There is no doubt that lighthouses were commonly placed in strategic locations to assist boats navigating through
treacherous waters. Such locations were often strategic in other ways, as well. In the case of Point Jellison, the site was deemed to be quite valuable by mariners and various groups with military interests. Even businessmen looking to attract tourists became interested in the locale. The participation of this motley array of
persons and their motivations led to an interesting history of a rather humble, yet beautiful, headland overlooking Maine's Penobscot River.
Times were rough in the New World during the mid 1700s. The superpowers of the time, Britain and France, were constantly trying to outmaneuver one another in their chess game of territories – each playing their hand with tactical placement of forts, espionage and alliances with local Indian populations. In 1759, the Governor of the Massachusetts colony, Thomas Pownall, recognized the importance of Point Jellison just southeast of today's Stockton Springs (this portion of Maine was once part of Massachusetts). Sitting at the division between Penobscot Bay and the Penobscot River, Point Jellison was the perfect vantage point for the British to observe and disrupt French and hostile Indian activities.
Thus, Governor Pownall sent 400 men to the point to erect a stronghold. The fortification, named Fort Pownall after its initiator, was built in an unsophisticated style typical of this time period. A large, two-story timber blockhouse was at the center of the structure. The bottom floor provided housing for the troops while the top floor accommodated several cannons. Four flankers, which were designed to assist troops with protecting the fort in the event of a close in attack, protruded from the corners of the blockhouse. All of the construction was surrounded by an eight-foot deep, 15-foot wide ditch. Access to the fort over this "moat" was accomplished by a drawbridge.
Although Fort Pownall never really saw any action against any foes, there was a nasty little skirmish during the American Revolutionary War between British loyalists housed in the fort and local rebels. In 1775, the loyalists feared that the fort's munitions would be stolen and used against the crown, so they handed the cannons and powder over to British forces in the darkness of the night. Once the indigenous revolutionaries caught wind of this, they raided Fort Pownall and burned down the blockhouse. Next, in order to render the fort useless, they filled in the protective ditch that surrounded the compound. This assault, in conjunction with the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, effectively ended the military occupation of Fort Pownall.
The subsequent major event to take place on Point Jellison occurred in 1836, when President Andrew Jackson was aiming to improve the navigational infrastructure of the fledgling nation. Bangor, just upstream on the Penobscot River, was becoming a timber boomtown. To facilitate the growing commerce along the river, it was deemed necessary to put a navigational aid on Point Jellison. Fort Point Light, named after the dilapidated remains of Fort Pownall, was built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the river mouth. Interestingly, Fort Point Light was the first "river light" or lighthouse along a river in Maine, which had just gained statehood in 1820.
Unfortunately, there was too much haste in the attempt to erect the light. The 24-foot granite rubble stone lighthouse and adjacent keeper's residence were of poor construction and quickly succumbed to Maine's coastal elements. By that time, however, the light's importance to the burgeoning ship traffic was all too clear and a replacement was soon built. In 1857, a 31-foot brick lighthouse and two-story frame keeper's house were built. Obviously, they were erected with higher standards as they still stand today. A fourth order Fresnel lens was put to use in the newborn brick tower. In fact, this original lens is still in use.
While sailors and the military had looked upon Point Jellison in a practical manner, tourists and businessmen looked upon the quaint point and its tremendous view of the Penobscot area in a different way. Soon after the new lighthouse was built, several entrepreneurs came up with the idea to build a resort that would hopefully, one day, rival Bar Harbor. This dream came closer to reality in 1872 when the Fort Point Hotel opened to guests. With space for 200 guests, the hotel was far from small. The view must have been absolutely amazing as the rooms faced the panorama of Penobscot Bay. The accommodations were very elegant, with amenities considered rather fancy in those days including running water and gaslights. Additionally, there were stables for riding, two dance halls and even a bowling alley. It was not long before wealthy guests from New York City and Boston began to arrive by ship.
Yet, the hotel's novelty soon wore off and business waned. The hotel switched hands three times, each owner unable to overcome the downward spiral in occupancy. The hotel with grand ambitions never was able to rebound. In 1898, after being open for only 26 years, the hotel "accidentally" burned to the ground just before opening for the summer season. No one ever felt there was enough demand to warrant a reconstruction of the resort.
But Fort Point Light remained on duty, helping ships make their way up and down the Penobscot. Yet, just like much of coastal Maine, the Penobscot region is subject to quick invasions by fog. So it did not take long to realize that a fog-warning device was something the light should have. A pointed top, chapel-like fog signal tower was assembled in 1890 on the edge of the cliff overlooking the bay,
several hundred feet north of the lighthouse. In this tower, a 1,200 pound bell cast in Boston was used to produce the fog warning. Both the bell and the tower remain today. A fog-horn replaced the bell as the fog signal in 1960. In 1988 the lighthouse was automated, leaving the keeper's house for the Fort Point State Park ranger.
Now with a 250-watt halogen light within its lens, the Fort Point Light, at 88 feet above sea level, can be seen by ships up to 10 miles away. While the military men and the tourists have come and gone from Point Jellison, the Fort Point sentinel has looked over endless numbers of ships and mariners to ensure their safe travel in the Penobscot basin for almost 170 years. Although not as pristine as, say, Portland Head Light, Fort Point's bucolic appearance is rather alluring and makes it seem more "down-to-earth."
Thanks to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands, this lighthouse has remained a beautiful place for visitors year round. So when making your way along Maine's part of U.S. Route 1, take the short sojourn south of Stockton Springs to one of the most stunning sights in Maine – Fort Point Light.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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