The History of the Light Tower

First Wood Tower

In 1806, the US Government purchased 8 acres at the Eastern end of Wood Island in Saco Bay off the coast of what was then Massachusetts and is now the State of Maine. The plans were to build a lighthouse there to help guide mariners into Winter Harbor and to the Saco River. There was a high volume of sea born commerce and many fishing vessels working in this vicinity at this time. By 1808, the lighthouse was a functioning beacon. This octagonal wood structure was sheathed with shingles and stood to a height of 45′ from base to floor of the lantern room. It was equipped with a set of hanging spider lamps and an eclipser, which caused the light to be seen as a flashing light.

The harsh island environment hastened the demise of the original wooden structure as well as the wood dwelling house. By 1835, fifteen years after this part of Massachusetts became the State of Maine, plans were underway for constructing a new tower and dwelling house out of granite. These plans also required a height of 45 ft. The light was to be supplied by the Winslow Lewis Patent Magnifying and Reflector Lantern that was being installed in most all of the US Lighthouses. This brighter white light continued to flash with the use of the eclipser.

Second Granite Tower

1857-58 were important years for the Wood Island Lighthouse. The tower was reconstructed to accommodate the new fourth order Fresnel lens and the dwelling house was rebuilt as a 1-1/2 story wooden structure. Though the dwelling house had further changes, today’s tower looks like the one finished in 1858.

The early keepers and their families were farmers. In the picture below, the barn built by keeper Abraham Norwood circa 1840 is visible along with a pigsty. The keepers had a full time job with their farming during the day and their light keeping at night.

Eben Emerson, keeper under President Lincoln, among his normal duties managed to perform a heroic rescue of the entire crew of the Nova Scotia Brig, the Edyth Ann, which foundered and broke up on the rocks off of Wood Island. The British Government cited Keeper Emerson’s heroism and awarded him a pair of brass binoculars. Keeper Emerson’s Story

WIL Late 1800

Thomas Henry Orcutt, a former sea captain and previous keeper at Saddleback Ledge Light served as keeper of Wood Island Light for 19 years (1886-1905). His dog, Sailor, became famous for ringing the station’s fog bell by taking the bell cord in his mouth and giving a lusty pull. He was inspired to do this when passing craft sounded their signal. Sailor died in Orcutt’s arms a few months before the keeper himself died. Sailor’s Story

It was in this era that there was a murder and suicide on Wood Island, which gave rise to the belief that Wood Island is haunted. Many unexplained events have happened over Wood Island’s long history. The Murder and Suicide on Wood Island


1906 Postcard

In 1906, the keeper’s house was remodeled – the roof was raised and dormers added creating a Dutch Colonial style as seen in the photo on the left. The fog bell tower on the right side of this photo was established in 1873. It takes this form because it was run by a mechanical striking mechanism powered with weights, which had to be raised with a hand crank. The photo on this postcard shows the lighthouse as it looked in the era to which it will be restored.

Wood Island Light had a steel fog bell installed in 1873. The steel did not hold up well in the salty damp air and was replaced in 1890 by a bell cast in “bell-metal.” The steel bell sat in the corner of the yard for years. During one of the tremendous storms that buffeted the island, the bell was washed off the cliff into the sea. It was recovered by the keeper, Jerry Murray and Captain Marshall Alexander and brought to Biddeford Pool in the 1970s. It is on display at Vine’s Landing in Biddeford Pool.

Ariel view of Headless Tower
Headless Tower

In the Late 1960s, the lantern room was removed from Wood Island Lighthouse and a rotating aero beacon was installed. This produced a powerful light and was in use for nearly 20 years. It didn’t look like the historic beacon that mainlanders remembered. They referred to it as the “headless” tower.

In October 1986, the last keeper took down the flag and left duty.

On September 19th 2004, the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse had a formal flag raising ceremony and now the flag flies over this storied lighthouse as a symbol of the reawakening of activity at the station.