Located in Maine’s Belfast Harbor is the little known Steele Ledge Monument Lighthouse, which is sometimes spelled in different variations as Steel’s Ledge, Steels Ledge, and Steel Ledge. However, it became better known as the Belfast Beacon when in 1912 an actual light was placed on the site. The Belfast Beacon name was perpetuated by a number of vintage post cards that were all taken in the winter months during times that the harbor froze over and a person with a camera could reach the structure.
Located in the waters of Belfast Bay bear the entrance to the Passagassawaukeag River, the day beacon monument was first authorized for the location by Congress in 1826. The name Steele comes from one of the earliest settlers in the area. $1,200 was authorized to build the monument at the location of the outermost water obstruction.
Built of wood, the first one was destroyed in an 1833 storm. It was washed loose in an 1835 storm and eventually became a pier opposite the Railroad Wharf. This time a stone monument was built at the site, but the ice jams destroyed it in February of 1850. It was rebuilt the same year and it lasted until 1888 when ice caused it to also meet its demise. It was again rebuilt, this time using heavier stones and bracing and with more sloping sides. In the middle of it a tall pole with a large barrel mounted at the top of it as a day-mark, but there was never a light installed.
In the August 31, 1911 edition of the Republican Journal newspaper, a new beacon was announced for the site when they wrote, “There will soon be something entirely new in the way of a light on the Maine coast. It will be an acetylene gas lamp, but instead of being an ordinary kind with one cylinder to furnish gas, there will be a battery of tanks. This new light will be placed on the Steele Ledge in Belfast Harbor.
“This beacon has been a stone pier, or monument as it is commonly called, without any light. Now the U. S. Bureau of Lighthouses has decided to establish a regular lighted beacon. A steel tower of small size will be erected and at the top of this will be a gas lamp. The fuel will be furnished from a battery of four tanks, and one charge from the four will furnish the light for six months.”
It didn’t take American Gasaccumulator Co. of Philadelphia long to use an image of the Belfast Beacon in their sales brochure. After all, in essence it was a federal government endorsement. Their brochure called it AGA Light-House, F-3700 at Steels Ledge in Penobscot Bay, Maine.
American Gasaccumulator Co was a division of a company started in Sweden in 1904 by Gustaf Dalen, a 35-year-old engineer and ingenious inventor whose firm developed an automatic lighthouse mechanism that included the sun valve and the intermittent light regulator. Acetylene, with its bright light, was an excellent fuel for lighthouses, but it was too expensive when burned all day. The firms intermittent light regulator reduced fuel consumption by 90 percent, and the sun valve cut consumption by another 4 percent. This meant that lighthouses could be operated at a low cost and left unattended for long periods of time. In 1912, the firm won a contract to build a lighthouse system for the Panama Canal, and Dalen was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his inventions in lighthouse technology. In 1911, the Swedish firm founded American Gas Accumulator Co. in New Jersey and in the ensuing years many lighthouses were installed around the Great Lakes, but the Belfast Beacon in Maine was among its earliest installations.
During the Second World War, in the interest of national security, the Belfast Beacon was extinguished. However, the May 6, 1943 edition of the Republican Journal newspaper in Belfast, Maine reported, “The citizens of Belfast were pleasantly surprised last Wednesday to see the beacon on Steele’s Ledge again shining over the bay. Recently the War Department issued an order that it be relighted as the position of the ledge was so well hidden by the islands in the bay that it was not hazardous to national defense. A government Coast Guard tender officially relighted the beacon on Wednesday.”
At some point the Belfast Beacon (Steele Ledge Light) in Belfast, Maine was discontinued and its lantern room was removed. As strange as it may seem, with all the history of the beacon from the time that it was built and through World War II, its recorded history after that seems to have been swept under the carpet and even the whereabouts of the lens is seemingly unknown.
This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2014 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.
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