OWLS HEAD — Lighthouses are like people, similar and yet different, with their own quirks and personalities. Owls Head Lighthouse, which guards the entrance to Rockland Harbor on Penobscot Bay, rises more than 100 feet above the sea. And this sentinel, which can be seen at least 17 nautical miles away, is in reality only 30 feet tall.

The first tower was originally built in 1826, but the poor construction out of rubblestone didn’t stand up to the elements on this Midcoast outcropping. In 1852, the current tower went up.

There are actually more steps on the outside than inside the tower itself, with a total of 60 steps outside from the keeper’s house to the lighthouse door. Inside, there are 10 steps up to a seven rung ladder. That gets you to the wide lantern portion, where a 1,000 watt bulb inside the fourth order 1856 Fresnel lens burns 24 hours a day. Unlike some of the other lighthouses, like Pemaquid which burns from dusk to dawn, this one is continuous.

“Pemaquid has a sensor, so it knows when to come on, and that one is not on all the time,” says Bob Trapani, Jr., executive director of the American Lighthouse Foundation. “Nubble light? It’s on all the time, flashing 24/7. If we could see Brown’s Head, that one’s on … Bass Harbor Head is always flashing; West Quoddy Head is always flashing during the day.”

Owls Head, however, is a continuous, fixed light. “The reason is that you have some flashing lights in the city (Rockland). So when mariners saw this one was fixed, they knew it was Owls Head,” explains Trapani.

That’s one of the “characteristics” as he calls it, setting this light apart from others, like hairstyle or height sets one person apart from another.

Like so many other lighthouses still operating today, the Coast Guard maintains the light, while volunteers maintain the tower, funded by donations. The American Lighthouse Foundation, which cares for 32 historic light station structures, is now based at the Owls Head keeper’s house. Inside is also a gift shop, where proceeds go towards the light’s upkeep, and several exhibits showing changes lighthouses have undergone over the years.

Best of all, you can climb the tower, which is experienced each year by about 12,000 people. It’s open Monday and Wednesday afternoons, 1 to 4 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The gift shop/museum gets about 20,000 visitors annually, from Memorial Day to Columbus Day, Wednesday through Monday, with scaled back days in the winter. It’s all part of Owls Head State Park, open year round, sunrise to sunset. While there’s no admission, donations are welcomed.

Visit on the right day and you can enjoy unparalleled views of Penobscot Bay. Photo by Ron Sorg

Owls Head, which underwent about a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of rehab both from the Coast Guard and volunteers, is approaching the day when it will no longer have an incandescent bulb, but rather an LED one, as technology moves along the evolution of lighthouses.

“People lament the fact we’ve lost some of the more traditional elements,” says Trapani, “but that’s been happening since the day lighthouses were (first) built. There’s always a new improvement.”

While the bulb is changing and the light is actually automatic, the most important fact remains: Owls Head Lighthouse is the beacon of Penobscot Bay.

“A lighthouse without a light is like not having its heart, its soul,” says Trapani. “Without its light, it’s just dark, it’s actually a sad sight, as pretty as the lighthouse might be. As long as there’s a light, you know there’s a human connection, because somebody’s gotta watch it.”

Trapani has been involved with lighthouses for decades, and is very proud of the work the foundation does, which would probably please the spirits of previous lighthouse keepers. “That’s a legacy, and we’re all responsible for it … we’ll pass the baton to someone else who follows us. We want to be able to instill that ethic of preservation with the younger generation.”

Owls Head may not be tall in height, but it holds a special place for many as it stands watch now for 165 years. “For me, it was that symbol of watching out for our fellow man type of thing … and if we lose them, there’s no second chance … so we don’t want to lose them,” Trapani says.

For more information, visit www.lighthousefoundation.org.