, had a brush with death in October 1916. As his wife Etta watched in horror from a window in their Rockport apartment, Albert’s small sailboat overturned in a sudden squall as he was returning to the station. Etta ran from the apartment, grabbed a cab to the harbor, and breathlessly exhorted some men with a boat to rescue her husband. The men found Tribou near death, clutching the station’s boat. He was rushed to a hospital, where the staff barely managed to restore him to health. In 1922, Tribou was both commended for helping the owner of a cruiser that had run aground and dismissed for unnoted reasons.
After serving at Two Bush and Indian Island, Leroy Elwell returned to Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse as principal keeper in 1925. The following year, he received a complaint that during a heavy fog the fog signal had not sounded. Elwell explained to his superiors that he had found his assistant, who was supposed to be tending the signal at that time, asleep on a coat on the floor. Although the horn was not sounding, the engine was running, and its air tank would have likely exploded if Elwell hadn’t found it when he did. Elwell was ordered to “keep a close watch” on the man.
George E. Woodward, the last civilian keeper at the breakwater light, arrived in 1934 as assistant keeper and was promoted to principal keeper a short time later. When the Coast Guard took over in 1939, Woodward enrolled as a chief petty officer. During World War II, additional Coast Guard personnel were stationed at the light to watch for enemy vessels using a lookout tower that was placed atop the northern end of the dwelling’s roof and accessed through a ceiling hatch. By the end of 1944, the surplus staff was transferred elsewhere, and Woodward soon moved to Owls Head Lighthouse.
Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse was automated in 1965, and its keepers reassigned. The fourth-order Fresnel lens was later removed from the tower, but when the Coast Guard announced plans to remove the lighthouse itself, the City of Rockland objected, and the Samoset Resort offered to assume care of the building, which it undertook until 1989. Under the Maine Lights Program, the lighthouse was transferred to the City of Rockland in 1998, and in 2001, the city leased the lighthouse to Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation.
During the Friends’ first five years of renovations at the lighthouse, hazardous materials were removed, hardwood shutters were installed along with a security system, a new historically accurate railing was put in place around the top of the tower, benches were mounted on the veranda over the boathouse, a floating dock and ramp were acquired, windows were replaced, the structures were painted and rewired for electricity, and the premises were opened for tours. Not bad for a group of volunteers funded by grants, contributions, and sales at its on-line gift shop. In its second five-year effort, the Friends completed a full restoration of the station, opened an on-site gift shop, and established an endowment program to ensure that the lighthouse will be cared for in perpetuity.
Dot Black served as the first chair of Friends of the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse and helped get the restoration well underway. Dot and her husband Ken are well-known in the lighthouse community. Ken Black served in the Coast Guard, ending up as Commanding Officer of the Rockland, Maine, Coast Guard Station. Realizing that many priceless lighthouse artifacts were in danger of being lost, Ken started a collection of lenses and other lighthouse artifacts that now forms the core of the exhibits at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. The Blacks, fondly known as Mr. and Mrs. Lighthouse, have helped made Rockland an exceptional lighthouse destination.