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Special day provides rare glimpse inside historic Portland-area lighthouses

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Special day provides rare glimpse inside historic Portland-area lighthouses

SOUTH PORTLAND — Whether it's Bug Light or Cape Elizabeth's Portland Head Light, lighthouses have long captured the attention of many, from seafarers who relied on them as navigational aids along the Maine coast, to the tourists who now flock to them. 

With its 3,500-miles of mainly rocky coast and thousands of islands, Maine has some of the oldest and most stunning lighthouses in the nation, some of which can only be seen from the outside or by boat. But on Saturday, Sept. 12, 52 lighthouses will open their doors to the public for the first-ever Maine Lighthouses Day. 

The event is a coordinated effort of the Maine Officer of Tourism and U.S. Coast Guard to highlight Maine's maritime heritage, while offering people an inside look of the state's historic lighthouses.

There will be three lighthouses in greater Portland participating in the event, which runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., as well as several in the Mid-Coast area.

Built in 1791, Cape Elizabeth's Portland Head Light is perhaps Maine's most iconic lighthouse, drawing amateur and professional photographers alike. It will be open on Saturday for the first time since the 100th anniversary of Fort Williams Park in 1999. 

Portland Head Light Director Gene Gross said that only 10 entrance tickets will be offered every 15 minutes, meaning only 240 people will be admitted. Tickets, which are free and will be distributed on a first-come basis, will designate a specific tour time. Fifteen minutes is just enough time for people to climb up the spiral staircase to a catwalk that goes around the outside of the light to a height of 72 feet.

"You can climb the spiral staircase and get a panoramic view," Gross said. "But access to the tower is very limited because of safety concerns and space constraints."

The Portland Head Light Museum will be open for an additional hour, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m, and admission will be free.

South Portland's Spring Point Lighthouse, which is open on Saturdays throughout the summer, will also participate.

Spring Point Lighthouse, built in 1898, is one of the few caisson lights accessible by land, since caisson lights were originally intended to stand, like islands, in the middle of the harbor. In 1950, however, a 940-foot breakwater was built out of 50,000 tons of granite, eliminating the need for a dory to reach the light.

It is not difficult to imagine a stoic lighthouse keeper, busy with his daily routine, when touring the Spring Point Lighthouse, which still has furnished living quarters.

Inside the metal entrance door is a cozy, albeit rustic kitchen, complete with a potbelly stove, sink, table and chairs. One can easily picture the gray-bearded keeper, stoking the fire, and imagine the sweet scent of the smoke of his pipe. A narrow stairwell leads to the keeper's quarters, where there is a bed, nightstand, rocking chair and a desk. Then, further up still, there is the assistant keeper's quarters, where one can learn about the light itself, whose flash is visible for 40 miles.

Not to be overshadowed by the larger lighthouses in the area, South Portland's Bug Light, which is officially known as Portland Breakwater Light, will also be open. The 1875 lighthouse, which was recently painted, will be open for the first time in about seven years. The Maine Office of Tourism calls Bug Light "the most elegant of all Maine's lighthouses," noting its cast-iron, Corinthian columns and Greek palmettes – leaf-like decorations on the roof line.  

South Portland Mayor Tom Blake, along with other guests, will be part of two ribbon-cutting ceremonies. A 9 a.m. ceremony will take place at Spring Point Light, which can be accessed from Fort Road on the Southern Maine Community College campus. Souvenirs, refreshments, hot dogs and popcorn will be available throughout the day. Other festivities include live music, story telling and sea shanties from noon to 3 p.m. Cape Cod potato chips, whose icon is a lighthouse, will also be given away, while supplies last. 

A 9:30 a.m. ceremony will take place at Bug Light, which can be accessed from Madison Street off Benjamin Pickett Street. 

The South Portland Land Trust and Hunt's Photo & Video will use Saturday's event to launch an amateur photo contest. Photographs of Spring Point Light, in JEPG format, may be submitted to info@springpointlight.org before July 1, 2010.  

There will also be several lighthouses in the Mid-Coast region participating, including the Kennebec River Lighthouse in Bath.

For more information about  special lighthouse events, tours and packages, see LighthouseDay.com on the Internet. 

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net