You could throw a dart at the Maine coastline and hit the bullseye of a fantastic maritime community. A total of 65 lighthouses still stand on the rocky ridges, shining their own stories onto Maine’s history.
Seawater churns over shipwrecks as ports continue to feast on the ocean’s harvest. Stories of heroes, hauntings, and history still linger in the salt air at every port of call.
Maine is so much more than the seaside scenery. The stories etched into the fabric of the coastline — from Southern Maine to Downeast — make these coastal towns truly capture your attention. Here are some of the most fascinating and fierce maritime towns in Maine.
Kittery is Maine’s first town, established in 1642. While the British crown eyed the port to build Royal Navy ships, it became one of the powerhouse Naval shipyards in America after 1800 and still is today.
Six miles offshore, part of the Isle of Shoals is within Kittery’s oversight. Appledore Island was the home to famed Victorian poet Celia Thaxter. She welcomed the greats, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
I lit the lamps in the lighthouse tower. For the sun dropped down, and the day was dead.
They shone like a glorious clustered flower, Ten golden and five red.Celia Thaxter, “Isle of Shoals” 1839
True crime buffs are still enthralled by the story of the Smuttynose Island murders in 1873. Thaxter herself retold the harrowing tale in writing.
A more legendary tale says that Blackbeard’s pirate treasure is buried somewhere on Smuttynose Island.
If there’s any doubt that Kittery is proud of its maritime heritage, look just offshore at the Wood Island lifesaving station. The island was home to the fearless men who saved shipwrecked souls, and now the community teamed together to save the station.
Don’t confuse the Wood Island lifesaving station with Wood Island Lighthouse off the coast of Biddeford Maine. Stories from this lighthouse range from cute to carnage — with a bell-ringing dog named Sailor who taught himself the trick, a murder-suicide that still has a ghost or two (allegedly) roaming around, and the keeper who saved the shipwrecked crew of the Edyth Anne in 1865.
Biddeford built ships and had a fishing community, but it became world-renowned for its textile industries and still remains a commercial hub. Biddeford Mills Museum reflects the industries fueled by the Saco River and its important connection to the Atlantic.
You can still drive by the Fletcher’s Neck Lifesaving Station building on Ocean Drive in Biddeford Pool, where rescuers waited for an average of two shipwrecks each year.
And, a stroll on Fortune Rocks Beach is all the more special when you know the story of how a shipwrecked and penniless sailor became rich in life and love.
If you’re walking around Portland looking for the Portland Head Lighthouse, you’re in the wrong place! This famous lighthouse is in Cape Elizabeth, 5 miles south. In fact, Portland was named for Portland Head, where the lighthouse stands.
HEAD (aka Headland): “a narrow piece of land which sticks out from the coast into the sea.”
Portland Head Light was first lit in 1791 and has the same heroic stories of shipwrecks, including a Christmas Eve crash that is far from a Dickens novel—look for the plaque on the shoreline noting the crash site.
Repeatedly reported (but never proven) that it’s the most photographed lighthouse in the world, it seems the lighthouse is picture-perfect.
A lesser-known fact is that the lighthouse went through several iterations before becoming a postcard staple. Take a look at the white line two-thirds of the way up the lighthouse. That’s the demarcation line where the tower was lowered by 20 feet in 1813, raised 20 feet after a shipwreck in 1864, lowered again in 1883, and raised once and for all in 1885.
A peculiar parrot made headlines in Cape Elizabeth for telling the lightkeeper, “Joe, let’s start the horn. It’s foggy!”
Feeling Lucky? The Portland Head Lighthouse is only open one day a year — Maine Open Lighthouse Day — and just 300 people can get a spot to scale this famous tower.
Also, Cape Elizabeth was the first Maine town to have twin lighthouses. The history is captured at Two Lights State Park.
Good luck finding a copy of “Spot the Lighthouse Dog,” the dog made famous by his heroic actions at Owls Head Lighthouse in the 1930s. A blinding blizzard would’ve been the death of the Matinicus mailboat driver if it weren’t for Spot barking to guide the man home. His headstone rests at the base of the stairs.
The Frozen Couple of Owls Head tells another near-tragic story. After a shipwreck, two lovers were encased in ice on the rocky edge of the ocean. Through determination and patience, the lightkeeper was able to thaw them. “What is all this? Where are we?” were the couple’s first words, and they went on to live happily ever after.
This town has a rich shipbuilding history, which is told at the Owls Head Transportation Museum.
The collection of towns known as The Yorks has a similar maritime history of shipbuilding and a port-of-call for distribution, but the lighthouses of the land have the most intriguing stories.
The story of the Boon Island Lighthouse newlyweds has a Shakespearean tragedy to it. Keeping in mind how important that lighthouse is to ships in storms, lightkeeper Lucas Bright dragged himself to the tower in a fierce storm.
A rouge wave took his life with his wife Katherine helplessly watching. Through her grief, she tended to the lighthouse for five days, returning to her departed husband after each time. Her ghost is still said to stand on the rocks at nightfall, crying for her beloved husband.
At the Nubble Lighthouse (also allegedly the most photographed lighthouse in the world) just offshore, it was a cat who made history for … being a stubborn cat.
His name was Sambo Tonkus (Mr. T) — born on the island in 1929 — and made headlines for his occasional swims to the mainland, always returning with a fresh mouse or two. When his original owners left the land, Mr. T wouldn’t budge. He became the lighthouse cat for any keeper, like it or not.
TIP: Visit York Maine during the holidays or for York Days in the summer to see the Nubble Lighthouse in holiday lights.
DID YOU KNOW? When the Voyager II spacecraft took off, it had a collection of Earth novelties, including a photo of the Nubble Lighthouse. NASA thought it was the “quintessential lighthouse.”
