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Destination Rockland, Maine - Lighthouse museum

Lighthouse museum illuminates the past

Destination Rockland, Maine - Lighthouse museum illuminates the past

A flashing lighthouse beacon immediately grabs the attention of any prudent boater. The new MaineLighthouseMuseum offers insight into these symbols of American maritime history, their intricate Fresnel lenses, and associated memorabilia. It’s a much better place for such contemplation than on a pitching boat in a seaway.

The museum, located in Rockland’s GatewayVisitorCenter along with the Lighthouse Depot gift shop, displays about half of the lenses and Coast Guard artifacts acquired in the 1960s and ’70s by retired Coast Guardsman Ken Black.

“No other collection even comes close,” says Bob Hastings, director of both the museum and the chamber of commerce. “Ken put together a collection unsurpassed in the country. There’s no other lighthouse museum like this.”

The displays are not “just look” exhibits. While viewing the history and changes in lighthouse technology, you can ring bells, touch lenses, activate foghorns and light lights. “It’s a hands-on place,” says Black, 82, who volunteers almost daily at the museum. “We want to educate people without their knowing it.”

Most people are first drawn to the massive rotating, flashing 19th-century Fresnel lenses in the central exhibit, and the smaller gleaming lead crystal lenses nearby. The impressive French-built multifaceted lenses concentrated the light from whale oil or kerosene lamps (and later electric bulbs) into a beam that could be seen as far away as 20 miles. The larger the lens, the farther distance from which the beam was visible.

It’s easy to compare lenses at the museum. A glass case encloses a rare sixth-order lens from the San Francisco area, one of only two in existence. At one time 41 were in use. The rotating fourth-order lens from the Cuckholds (off Maine’s Boothbay Harbor) is smaller than the 1827 third-order lens from Matinicus Rock (off the mouth of Penobscot Bay), yet larger than the 1837 fifth-order lens from Isle au Haut (at the mouth of Penobscot). A 10-foot-tall second-order lens weighs more than a ton. First-order lenses are even more massive, large enough for a family of four to stand inside.

Visitors standing in a mock ship’s wheelhouse can look through a window into a 5,000-square-foot room, “The Future Museum.” Drawings show the lifelike coastal Maine scene with rocks, islands, lighthouses and navigational buoys that will be constructed when funds are raised.

Supporting displays include a scale model of Portland Head Light (complete to the knives and forks on the keeper’s house dining room table), a breeches buoy, acetylene navigational buoys, traditional navigational instruments and two rooms of other artifacts. Black’s favorite is a weight-activated fog-bell ringer that took the keeper an hour to wind by hand.

The museum displays are Coast Guard discards. Once lighthouses were automated and modernized, Fresnel lenses were no longer needed. Luckily, Black — then stationed at Boston Light — realized the lenses’ historical value. With authority from the Coast Guard, “I collected lenses, navigational buoys, search and rescue gear, photographs, clippings, whatever,” he says. However, he didn’t take duplicates. “I wish I had because we could sell or trade the extras to help support the museum.”

Black’s growing collection transferred with him to Rockland in 1968, and was displayed for a while in the old Coast Guard building. After he retired as commanding officer of the Rockland station in 1971, Black founded and operated ShoreVillageMuseum in a donated building to display his collection. When that building sold, eight area non-profit organizations collaborated to save the collection. After three years of planning, fund-raising and construction, the MaineLighthouseMuseum opened June 25 last year.

What does Black think about the metamorphosis of his collection? “The new museum is remarkable, even though we’re only in the first of five stages, and only about 50 percent of ShoreVillageMuseum’s holdings are on display yet,” he says. “We’ve got a lot of work to do and money to raise.”

The Coast Guard decorated Black with a lifetime achievement award for his dedication to saving lighthouse artifacts. When you visit the MaineLighthouseMuseum, you’ll see why.

The museum is open seven days a week, though it is closed Sundays during winter and early spring. For more information, call (207) 594-3301 or visit