The Portland Head Light: Discover An Iconic Maine Landmark With Portland Discovery Land & Sea Tours

Maine’s coastline is known for its seals, seabirds, lobsters, lighthouses and jagged, rocky cliffs jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean. Among Maine’s many lighthouses, there is one that stands out from all the rest. Located in Cape Elizabeth, this famous and impressive structure is known as the Portland Head Light.

As soon as you walk onto the grounds of Fort Williams Park, you smell the salty ocean air, hear the ocean waves crashing on the rocks, and see the seagulls flying overhead. Just as quickly, you notice the magnificent Portland Head Light thrusting up into the coastal Maine sky. The lighthouse stands prominently above the adjacent buildings. With white with red roofing, this striking image will likely remind you of postcards and photographs you’ve seen many times before. The reality is that it’s even more impressive when viewed in person.

Some of our most popular Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours feature this iconic lighthouse, but before we tell you more about these, you may be wondering what exactly makes the Portland Head Light so special? Let’s take a quick walk through its history.

Getting to Know the Portland Head Light and Fort Williams Park

Extracted from the Museum Guidebook (compiled by Kathleen Rummler), the tale begins in 1776 during the outset of the Revolution. It was then that the new Town of Cape Elizabeth posted eight soldiers at Portland Head to warn citizens of possible British attacks. In 1787, the General Court of Massachusetts (the Massachusetts legislature) gave the green light (and $750) to kick off lighthouse construction. In 1790, Congress gave $1,500 toward its completion. When it was finalized, the original tower measured 72′ from base to lantern deck. It was first lit on January 10, 1791 with 16 whale oil lamps.

When Massachusetts Governor John Hancock signed a contract in 1790, construction launched on the first Keeper’s Quarters. In 1816, this was replaced by a one-story building, including two rooms, a cellar, and a rear porch in the 34′ x 20′ area. Over the years, various updates (i.e. cast iron staircase, new Fresnel lens replacements) were made, most notably raising the tower by 20’ in 1865.

Just like with any lighthouse, Portland Head Light’s legend has been passed down through generations. On Christmas Eve night in 1886, the Annie C. Maguire vessel struck the ledge at Portland Head. With Keeper Joshua Strout in charge (with help from family and volunteers), they brought all ship passengers to safety with an ordinary ladder used as a gangplank between the shore and the ship’s ledge. The reason for the wreck is still unknown today, especially since the crew clearly saw the Portland Light before crashing.

The present-day Keepers Quarters building was built in 1891, and was home to lighthouse keepers and family members until 1989. After changing many hands of ownership, the property was deeded to Cape Elizabeth in 1993, while The United States Coast Guard maintains the actual light and fog signal.

Fort Williams Park, a neighbor to the Portland Head Light, is also historically significant. Fort Williams came to be on April 13, 1899, after President McKinley named the one-time subpost of Fort Preble, Cape Elizabeth’s first military fortification. It was critical in World War II, protecting the Cape Elizabeth shoreline and contributing to the Harbor Defense in Portland. Once the war ended, Fort Williams (and many other Casco Bay-based forts) was closed. It was officially deactivated and closed on June 30, 1963. Now the 90-acre park belongs to Cape Elizabeth after its $200,000 purchase on December 1, 1964. The walls from a great mansion (home to Colonel John Goddard and his family) still stand and overlook Fort Williams. Maine residents cherish the park as an ideal venue for a picnic, kite flying, weddings, and a myriad of recreational activities.

See the Portland Head Light With Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours

Now that you know all about the Portland Head Light, it’s time to experience it firsthand! Of course, one of the best ways to do this is through our land and sea tours in Portland, Maine. As Portland’s #1 sightseeing tour, Portland Discovery is committed to helping you discover Portland in style. Our trolleys and boats are exceptionally clean and fully updated, our tour guides are knowledgeable (and also happy to give you insider tips on where to eat, sleep and shop). When you tour with us, you are truly our guest, not just another passenger!

We have Land and Sea tours where you will experience the Portland Head Light, including:

Portland City and Lighthouse Tour: This is the only trolley tour in Portland that brings you directly to the Portland Head Light. You will also have the opportunity to see some of Portland’s most exciting historical sites (Victoria Mansion, the Old Port, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow House, and more) on this 105 minute tour.

Lighthouse Lovers Cruise: In addition to the close-up view of Portland Head Light, this 90 minute narrated cruise also explores other lighthouses (depending on weather and sea conditions), including the Portland Harbor Breakwater Light (Bug Light), Spring Point Ledge Light, and Ram Island Ledge Light. There is a full service bar and snack options available on board.

Land & Sea Combo Tour: What do you get when you combine a Lighthouse Lovers Cruise with a Portland City and Lighthouse Tour? A unique land and sea tour of Portland with time to enjoy lunch and shopping, too! Maximize your sightseeing with this exceptional combination tour. Enjoy everything listed in the Portland City and Lighthouse Tour, plus a Lighthouse Lover’s Cruise on Casco Bay. Simply choose the cruise that works best with your trolley tour, for a fabulous Land & Sea adventure! (For example, many visitors take our trolley tour in the morning,  and then enjoy lunch and shopping in the Old Port before boarding one of our afternoon harbor cruises.)

All of these tours in Portland, Maine are extremely popular, so be sure to book early. Don’t forget to pack your camera to capture incredible photos and memories of your visit to Maine. Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours – the best way to Discover Portland!