Matinicus Rock Lighthouse
You won’t find the Matinicus Rock Lighthouse on a scenic drive. It sits 20 miles offshore in a treacherous part of the ocean but along an important shipping route. One might think that Samuel Burgess was off the rails for moving his large family here in 1853.
“Life [at Matinicus Rock Light] is, as it has been for many years, a constant struggle of human nature against the elements which seek to wear it out.”Author Gustav Kobbe, 1874
When Burgess went for a supply run to the mainland, a wicked storm swept over, leaving his teenage daughter, Abby, to tend to the lighthouse. She did that for 21 days while also bringing the hens inside from the storm. Abby eventually married the son of the next lightkeeper.
Nearby Matinicus Island is a remote destination with occasional ferry service and limited amenities but is stunning nonetheless. Boat tours are sometimes available to see the puffins that are now the only inhabitants of Matinicus Rock.
At the top of the Bold Coast, Lubec Maine straddles the Canadian border. The only candy cane lighthouse in the United States stands at West Quoddy State Park. It is the easternmost point in the country and has the Easternmost Gift Shop as well.
If you’re feeling lucky, check out Gulliver’s Hole in the park. Legend has it that the buried treasure of a pirate named Gulliver is there. You can see from the park map that a trail passes right by Gulliver’s Hole, and the views are a treasure anyway.
While Lubec’s history includes shipbuilding and fishing, it’s another treasure search that makes me wish I had a facepalm emoji to use here. A pair of con artists convinced investors that it was possible to mine gold from the sea.
“For centuries gold has been dug from the earth; here it is strained out from the mighty waters of the sea, a reservoir that never fails, a mine that must forever remain inexhaustible. The proposition to ‘take gold from seawater,’ though old to science, is new in the domain of the practicable… The Electrolytic Marine Salts Co. however, claims… that it is not only possible to wrest from the ocean its golden treasures with satisfactory profits, but that thing is now being done here in North Lubec, every week day and night of the year.”St. Croix Historical Society
The confidence scheme didn’t last long, and the fraudsters left the country. Turns out, the factory where gold was to be harvested from saltwater ended up being a sardine factory. By the late 1800s, Lubec was considered one of the principal sardine packing centers in the United States.
Of course, we can’t talk about Maine maritime history without going to Kennebunkport’s famed waterways and streets. As a shipbuilding titan, Kennebunkport reaped the benefits of real estate on the Kennebunk River, where logs provided materials for the ships.
By the 1750s, the town had at least four shipyards churning out schooners, sloops, brigs, and other craft. Kennebunkport reached its shipbuilding peak in the 19th century. Sea captains’ homes still line the streets — some open as inns, others privately owned. Several of these homes are revered for their ghost stories.
On Goat Island, where the lighthouse stands, legend has it that lightkeeper Dick Curtis, who died in 1992, roams the property and greets his friends who still walk the earthly realm. He even (allegedly) made his presence known when Kennebunkport resident and President of the United States George W. Bush came to the island with President Putin of Russia.
“Bush senior came on his boat and took pictures,” he said. “Then he brought his son and President Putin and said, ‘See, our people want us to work together’.”
“I came down and said, ‘Hey, Dick, what do you think of that?,’ and the foghorn sounded.”Scott Dombrowski, friend of Dick Curtis and lightkeeper of Goat Island Lighthouse
Scott and his wife Karen still tend to the lighthouse. If you can make it to Goat Island Lighthouse, you can ask for a tour if they are home.
The City of Ships might not get the crowds of Kennebunkport, but Bath Maine stands tall as a town defined by shipmaking since 1743.
Located on the scenic Kennebec River, with a deep port and natural barrier from storms, Bath was well-positioned for shipbuilding. That industry would drive Bath’s economy and culture for over 200 years.
By the 1760s, Bath shipyards were producing over 20 vessels per year, ranging from small sloops to large brigs and barques. The ships from Bath were speedy and slick — with windjammers, schooners, and the behemoth Downeasters drawing top dollar and in high demand.
TIP: If you don’t know a schooner from a sailboat, check out the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath.
Bath Iron Works opened in the 1880s to maintain Bath’s marine industrial base. Destroyers and other steel naval ships became Bath’s specialty.
The Downeast town of Castine not only celebrates its maritime history with the motto Under the Elms and By the Sea but also creates maritime experts for years to come because it’s home to the Maine Maritime Academy. The State of Maine vessel rests proudly at the shoreline.
The Wilson Museum provides living history, including hands-on boat-building activities. A drive down Perkins, Court, and Main Streets reflects the town’s wealth in the mid-1800s with breathtaking home architecture. A walk through Witherle Woods takes you to the former British military overlook from the War of 1812.
The town of Castine is not only one of the most beautiful spots on the Maine coast, but few towns have had as exciting a history.”Robert T. Sterling, Author “Lighthouses of Maine”
In fact, Castine’s historic district covers the peninsula where it’s located, based on its significant maritime history.
Dyce (also spelled Dice) Head Lighthouse is tucked away on a residential street at the edge of the peninsula. While there are no great ghost or creative animal stories here, the lighthouse has a tale to tell.
It was decommissioned in 1937 and replaced by one of those skeleton lighthouse towers, so Dyce Head sat dark until 2008. It turns out that the skeleton tower was toppled in a storm, and the reliable house on the peninsula has since been lit once again.
Make the Most of Maine’s Maritime History
So much history is preserved in Maine that it’s easy to stop at museums and read kiosks before moving on your way. To get the best seafaring stories and tall tales etched in history, speak to the boat captains, the business owners, and the lobster dockworkers. Mainers simply tell the best stories.