Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Big Guns at Portland Head

By Timothy Harrison


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Robert T. Sterling, who was the last civilian keeper at Maine’s Portland Head Lighthouse, wrote in 1938, “There have been many changes around Portland Head during the century and a half. A forest of spruces, fir and junipers is now cleared land. Little did Washington know or conceive at the time the lighthouse was built that there would be a great fortification surrounding it on the land side and that the great guns of war would roar so soon again.”

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Since 1872 when a sub-post of nearby Fort Preble was established at Portland Head Light, the lighthouse keepers and their families had to contend with a military presence. Originally known as The Battery at Portland Head Light, the fort became officially known as Fort Williams in 1899, named after Maine native Brevet Major-General Seth Williams, a Civil War veteran who was present at Appomattox at the conclusion of the War Between the States and who served as Adjutant-General of the United States Army. Through the years, the fort continued to grow and expand, and during World War II it served as part of the defense of Portland Harbor, which was the most heavily guarded harbor in North America.

The lighthouse keepers of Portland Head Light, as well as their families and pets, occasionally had to suffer through the ordeal of artillery practice from the fort. In those days, live ammunition was used and shells would sometimes literally fly over the top or either side of the keeper’s house and tower. With most artillery practices lasting about a week, this would not only cause havoc at the lighthouse, but in some cases put the lives of the keepers and their family at risk. When advance warning was given to the lighthouse keepers that the soldiers would be conducting artillery practice, the keepers’ wives would literally pack up all the dishware and anything else that was breakable. Additionally, pictures that were hung on the walls were taken down and everything sitting on a bureau or table was removed.

A report in the United States Lighthouse Service Bulletin of Sept. 1, 1916 stated that Portland Head had suffered considerable damage in the past during gun practice, having windows blown out, siding to the keeper’s house ripped off, and a section of the roof was once ripped off. Another time as the big guns blasted away over and around the lighthouse, much of the brickwork of the station’s three chimneys crumbled and one chimney literally broke off at the bottom.

Because the artillery men has assured the keeper and his family that they were not in any danger of being struck by a shell from one of the big guns, the family remained in the house during artillery practice.

Although the lighthouse keeper’s family was notified ahead of time when the big guns would be blasting off, everyone apparently forgot to tell the family dog of lighthouse keeper Strout. The dog’s favorite place to sleep was under the kitchen stove. When one of the huge guns blasted off, the monstrous cast iron stove literally jumped off the floor as the entire house shook and vibrated from the blast. The poor terrified dog jumped from its restful sleeping place and bolted out the door. As the family watched the frightened creature move faster than anyone had every seen it move, they hollered at him to come back but the dog kept running and was soon out of sight. The family assumed that the dog would return when it either calmed down or got hungry. However, the dog did not return. A search could not locate the frightened dog that would never return to the lighthouse. Apparently, it found itself a new home that was less stressful.

Arthur Cameron, son of John Cameron, who served as the assistant keeper and later as the Head Keeper of Portland Head Light, recalled that shells from the big cannons were not the only problem. Once during small-caliber practice, a bullet knocked a knob off the lower balcony of the tower. “Had it been a standard projectile from the twelve-inch gun, the tower would have been demolished!” We can only image what words were said by the keepers’ wives who must have raised a fit about it, worrying more for human safety rather than the safety of the lighthouse.

After the conclusion of the Second World War, the large guns at Fort Williams were dismantled and carted away. Shamefully, none were left for historical purposes for future generations.

Eventually, the importance of the fort declined and it was officially closed in June of 1962. Two years later the town of Cape Elizabeth purchased the fort from the federal government for $200,000. Unfortunately during later years, many historic parts of the fort were neglected and fell victim to vandalism and the elements. In later years a nonprofit group was formed to oversee the restoration, maintenance, and preservation of what little remains of historic Fort Williams.

In modern times Fort Williams Park has served as host to thousands of picnics, concerts, weddings, and, of course, the tens of thousands of tourists who come to visit the lighthouse with its museum, and gift shop, and climb the tower when it is occasionally open. A widely respected opinion is that Portland Head Lighthouse, often times referred to as the Granddaddy of American Lighthouses, is one of the most recognizable lighthouses in the world, as well as being one of the most photographic and perhaps the most photographed.

To learn more about Fort Williams and Portland Head Lighthouse you might like the book, Portland Head Light, A Pictorial Journey Through Time, which is available by calling (207) 259-2121 or online at www.FogHornPublishing.com.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 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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