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Follow the Light – Visiting Lighthouses in New England & Nova Scotia, Canada

Nubble Light York ME
Nubble Light York ME

Lighthouse people are as proud of bagging lighthouse visits as hikers are of bagging peaks. We are both “experience hoarders”. And the experiences aren’t all that different.

Hikers may beg to differ, but there are plenty of tightly winding, ever escalating steps to reach the lighthouse lens room (if you have the option of going inside). And those windy stairs can leave you as winded and light-headed as a high altitude climb. Lighthouses, based on the nature of their functionality, are built in remote locations on top of cliffs and hilly slopes from which one can embrace the glories of Mother Nature in a single glance and provide the sense of being on top of the world. Ironically, that king of the world sentiment often imparts a pendulum sway of emotions:  “I am king of the world” and then “I am insignificant compared to the vastness of the sea.”

Portland Head Light From Nova Star Ferry 2014
Portland Head Light From Nova Star Ferry 2014

Whatever the reason we are called to the edge of the sea, those that hear the call return again and again. Those who do not, think we are on a fool’s mission, especially when they read of groups like the, where individual members have documented visits to every single lighthouse (there are an estimated 1,000) in the United States and are now working their way through Canada. They chronicle their visits so that others might know where to go and what to expect.

At Dyce Head Castine, ME near Maine Maritime Academy
At Dyce Head Castine, ME near Maine Maritime Academy

With the exception of Open Lighthouse Day in Maine (September 13, 2014 9am-3pm) that is sponsored by the United States Coast Guard, the Maine Office of Tourism and the American Lighthouse Foundation, pharologists, the term used to describe the lighthouse addicted, travel at their own pace, meaning crowds are kept at bay (sometimes literally). However during Open Lighthouse Day, 15-18,000 guests will converge for the rare chance to climb and learn about over two dozen lights along Maine’s rocky coast. For Maine Open Lighthouse Day details click on this link.


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Since 280 BC when the first and most magnificent recorded lighthouse, Pharos Light of Alexandria, Egypt (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), was fueled by open fire to warn ships away from danger, the landlubbers have been called like moths to the flame.  According to Wikipedia, records indicate Pharos was a 450 foot tall beacon; that’s about the size of a 45-story skyscraper. The structure lasted 1500 years until an earthquake caused it to tumble into the sea.

Since then lighthouses have taken on myriad shapes, sizes and colors. For identification purposes, the US Lighthouse Board (which was in charge of lighthouses from 1852–1910) issued an order to have each lighthouse painted in different colors and/or designs. Lighthouses were crafted of whatever materials were locally available – some are stone, some wood, some steel and others brick. Each lighthouse was further identifiable by its light.


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Prior to computers and after open flames lit lighthouses, the most significant advancement was the Fresnel lens developed in 1822. “As well as enabling man to produce an unlimited number of flashing combinations, it also intensified (brightened) the light so it could be seen at greater distances.”

Looking Inside Cape Forchu Light's retired Fresnel at Yarmouth County Museum Yarmouth Nova Scotia
Cape Forchu Light’s retired Fresnel at Yarmouth County Museum Yarmouth Nova Scotia. For perspective look for the oversized incandescent light bulb in this picture.

“Fresnel lenses are of two types: fixed, which shows a steady light; and revolving, which produces a flash. The individual flashing pattern of each light is called its CHARACTERISTIC. For example a light can send out a flash every five seconds, or it might have a fifteen-second period of darkness and a three-second period of brightness. Mariners have to look at a light list or a maritime chart that tells what light flashes that particular pattern. Then they are able to determine their position at sea in relation to the land.”

Cape Forchu Retired Fresnel Lens
Cape Forchu Retired Fresnel Lens

Any land with a coast might benefit from a lighthouse. According to the National Park Service,  “The United States has had approximately a thousand lights as well as light towers, range lights, and pier  head lights.” Most of the lights in the United States have been built and maintained by the Coast Guard (since 1939) and its predecessors, the United States Lighthouse Service (1910–1939) and the United States Lighthouse Board (1852–1910).

Which US state has the most lighthouses? Is it the craggy coast of Maine, the treacherous waters off the Alaskan shores?  No.  Surprisingly,  Michigan has the most lighthouses of any state with over 150 past and present lights.


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Our neighbors to the north in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia can boast the most lighthouses in its country including some of the oldest. There are/were 170 lighthouses, past and present in Nova Scotia and the remaining 150 are supported by  the non-profit group The Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society (NSLPS). “NSLPS  was founded in 1994 by lighthouse enthusiasts while on a visit to Sambro Island. The Sambro Island Lighthouse (1758) is the oldest working lighthouse in the Americas. They were concerned about the condition of the lighthouse and the keeper’s houses. They set up the non-profit society to benefit all the 150 remaining lighthouses in Nova Scotia.”

