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Shannon Bryan

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Posted: August 10, 2015

See the light: Take a tour of Wood Island Lighthouse in Saco Bay

As part of its fundraising efforts (restoring a centuries-old lighthouse is no cheap endeavor) Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse runs tours out to the island a few times a week during July and August.

Written by: Shannon Bryan
Visitors reach the end of the long boardwalk to their final destination: Wood Island Lighthouse on Wood Island, off the coast of Biddeford Pool. Shannon Bryan photo

Visitors reach the end of the long boardwalk to their final destination: Wood Island Lighthouse on Wood Island in Saco Bay, off the coast of Biddeford Pool. Shannon Bryan photo

Wood Island Lighthouse has seen some things.

Constructed in 1808 (and then rebuilt entirely in 1839 and renovated in 1858), the lighthouse perched on the eastern end of Wood Island in Saco Bay has certainly watched over its fair share of passing ships.

But over the decades, it has witnessed tragedy and heroism, too. Locals might be familiar with the grim murder-suicide that took place on the island in 1896 (and the rumors of island hauntings since). Or the valiant rescue of two-year-old Tammy Burnham, the light keeper’s daughter, who fell into the water after the skiff she was in capsized just of Wood Island in 1960.

The lighthouse itself might have fallen victim to its own tragedy – disrepair, collapse, neglect – were it not for the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse (FOWIL), an all-volunteer organization that came together in 2003 to help restore and maintain the lighthouse – and to keep telling its stories.

With a combination of hard labor, long hours and every-dollar-counts fundraising, those passionate volunteers have restored much of the lighthouse, the exterior of the light keeper’s house and some of the outbuildings. But there’s more work to be done, more money to be raised.

As part of its fundraising efforts (restoring a centuries-old lighthouse is no cheap endeavor) Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse runs tours out to the island a few times a week during July and August (which means interested lighthouse lovers need to book a tour soon or they’ll miss out this season).

Vines Landing boat launch in Biddeford Pool. There's a small parking lot on-site, but tourgoers may need to find on-street parking nearby.

Vines Landing boat launch in Biddeford Pool. There’s a small parking lot on-site, but tourgoers may need to find on-street parking nearby. Shannon Bryan photo

The tours depart from the boat launch at Vines Landing in Biddeford Pool. Advanced registration is highly recommended, as the tours tend to fill up and it gives FOWIL a chance to fill attendees in on the dos and don’ts of of the tour (do wear appropriate footwear, don’t run on the boardwalk or let your children run loose in the tower).

George regales us with some of Wood Island's history, including the history of the bell that now finds its home at the Vines Landing boat launch. Shannon Bryan photo

George regales us with some of Wood Island’s history, including the history of the bell that now finds its home at the Vines Landing boat launch. Shannon Bryan photo

The tour begins on the mainland, on a small patch of grass near the boat launch, near a soundless bell. Our guide for the day, a knowledgeable volunteer named George, told us how the bell spent some years as a planter on Wood Island before being hauled across the water to eventually find a home in its current location, proving again that some things have bewildering histories.

Boarding the boat. Shannon Bryan photo

Boarding the boat. Shannon Bryan photo

It’s a scenic 15-minute boat ride out to the island in Saco Bay, during which the FOWIL volunteers point out noteworthy structures and locations, like the daymark on nearby Stage Island, which looks like a small lighthouse, but isn’t.

A view of Wood Island in the distance as the boat approaches, left, and the landing on the west end of Wood Island, where tourgoers disembark. Shannon Bryan photos

A view of Wood Island in the distance as the boat approaches, left, and the landing on the west end of Wood Island, where tourgoers disembark. Shannon Bryan photos

But the boat ride is only part of the journey.

Once on the boat launch on Wood Island’s west end, tourgoers still need to walk the half-mile boardwalk – over marsh and through flower-filled fields – to reach the lighthouse. It’s a scenic stroll, but the boardwalk is narrow, so tourgoers are encouraged to pay attention to their footing, lest they take a tumble into the muck.

The boardwalk. Shannon Bryan photo

The boardwalk. Shannon Bryan photo

But after a few minutes of marveling at the foliage or how light keepers used to haul supplies along this same route, Wood Island Lighthouse comes into view.

There she is. Shannon Bryan photo

There she is. Shannon Bryan photo

At the lighthouse, tourgoers are free to wander the grounds, explore the light keeper’s house, or climb the winding stone staircase up to the top of the tower.

The staircase inside Wood Island Lighthouse. Shannon Bryan photos

The staircase inside Wood Island Lighthouse. Shannon Bryan photos

There, a guide shares more of lighthouse’s history: how it was originally built out of wood, but was replaced by a granite tower in 1839 after the wood rotted out in pretty short order. Later, in 1858, the tower was renovated again so a Fresnel lens could be installed. Even that once-modern invention has been replaced a couple times over. The lens is now an LED beacon (sorry, M. Fresnel).

The VLB-44, an LED beacon, was installed in 2013. Shannon Bryan photo

The VLB-44, an LED beacon, was installed in 2013. Shannon Bryan photo

View from the top of the tower, with the boardwalk in view leading back to the west end of the island. Shannon Bryan photo

View from the top of the tower, with the boardwalk in view leading back to the west end of the island. Shannon Bryan photo

You’ll also hear about some of the island’s lore, like how it was once rumored that gypsies cast a spell on the island that prevented trees from growing there. According to the tale, a gypsies stole something from the light keeper while he was on the mainland. He went to the authorities, who were able to track down the thieves and get the light keeper’s stolen item back, but the gypsies were none too please and cursed Wood Island. In truth, said George, the trees were all cut down during the war to make it easier to spot German submarines.

Inside the house, the rooms are still waiting being renovated, but there's plenty of history and information being shared on easels all over the house. Shannon Bryan photos

Inside the house, the rooms are still waiting being renovated, but there’s plenty of history and information being shared on easels all over the house. Shannon Bryan photos

And after an hour and a half of stories and exploration, the tour comes to an end and tourgoers are led back along the boardwalk toward the waiting boat and, inevitably, the mainland. But not before one last glance back at the lighthouse and Maine’s remarkable history.

Shannon Bryan photos

Shannon Bryan photos

The tours are held in July and August. Wednesdays at 10am and 11am. Thursdays at 5pm and 6pm. Saturday at 11am and 12pm.

Tours run on Wednesdays at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., Thursdays at 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. and Saturdays at 11 a.m. and 12 p.m. through July and August. Tours are by donation ($15 per person is suggested).

For more information on the Wood Island Lighthouse tours or to register: woodislandlighthouse.org

More on the lighthouse: The history of the light | Murder/suicide | The rescue of the light keeper’s daughter

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