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Stories

Keeping the Lights On

EM1 Tony Robb and EM3 Alex Tade of the Coast Guard are in charge of keeping the lights burning at 22 lighthouses in Maine. 

Before I met Tony Robb, Electrician's Mate First Class Petty Officer of the Coast Guard, I had no idea who maintained the lighthouses in Maine. I knew, or was pretty sure, that lighthouse keepers had faded with the times. The romanticized image of a keeper hauling oil up a spiral staircase during a blustery Nor'easter had imprinted on my mind from years of hearing coastal legends. But in this day-and-age I assumed that all lights were simply automated, run by computers or the press of a button in an office somewhere.

 
 

While it is true that lighthouse keepers have been almost completely phased out (with the exception of Boston Light) there is a comfort in knowing that human beings are still in charge of maintenance and upkeep. EM1 Tony Robb and EM3 Alex Tade visit each of the 22 lighthouses they maintain on a Periodic Maintenance Schedule of three months. Sometimes they need to visit a light sooner, if they hear from a neighbor or mariner that there's a discrepancy. Sometimes lights go out or signals fail to sound. If this happens, Tony and Alex will pack up their gear and head to the light.

The majority of the lighthouses are easily accessible, but several are off shore. For Tony, maintaining these lights gives him a glimpse into what lighthouse keeping may have been like.

"Somebody would have to be out there for three or four months at a time with either just himself or with his family or just him and his assistant and they would have to spend months out there and sometimes in the most brutal conditions you can think of that the ocean can throw at you. And they would keep that light going."

The lights and sound signals that guide boats into Portland Harbor are important landmarks of history, culture, and maritime identity. And even with modern navigational systems it's comforting to know that if all else fails there will be a light in Portland Head Light guiding boats into the channel. 

To hear this story, watch the slideshow above. If you prefer audio only, go here

EM1 Tony Robb inspects the light at Portland Head Light. Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

EM1 Tony Robb inspects the light at Portland Head Light.
Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

EM3 Tade and EM1 Robb at Spring Point Ledge Light. Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

EM3 Tade and EM1 Robb at Spring Point Ledge Light.
Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

Em1 Tony Robb fixes a light at Spring Point Ledge Light. Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

Em1 Tony Robb fixes a light at Spring Point Ledge Light.
Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson

Photo © Jenny Rebecca Nelson


Wharfside: Stories of Portland Harbor's Working Waterfront explore the people, places, and work in Portland Harbor through photos, audio stories, and video. This project is made possible by the Waterfront Alliance and Casco Bay Estuary Partnership. Music for this piece provided by Ross Gallagher. Animation assistance from Lake Buckley. Photos for this story by Jenny Rebecca Nelson © 2016.

Produced by Galen Koch © 2016