The Cape Neddick Light Station, a.k.a. Nubble Light, sits on a rocky little ‘nub’ of an island (hence the name) 100 yards off the coast of York Beach, Maine. It’s best viewed from York’s Sohier Park, which draws an estimated 500,000 visitors annually.
The area saw many shipwrecks before Nubble Light was constructed. The wreck of the Isidore in 1842 is the most famous; her crew all perished. Since then, legend has it that a phantom ship continues to haunt the seas around Cape Neddick.
In 1874, the federal government appropriated $15,000 for the Nubble lighthouse project. The island was purchased in 1879 for $1,500. An additional $10,619.45 was spent on constructing the actual lighthouse that same year.
The Nubble was home to more than 30 lighthouse keepers between 1879 and 1987. In 1987, it became the last lighthouse in North America to be automated and bade farewell to its final keeper, Coast Guardsman Russell Ahlgren, and his family.
The keeper’s annual salary was approximately $500 per year in 1879 (worth about $12,000 today) and held steady at that rate well into the 20th century.
The lantern room contains nearly all of the original brass fittings. Among the few changes is a red plastic encasement on the light itself, which replaced the original glass.
The island is subject to high winds and storm damage. During the Patriots’ Day storm of 2007, the keeper’s home, boathouse, and boat ramp sustained damage. FEMA assisted with the approximately $320,000 worth of repairs.
Nubble Lighthouse has been under the guardianship of the town of York since 1998. The U.S. Coast Guard remains responsible for the navigational aids, maintaining both the light and the horn. (Lighthouse and grounds aren’t open to the public.)
Nubble Lighthouse keeper Eugene Coleman likely offered up a few celebratory fist pumps in 1938, the year when both electricity and indoor plumbing were introduced to the Nubble. It’s said that he inherited the previous keeper’s large tabby cat–nearly 20 pounds’ worth of feline companionship. Known as Mr. T, the cat became a tourist attraction himself and was often spotted swimming to and from the mainland.
Twice a year–for “Christmas in July” (July 28 this year) and to kick off the holiday season (November 30)–the Nubble’s white lights are illuminated ceremoniously. More than 1,230 feet of rope lighting edge the lighthouse and outbuildings, costing the town about $3,000 per year.
When Voyager 2 blasted off aboard a Titan-Centaur rocket in 1977, it carried a cache of images depicting life on Earth–including a photo of the most iconic American lighthouse, the Nubble–on the chance that it might be discovered by curious extraterrestrials.
The light from the Nubble Lighthouse’s Fresnel lens is visible for 13 nautical miles in clear weather.
Off to School, a painting by Madeline Downing, depicts the 1967 keeper’s practice of sending his son to the mainland in a basket suspended over the ocean by a pulley system. A photo of the activity also appeared in the Boston Globe. Both depictions drew the attention of the Coast Guard, which put the kibosh on the unique commute: The basket was built for shuttling supplies, not people.