Ever wonder what it would be like to spend a full year keeping a light and watching the daily seascapes gradually change as they roll through the seasons, observed from your lofty tower view? Now you can experience just that at the Maine Maritime Museum, located in Bath, Maine.
This past June, the museum opened its new permanent lighthouse exhibit, Into the Lantern, featuring the Cape Elizabeth Two Lights’ second order Fresnel lens. Originally housed in the west tower, the lens was altered from a fixed light to a flashing light and placed in the east tower in 1924 when the government changed all twin lights to single lights. The lens was removed from the lighthouse sometime in the mid-1990s and spent the next few decades on display at the Cape Elizabeth Town Hall before it was given over to the Maine Maritime Museum for permanent custodianship in 2013.
The museum underwent an expansion of its main hall to create a new space for the exhibit, which contains a full-scale reproduction of the 1874 Cape Elizabeth lantern that houses the lens. It was fabricated by Eric and Luke Winne, Machine Shop Services, Georgetown, ME, and even includes the lower level watch room. When you enter the exhibit, you come in as if you were walking onto the lantern deck, with a floor to ceiling projection screen in front of the lantern that wraps its way around the far walls 180 degrees.
On the screen, you are able to witness the time-lapse videography of day and night throughout an entire year of what the view is like from the original east tower at Cape Elizabeth where the film was shot. It is complete with audio of wind, ocean waves, and sea sounds to be as realistic as possible while you watch the clouds float by. Because the lantern is at floor level, there are no stairs to climb to see the view. It is totally accessible so that anyone can have the experience of being up on the lantern deck to witness the beauties of Casco Bay and feel the part of being a keeper there.
Every 15 minutes, the lens lights and rotates while alternating with the nine minutes of time-lapse video footage, so you are able to view both while you are enjoying the rest of what the exhibit offers. Around the lantern are informational signs giving background and specifications of the lens, lantern, mercury float pedestal, and details about the watch room that you can view below through the lantern glass. A keeper is heard whistling as he goes about his work right before he turns the lens on, and out of the doorway below, you see more videography of the Casco Bay seascape.
In addition to the lens, there are other displays and monitors that create an interactive environment. A small wood box contains multiple prism pieces that you can twist to align in order to create your own Fresnel lens. A touchscreen monitor allows you to investigate lighthouses along the Maine coast while giving postcard views and showing lens flash characteristics as well as shipwrecks in the locale. Another monitor lets you explore the Cape Elizabeth Two Lights timeline, and on a third, you can view a video from the perspective of a Portland pilot on approach to the harbor and chart his route as he brings a ship in past Cape Elizabeth.
On the walls above the monitors, there are enlarged images of a first district lighthouse map, a Cape Elizabeth Two Lights timeline, a 1920s shot of the Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, and an architectural drawing of a first order lens and lantern. On one wall at the top is mounted the large nameboard from the Oakley A. Alexander, which ran ashore and sank off Two Lights in 1947. There are also some beacon lights, reproductions of a portable lighthouse service library and Texaco kerosene crates, and the original 5th order Fresnel drum lens that was used in Spring Point Ledge Light in 1959, all of which round out the lighthouse-related décor.
Off the entranceway into the lantern room, you pass through a keeper’s house display showing the keeper’s kitchen and office on either side. The windows in these rooms also employ videography of the Casco Bay view from the cliffs. It is neat to look out the window and see the surf crashing in a very realistic way against the rocks.
In the office and kitchen, there are brass lighthouse service cleaning implements and towels that were donated by the family of keeper Clarence Skolfield, who served at Seguin Island Light, Perkins Island Light, and Squirrel Point Light from the 1930s to the 1950s. On the office desk, there is a binder with pages from the Cape Elizabeth Expenditures book from 1865 as well as a reproduction United States Lighthouse Service Regulations publication from 1918.
Every so often, the telephone will ring on the wall of the kitchen, and through the speaker, you hear a variety of messages from people like “Charlie” who is coming up from the Two Lights Lifesaving Station to help you pull the boats out of Dyer Cove in advance of the coming storm. You can also dial numbers on the phone to hear informational snippets on topics such as women lighthouse keepers, Maine commercial fisherman navigation, and modern day lightkeeping.
In the keeper’s office, there is a retro TV set that plays scenes from the 1960s of boats and Coast Guard video clips, and on the wall hangs a clipboard with a copy of the letter sent to the first district office in Portland in 1925, requesting that the second light be put back. It is an interesting slice of Maine’s maritime history as it was written by the “masters and officers of vessels entering and departing from Portland Harbor” and has a second page with the signatures of the twenty Captains and the names of their respective vessels at that time.
Another wonderful glimpse into lighthouse past is provided by the film Keeper, which plays continuously in an orientation theater near the museum entrance. The short film gives visitors an understanding of the challenges of what it was like to be a lighthouse keeper through interviews and photos showing their lives at a variety of lighthouses.
Coast Guard keepers Ernest DeRaps, who served at four Maine lighthouses from 1955 to 1962, and Jerry Guay who served from 1962-1965 at Cape Elizabeth Two Lights, add personal insights and shared memories while additional commentary is provided by lighthouse author Elinor DeWire and the American Lighthouse Foundation’s executive director, Bob Trapani, Jr.
Viewing Into the Lantern is a great opportunity to experience the realistic perspective of a daily lighthouse tower view through the use of interactive technology within a museum setting. But it is still the historic Cape Elizabeth Two Lights lens that is the real focus of the exhibit. There will never be technology that can replicate the extraordinary beauty of seeing it once again shine its light through its delicate prisms of perfection.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2018 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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