Cape Forchu Light, Yarmouth Nova Scotia
Cape Forchu Light, Yarmouth Nova Scotia

Arguably the best known lighthouse in Nova Scotia is Peggy’s Cove. It gets a lot of press and by all accounts is worth a visit. However, to limit a lighthouse experience to one light is selling the region short.  For example, just a short drive from downtown Yarmouth is Cape Forchu light. It has amazing topography, jagged rocks and tidal pools, trails and a tea room serving a quintessential Nova Scotia treat – a hot creamed lobster sandwich that is so rich, it should have feuding heirs. With 150 lighthouses still in existence in the province of Nova Scotia, visitors are sure to find a different favorite on every trip.

Nova Star Arrives in Yarmouth NS from Portland ME May 15 2014
Nova Star Arrives in Yarmouth NS from Portland ME May 15 2014

Pharologists can begin their two-nation lighthouse excursion aboard the new Nova Star cruise/ferry that just this year restored in unprecedented style the vital route between Portland, Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. If the fog and daylight  cooperate, you will see at least two lighthouses at each end of the trip, for a total of four distinctly unique lighthouse properties. There are a few more in the distance that might be difficult to catch on a standard lens camera or phone.


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Whether your lighthouse infatuation leads to a desire to visit, photograph, dine in, sleep in, operate or rent a lighthouse in the US or Canada, there is information available to make that dream a reality. In fact as more lighthouses are decommissioned in favor of new technologies, lighthouse properties are actually available for purchase in both the United States and Canada.

My husband and me celebrating our 5th anniversary dining in the Newburyport MA lighthouse
My husband and me celebrating our 5th anniversary dining in the lens room atop the Newburyport MA lighthouse

By conservative estimate, my husband and I have journeyed to over 30 lighthouses in New England and Nova Scotia, and we smile knowingly as we pass other visitors on the trails because we recognize ourselves in them. We are the Lighthouse People searching endlessly for  the light at the end of our journey.

Nantucket Lightship in Rhode Island
Not all lighthouses are “houses”. Nantucket Lightship in Rhode Island

Interesting facts about US lighthouses from

First Lighthouse: Boston, MA (1716)

Oldest Lighthouse in Service: Sandy Hook, NJ (1764)

Newest Shoreside Lighthouse: Charleston, SC (1962)

Tallest Lighthouse: Cape Hatteras, NC (191 ft.)

Highest Lighthouse (above sea level): Cape Mendocino, CA (515 ft.)

First American-built West Coast Lighthouse: Alcatraz Lighthouse (1854)

First lighthouse to use electricity: Statue of Liberty (1886)

First Great Lakes lighthouses: Buffalo, NY & Erie, PA (1818)

Founding of the US Lighthouse Service—7 August 1789

US Lighthouse Service merged with the Coast Guard—7 July 1939


Plum Island, MA Lighthouse
Plum Island, MA Lighthouse

For additional LIGHTHOUSE FACTS, try these links:  (TYPES OF LIGHTHOUSES)

IMG_7414-001 (1)
Near Isle of Shoals NH. Lighthouse was put off kilter by a vicious storm with enormous waves





Maine Open Lighthouse Day

To find a list of lighthouses in the United States, visit the National Park Service:

New England Lighthouses

Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society

Lighthouse Preservation Society

Lighthouse Friends (US & Canada)

Boston Globe article on 10 Lighthouses to visit.

US National Park Service Maritime Heritage Program

Nova Star Cruises, seasonal daily Cruise/Ferry between Portland Maine and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia Canada 

Nubble Light York ME Lit up for the holidays and scene of my first date with my husband
Do you recognize this lighthouse lit up for the holidays? Scroll to end of this post for the answer.


Nova Scotia Lighthouse Preservation Society

US General Services Administration Real Property Utilization and Disposal

GSA Available Lighthouses

United States Light House Society


New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide

Seen from the Digby Ferry
Seen from the Digby Ferry


Lighthouse Preservation Society


United States Lighthouse Society

Answer: It is Nubble Light on Cape Neddick in York, ME. The same lighthouse that started off this post. Each year, shortly after Thanksgiving (US), the holiday lights are illuminated as part of a vibrant local celebration that has included scuba divers pulling a decorated tree up from the depths.

(c)2014 All text and photographs by Alison Colby-Campbell

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