Once serving a heavy shipping traffic, it [Dice Head Light]
is now just one more monument to the romantic and historic town
Robert Thayer Sterling, Lighthouses of the Maine
Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, 1935.
occupying a peninsula on the east side of the entrance to the Penobscot
River, has a colorful history for a quiet town of only about 600
year-round residents. A French trading post was established, which the
French originally called Pentagoet, in 1613. English settlers came to
the area after Capt. John Smith charted it in 1614. For two brief
periods in the 1670s, the Dutch controlled the area.
terms of a 1687 treaty, the territory went to the French. Castine is
named for a French officer, Jean-Vincent d’Abbadie de Saint-Castin, who
obtained a large land grant from the king of France. The British
occupied the area during the American Revolution. In 1779, Castine was
the scene of one of the worst naval defeats in U.S. history, when
American ships were forced to retreat into the Penobscot River while
under attack from British vessels.
- U.S. Coast Guard photo, c. 1870s
- Dice Head Light during the years
it was encased in a wooden frame. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
After another brief British
occupation during the War of 1812, Castine came under American control
for good. In the mid-nineteenth century, clipper ships left Castine to
trade around the world. A number of beautiful sea captains’ homes
remain from that period.
shipbuilding and lumber traffic on the Penobscot River flourished,
Congress appropriated $5,000 for a light station in May 1828. The site
chosen was Dice Head, the southernmost point of the Castine peninsula,
almost two miles east of the northern end of Islesboro. The spot is on
land once owned by a family named Dyce. Although both spellings have
often been used, the “Dice” spelling has predominated.A conical
rubblestone tower—42 feet tall from its base to the focal plane—and an
adjacent one-and-one-half-story rubblestone dwelling were soon built,
and a newspaper notice on November 5, 1828, announced that the light
would go into service that evening. An octagonal wrought-iron lantern
held 10 lamps and 14-inch reflectors, showing a fixed white light 129
feet above mean high water
The first keeper was Jacob Shelburne, a former sea captain. The Castine Historical Society has preserved a poem he wrote:
|I always rise before the sun
And up the winding stairs I run
Put out the light, when that is done
Another day is just begun.
So pass my time from day to day
While months and years do roll away
And when the evening doth return
Behold the lamps begin to burn
Both bright & clear
To show the vessels how to steer
And if they steer well to the right
They’ll clear the shoal above the light.
The light should be on the other side
Where the channel is both deep and wide
But some Castine men or ginus [genius] bright
Said we will petition for a light.
They owned the Head, the rocks and land
Is a fact we understand
That was the reason why they said
It shall be built on Dice’s Head
also penned his autobiography while he was keeper at Dice Head, at the
age of 75. “In the month of June 1828,” he wrote, “I went to New York.
. . . I returned and made interest to get the appointment as keeper of
a lighthouse then building on Dice’s Head, near Castine, which
appointment I obtained, and am now in possession as keeper of said
Henry D. Hunter of the U.S. revenue cutter Jackson wrote
in October 1835 that the lighthouse was poorly situated. “This light
should be located on the northern head of Holbrook Island at the
eastern entrance to Castine Harbor,” he wrote. “Would then answer as a
guide up the Penobscot Bay and a harbor light.”
inspection described the station as “in good order,” but I. W. P.
Lewis’s 1843 report to Congress told a different story. Lewis wrote
that the tower was “laid up in lime mortar of bad quality.” The walls
were cracked from frost, the woodwork was rotten, and the tower’s base
rested on an uneven ledge “without regard to level.” The dwelling was
also leaky and “out of repair altogether.”
Lewis believed that
the light was useful for navigation to the harbor of Castine, but he
echoed Shelburne and Hunter in his belief that it was out of place to
be of much help for the general navigation of Penobscot Bay and the
Penobscot River entrance. The light was “intercepted by projecting
land,” wrote Lewis, “and can only be seen in a certain direction and
The Lighthouse Board considered discontinuing
the light around 1857, but instead major repairs were carried out in
1858. The entire tower was surrounded with a six-sided wooden sheath,
and a fourth-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors. The
wooden sheath was removed in the late 1800s.
fog bell was installed in 1890, to be rung by hand in response to
signals from passing vessels. A new hand striker for the bell was
installed in 1897.
Edward T. Spurling, formerly at Avery Rock and
Franklin Island, became keeper in 1911. After years of island life, the
Spurling family’s move to the pleasant village of Castine was a welcome
one. In a 1974 interview, one of the keeper’s six children, Beatrice
Spurling, recalled life at Dice Head:
us children it brought us an amazing new life. We could go to an
organized school for the first time, and play with other children.
Summer life on Dice’s Head was a new world for us. There were ladies
with parasols, men in white flannels, buckboards to take them on quiet
rides through the Witherle Woods and lots of chances for us to make pin
money. I had a summer job at the “Dome of the Rocks” at 50 cents a day.
And I could make extra money by going to the houses and helping out.
I’ll never forget scrubbing bathtubs for 10 cents a ring.
the Spurlings first moved to Dice Head, 11-year-old Beatrice attended
the grammar school in Castine, which was within walking distance of the
light station. It was the first time she had seen a schoolhouse after
years of home-schooling at offshore stations.
traffic in the area had fallen off, and in 1935 the light was
discontinued. It was replaced by a skeleton tower closer to the shore.
The keeper’s house and surrounding land became the property of the Town
of Castine a short time later. In 1956, the lighthouse tower was turned
over to the town.
Nancy Carr has lived in the house for over 30 years.
tower lost some chunks of mortar over the years. Inspectors found
interior disintegration in the lighthouse that could have eventually
caused serious problems. A method of repair called “slurry injection”
had to be employed. This process involved slurry—clay or cement mixed
with a liquid—being injected through holes in the tower.
1997, the voters of Castine approved spending $98,000 to repair the
lighthouse. Another $25,000 was approved in March 1998. The town also
received $52,000 from the Maine Historic Preservation Committee, and
Marty Nally, a contractor from the Campbell Construction Group, carried
out the renovation.
keeper’s house is rented by the town to help pay for the upkeep of the
property; an artist, Nancy Carr, has lived in the house for over 30
years. In April 1999, a late-night fire burned through the roof of the
keeper’s house, having apparently started in a faulty chimney.
Thankfully, nobody was home, and the tower wasn’t damaged.
some debate, the town decided to repair the badly burned dwelling
rather than completely rebuilding it. The repairs were completed by
September 2000 by Philbrook and Spinney of Bangor. You can read about
of the keeper's house here.
These photos show the damage done to the house
in the 1999 fire
In September 2007, a wind storm or "microburst"
toppled the skeletal tower. In late October, it was announced
that the Coast Guard would install a new optic in the lighthouse
tower, making it an active aid to navigation again after 72 years
in darkness. A 250 mm optic went into service on January 1, 2008,
exhibiting a white flash every 6 seconds.
Dice Head Light is a short distance from the Maine Maritime
Academy and is easily reached by driving to Castine on Route
166 and turning right on Battle Avenue. The grounds are open
to the public daily until sunset. A path leads around the tower,
affording good views.
For more on the lighthouse, read The Lighthouses of Maine by Jeremy D'Entremont.
Left, the stairs inside the tower; right, the ladder to the lantern room.
- This skeleton tower, on the bluff near the lighthouse, carried a navigational
light for many years. It was badly damaged in a storm in September
list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers
of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
- Jacob Shelburne (1829-41); Benjamin Harriman
(1841-?); Charles Gott (c. 1896), Edward T. Spurling (1911-1930)