History of the Portland Head Light:
The city of Portland took its name from the headland where the lighthouse now stands, but Portland Head is now actually within the present boundaries of the town of Cape Elizabeth. Portland, which was known as Falmouth until 1786, was America’s sixth busiest port by the 1790s. There were no lighthouses on the coast of Maine when 74 merchants petitioned the Massachusetts government (Maine was part of Massachusetts at the time) in 1784 for a light at Portland Head, on the northeast coast of Cape Elizabeth, to mark the entrance to Portland Harbor. The deaths of two people in a 1787 shipwreck at Bangs (now Cushing) Island, near Portland Head, led to the appropriation of $750 for a lighthouse, and construction began.
The project was delayed by insufficient funds, and construction didn’t progress until 1790 when Congress appropriated an additional $1,500, after the nation’s lighthouses had been ceded to the federal government.
The stone lighthouse was built by local masons Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols. The original plan was for a 58-foot tower, but when it was realized that the light would be blocked from the south it was decided to make the tower 72 feet in height instead. Bryant resigned over the change, and Nichols finished the lighthouse in January 1791.
President George Washington approved the appointment of Capt. Joseph Greenleaf, a veteran of the American Revolution, as first keeper. The light went into service on January 10, 1791, with whale oil lamps showing a fixed white light. At first, Greenleaf received no salary as keeper; his payment was the right to fish and farm and to live in the keeper’s house. As early as November 1791, Greenleaf wrote that he couldn’t afford to remain keeper without financial compensation. In a June 1792 letter, he complained of many hardships. During the previous winter, he wrote, the ice on the lantern glass was often so thick that he had to melt it off. In 1793, Greenleaf was granted an annual salary of $160.
Greenleaf died of an apparent stroke while in his boat on the Fore River in October 1795. According to the Eastern Argus, he had “faithfully discharged his duty to the satisfaction of those who occupy their business on great waters.”
After a short stay by David Duncan, Barzillai Delano, a blacksmith who had lobbied for the appointment when the lighthouse was first built, became keeper in 1796. Delano’s salary of $225 yearly was raised to $300 in 1812, after a petition with 22 signatures was submitted on his behalf.
By 1810, the woodwork in the lighthouse and keeper’s house were in poor condition; the woodwork was damp and rotting. Part of the problem was that the keeper was storing a year’s supply of oil in one room, which putting great stress on the floor. Repairs were made, and an oil shed was added.
The tower continued to have problems with leaks. In November 1812, the contractor Winslow Lewis offered the opinion that the upper 20 feet of the tower was very poorly built. The lantern, which was only 5 feet in diameter, was also badly constructed. Lewis recommended reducing the tower’s height by 20 feet in height, along with the addition of a new lantern. Lewis carried out these changes in 1813, along with the installation of a system of lamps and reflectors designed by Lewis himself, at a cost of $2,100. About 25 feet of stonework at the top of the tower was removed.
The contractor Henry Dyer of Cape Elizabeth built a new keeper’s house in 1816 for $1,175. The one-story stone cottage was 20 by 34 feet, with and comprised two rooms, an attached kitchen, and an attic. The kitchen ell was attached to outbuildings, which, in turn, were joined to the tower. The joining of the house to the tower had been requested in 1809 by Delano, the keeper, who complained that the space between the buildings was often frozen over in winter and that the sea sometimes washed over the area.
Barzillai Delano died in 1820; his son, James Delano, later served as keeper from 1854 to 1861. Joshua Freeman, who would become known for his jovial hospitality, became keeper in 1820. Freeman kept a supply of rum and other spirits in a cupboard, and he’d sell it drinks for three cents a glass to visitors who came to fish. The top- shelf liquor was reserved for the local minister.