Sunday, June 18, 2006

It's lighthouse Week in Maine!

The lighthouse shown here is the Pemaquid Point Light, found at the southern tip of the Pemaquid peninsula near the small fishing village of New Harbor, Maine.

It's still actively in use, although automated. In the original lightkeeper's cottage at it's base is the Fisherman's Museum, showcasing the history of lobster fishing.

Each year thousands of people visit the lighthouse and museum. They can visit the top of the lighthouse, or have a picnic at one of the picnic sites. Many people sit on the huge ledge of rocks, enjoying the sea and it's hypnotic attraction.

One of the niftiest things about Maine is it's many lighthouses. You can visit several of them, making a full week of lighthouse tours along the coast. It's a great way to see the ocean, it's crashing surf and wildlife, and Maine's beautiful sea coast.

This week is especially lighthouse-oriented - it's officially Lighthouse Week, celebrating midcoast Maine's maritime heritage. The new Maine Lighthouse Museum has opened in Rockland, Maine, with a fabulous display of Coast Guard lighthouses in Maine.

The brand new 5,000 square foot exhibition hall is named after Chief Warrant Officer Ken Black, who donated his own personal collection of lighthouse artifacts for public display. So many of the lighthouses were converted to automatic lights in the 1960s and 1970s, and, sadly, their lenses and equipment were slated for destruction. During this time, CWO Ken Black recognized their importance, and salvaged as much as he could - stunning heavy glass Fresnel lenses, beautiful brass works of earlier times, and any other lighthouse equipment he could locate.

One of the spectacular displays is the ten foot tall Fresnel lens which once powered the Petit Manan lighthouse. There are future plans to build a tower around this lens to simulate it's original historic appearance. Fresnel lenses were cast of thick, heavy glass in France. This lens is the second largest lens size made, and has a 21 mile range. They were made of multiple prisms, and in their manufacture were polished long ago by hand.

When the Coast Guard decommissioned and automated many lighthouses, the lights were often simply smashed and tossed into the sea. (Our tax dollars at work, destroying valuable artifacts!) CWO Black discovered this practice, and instead managed to save many items, dismantling a light piece by piece. He'd then have his fellow Coast Guard officers haul it back to Rockland, where he was stationed. Eventually, he opened his own small museum in Rockland, and people would come in and say "Hey! We have a light like that, do you want it?" Soon his collection outgrew his original location, as other lighthouse antiques come into his possession, and a new, larger museum went from dream to reality.

One of his prized possessions found in the new museum is the Mantinicus Lighthouse bell, cast in Philadelphia in 1856. It is comparable in size to the famous Liberty Bell, also cast is that same city.

In addition, a new research library has been created to complement the museum. This library is scheduled to hold all of CWO Black's lighthouse-related papers, which he has collected for decades. This special collection will be available for research by appointment.

There is so much lighthouse material that each year a new exhibit will focus on a different aspect of lighthouse history. There are still thousands of artifacts stored in crates, awaiting their turn to be displayed in the new museum!

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