Digest>Archives> July 2005

The Who, What, Where, Why, and Wows of the New Maine Lighthouse Museum

By Timothy Harrison


This past June 25th, phase 1 of the new Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine, opened with much fanfare, with phase 2, the final phase, scheduled to open next year.

People will soon be able to view the amazing collection of rare Fresnel lenses from a number of lighthouses and a large variety of other rare lighthouse artifacts and equipment at its new location. However, most will never know how it started, how long it took, and how the vision of one man amassed the collection. Most will never realize the years of hard work and dedication it took to keep the collection intact. Now you will.

It started with catsup

We have to take a step back to 1941 when a young Ken Black, a Jersey City, New Jersey native decided to join the Navy. However, Ken’s brother, who was in the Navy, convinced him instead to join the Coast Guard because he said the food was better and they always had plenty of catsup and Ken loved catsup. So the Coast Guard it was.

Immediately after boot camp, Ken started in what would be a career in aids to navigation that continues to this day. He served first on the SPRUCE, an old Lighthouse Service buoy tender. Later he served on the THEENIM-AKA-63, participating in the invasion of Okinawa in World War II.

Over the years, Ken served in many different areas, on the buoy tender OAK, at USCG First District Headquarters in Boston, OIC of the Point Allerton Life Boat Station, the buoy tender CACTUS, the Relief Lightship WAL-536, group commander of Group Quoddy Head (Maine), commander of the Coast Guard cutter OJIBWA, and finally, command of the Rockland Coast Guard Station in Rockland, Maine.

Although he was a chief warrant officer,

he became widely known and was called

Capt. Black by just about anybody who really knew or liked him.

It really started at Boston Light

Ken’s first foray into saving artifacts was

at Boston Light, America’s first light station. Inside the base of the tower, Ken established

a lighthouse exhibit that remains there

to this day.

While at Rockland, Ken soon realized that throngs of tourists eventually found their way to the Rockland Coast Guard Station to ask questions about lighthouses. So, Ken went out and bought a bunch of lighthouse postcards and put them on display at the station. As Ken recalls, “Those postcards started it all, and one thing led to another, and then another.” Soon, all types of people, including some of the old lighthouse service keepers, their descendants and local pack rats, began showing up with items to donate to the exhibit.

The exhibit grows into a museum

As the collection grew, Ken asked Rear Admiral R. A. Goering about the possibility

of making the exhibit a permanent Coast Guard exhibit and expanding it with

artifacts from various lighthouses and Coast Guard stations. The admiral liked the idea so much; he appointed Ken the official district curator and gave him carte blanche to start collecting artifacts.

Soon Ken was traveling around New England, gathering just about anything and everything he thought would be good for the exhibit. Most Coast Guard officers cooperated, especially when Ken dropped the admiral’s name. However, there were some roadblocks, especially by one district commander who attempted to stop the growing exhibit. Fortunately, this non-believer, as Ken refers to him, was “retired” early.

When Ken retired from the Coast Guard to the coast of Maine in 1973, he was a widely–respected and sought after Coast Guard historian and worked with numerous museums around New England. In fact, the United States Coast Guard officially described him in print as “Mr. Coast Guard.” It wasn’t until the late 1990s that we started referring to Ken as “Mr. Lighthouse.”

The move and name change

The First Marine Exhibit, as it was officially named in 1972, needed to be moved when a new Coast Guard station was to be built. The Coast Guard officially asked the City of Rockland if they would like the exhibit and the city agreed to accept it and the exhibit was moved to a building it owned. In 1977, it was officially named the Shore Village Museum. Over the years, if was often called “The Shore Village Lighthouse Museum,” “America’s Lighthouse Museum,” or just simply, as the street location sign indicated, the “Lighthouse Museum.”

As an obvious choice, the City of

Rockland hired Ken as the museum curator, a position that lasted until 1980, when the city ran out of money and Ken became the “Volunteer Director.”

Although the Coast Guard, to this day, likes to take full credit for the museum, many other people, under Ken’s leadership, contributed to the development of the museum. Some people came forward to help restore artifacts, others built cabinets and displays, interpretative signs and people continued to donate artifacts

and naturally Ken continued to travel to anywhere where he heard that an artifact might be available.

The Shore Village Museum was packed to the seams and every square inch of space was used in what Ken describes as a “hands-on museum.” When people would walk in and see all the lights flashing in the lenses, all most could say was, “WOW!” – a phrase picked up by Ken and used whenever it is appropriate.

He developed and published by himself, for more years than I’ve been in the lighthouse business, the Shore Village Museum Newsletter, which kept lighthouse buffs around the country informed of lighthouse events, preservation and new lighthouse books.

He coined the statement, “Lighthouses are like people, they come in many different sizes, shapes and colors,” which was also the title of his popular slide presentation that

he must have presented close to a thousand times, while always promoting the Shore Village Museum.

The Maine Lighthouse Museum

When it was announced a couple of years ago that the building, which housed the Shore Village Museum, was to be sold, Rockland community leaders, under the direction of people like Bob Hastings of the Chamber of Commerce, Philip Conkling and Peter Ralston of the Island Institute, along with others and support from the business community, and with special help from MBNA, secured a new building on the city’s waterfront for the museum as well as the Chamber of Commerce and exhibits from other area museums. The museum was appropriately renamed the Maine Lighthouse Museum.

The new Maine Light-house Museum is a mecca for lighthouse buffs, a

major tourist attraction for the State of Maine and

a boon for Rockland

area businesses. More importantly, it will be a lasting legacy to the men

and women of the old United States Lighthouse

Service and Coast Guard lightkeepers of yesteryears who helped make our nation the great country that it is today.

However, none of this would have been possible if it were not for Ken Black and his vision years ago to save these artifacts for future generations, a vision that also created the needed boost in the lighthouse preservation movement that has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 15 years, not only in the United States, but around the world.


Although retired for many years, Ken probably spent more than 40 hours

a week in the last 35 years volunteering his services to the lighthouse community

and other worthwhile causes such as the Salvation Army and Shriners. He has

received countless awards – the Coast Guard

‘Public Service Commendation,’ Harbour

Lights ‘Lifetime Achievement’ award, the Lighthouse Digest ‘Beacon of Light’ award, and the American Lighthouse Foundation’s ‘Keeper of the Light’ award, to name a few.

Although Ken, now 81, has slowed down a bit in recent months, he is still active in many community events and the

ongoing development of the new Maine Lighthouse Museum.

Family, catsup and the water

Ken’s wife, Dot, serves as president of the Friends of Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation. We affectionately call them “Mr. & Mrs. Lighthouse.” Ken and Dot live happily away from the ocean. Ken says that, other than the in-ground swimming pool in his backyard, he tries to stay away from the water because he spent so many years on the water that he now prefers the land life of the green rolling hills and loves the wild birds that he keeps well supplied with food. He says he’ll only go on the water now if it’s a fundraising cruise for lighthouse preservation.

Oh yes, catsup; Capt. Black

still loves catsup.

After all, it was catsup that started it all.

This story appeared in the July 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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