Maine has numerous historic and photogenic lighthouses, but you can’t go to Rockland without visiting the Rockland breakwater and Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse. The unique breakwater and lighthouse are vitally important for the town and not quite like any other navigational structure in the state. At first sight, you might think that the breakwater is a causeway and that it was built to access the lighthouse. However, there’s much more to the story.
A Background of Rockland Maine
For about 200 years, Mid-Coast Maine thrived on limestone and other industries. The stone was quarried, heated in kilns, and converted into lime that was used in construction. Known as East Thomaston at the time, Rockland was renamed in the mid-1800s and had 80 waterfront limekilns. Rockland Harbor acted as a refuge for vessels during rough seas and storms.
In 1827, the town put a small lantern in place on the north side of the harbor entrance, otherwise known as Jameson Point, to aid local navigation. Mason Jeremiah Berry attempted to build a small wall across part of the harbor in 1832. Originally, he was going to build a second wall, but that never happened.
Two low-pressure systems caused considerable damage to the businesses, ships, and waterfront in Rockland in the 1850s. Lime manufacturers would also lose materials when storms sent water into their kiln sheds. Clearly, there wouldn’t have been as much damage if there was a more substantial solution in place, but that was delayed because of high costs.
Constructing the Rockland Breakwater & Lighthouse
It took until 1880 for Congress to approve the breakwater construction, and that only happened after a local Senator intervened and the citizens signed a petition. Initially, the construction plan was for two breakwaters — one on each side of the entrance to Rockland Harbor — at an estimated cost of $500,000. However, discussions about switching from the construction of 1,900-foot and 2,640-foot breakwaters to building a single, long breakwater started in 1886 and was approved in 1890.
The actual construction of the single Rockland breakwater, which extends 4,346 feet into the harbor, took about nine years. It was completed on Nov. 24, 1899. Built in nine sections, the breakwater is shaped like a trapezoid with a 175-foot-wide base and 45-foot-wide topside. At 70 feet deep, the structure required nearly 700,000 tons of granite and cost about $750,000.
The following winter, it was determined that the breakwater needed to be raised for severe storms. On Oct. 15, 1901, a 4-foot cap was completed along with a base for a lighthouse at the end of the breakwater. By the end, the entire project required 768,774 tons of granite, much of which was mined in Vinalhaven, and cost about $880,000.
During the breakwater construction, the small portable light erected at the south end was moved four times. Between 1900 and 1902, the permanent Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse that you see today was erected. The 25-foot tower was constructed with brick and wood.
A keeper’s house was attached to the tower, and the first official keeper was Howard P. Robbins in June 1902. That November, Clifford M. Robbins (his son) was appointed as the assistant keeper. In the 1940s and ’50s, the Coast Guard occupied the keeper’s house for several years but vacated it in 1963. After WWII, the U.S. Coast Guard started a program to automate lighthouses and remove keepers. By 1965, the light was fully automated.
Restoring the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse
Since 2003, the lighthouse has been on the National Register of Historic Places. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns the breakwater except for the portion that the tower rests on. The City of Rockland has owned the lighthouse since 1998 as part of the Maine Lights Program, which was intended to alleviate some of the Coast Guard’s responsibility of maintaining the historic structures.
The Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation signed a lease with the city in 2001 to take over the preservation and restoration of the tower and keeper’s house. This Friends chapter consists of concerned corporations, organizations, and individuals. However, the operation of the beacon and fog signal is maintained by the Coast Guard.
The restoration and preservation seemed a daunting task for the small group because the lighthouse had been uninhabited since 1965 when the keepers were removed. Practically no maintenance had been performed over that time, leaving the tower at the mercy of the weather. In the first five years, the Friends remediated hazardous materials, upgraded the electrical system, replaced the tower railing with reproduction railing, and cleaned up so that the public could visit.
Over the years, the group has restored the windows and installed authentic storm shutters too. Work continues with a plan to replace the glass block in the engine room windows with historically accurate reproduction storm shutters and windows. The goal is to maintain the historical accuracy of the lighthouse while adhering to security and safety requirements.
Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse Tours
You can get a closer look at this historic breakwater and lighthouse. As volunteers are available, the Friends of Rockland Harbor Lights opens the tower for tours. There’s no fee for touring the lighthouse, but you can make a donation to contribute to the restoration and preservation efforts.
From the Rockland breakwater parking lot on Samoset Road, follow the trail across the breakwater to the lighthouse. Extending 4,346 feet into Rockland Harbor, the breakwater itself is 0.8 miles long, so it takes about 15 minutes to cross it.
When you reach the lighthouse, you can walk through the keeper’s house and climb the lighthouse as long as volunteers are on-site (Get updates on Facebook). From the top of the tower, you get a bird’s-eye view of the harbor, the many historic schooner and lobster boats at work, and Penobscot Bay. It’s possible that you’ll see an array of wildlife as well — such as seals, shorebirds, and dolphins.
Planning Your Visit
If you bring children to tour the Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, they need to be taller than 42 inches. It can be chilly on the breakwater and at the tower. You can expect stronger winds and lower temperatures, so wear layers or take a jacket.
Also, the granite breakwater can be slippery and uneven in some spots, so don’t let your children run around. You should wear comfortable, appropriate footwear with solid soles. You’ll be happy that you aren’t wearing flip-flops or heels when it’s time to climb the seven-rung ladder to the lantern room.
The lighthouse doesn’t have public restrooms. During the summer months, though, portable restrooms are available adjacent to the parking lot. The breakwater and lighthouse are pet friendly too — Just keep your pet on a leash. In addition to other visitors and pets, you’re likely to see fishermen casting lines from the breakwater.
Best Places to Stay Near the Rockland Breakwater & Breakwater Lighthouse
Just outside of Rockland, Glen Cove Inn & Suites is one of the closest and best places to stay near the Rockland breakwater and lighthouse. We have comfortable, affordable accommodations and serve a hot, deluxe breakfast every morning. A few miles north, The Country Inn is another fantastic place to stay near the breakwater and lighthouse. On top of that, both of our bed and breakfasts are near many other lighthouses in the area that are worth seeing.