By Stephen T. Lyons
As the director and unofficial “keeper” of the Museum at Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Jeanne Gross has served in one of the most important and picturesque job sites in the country. The lighthouse, museum, and gift shop, hugging a rocky stretch of coastline, attract lighthouse enthusiast and lovers from all 50 states and over 70 countries each year. An estimated one million visitors arrive each year to view this iconic light, many seeking the timeless majesty of the first lighthouse completed by the United States government.
While employed by the Museum at Portland Head Light, a board-managed not-for-profit organization, Jeanne has built strong ties over the years with leadership and staff at Fort Williams Park, public works, and the town council of Cape Elizabeth. There is no question of her success as director. Thousands of positive comments on social media, a faithful corps of cheerful volunteers, and regular events including book signing and tours speak to the diversity and appeal of the museum’s culture and programming.
What’s next for Portland Head Light? Jeanne’s retirement. Jeanne wants to spend more time gardening and maybe even take a summer vacation. She hasn’t had one in 21 years as most visitors to the Museum arrive during warmer months.
Upon hearing of Jeanne’s retirement, I sat down with her to ask about some of her more memorable moments at the light. They included:
- Open Lighthouse Day. Jeanne works with the U.S. Coast Guard and the American Lighthouse Foundation to organize a day each September when visitors can enter the lighthouse tower and enjoy a breathtaking view of Casco Bay.
- Flying Santa. Santa arrives via helicopter to provide toys to the children of US Coast Guard servicemen and women, courtesy of the Friends of Flying Santa.
- The U.S. Postal Service produced a postage stamp featuring Portland Head Light and Jeanne coordinated a release ceremony in front of the light.
- Blue Angels Fly-by in 2021. A military color guard assembled atop Portland Head Light with a U.S. Navy Blue Angel flyby to honor the recently killed military personnel in the last days of Afghanistan War and all military veterans who served, those were aboard USS Eagle 56 when it was sunk near Portland Head in 1945, and to mark the end of the Afghanistan War. This event was featured on the Town of Cape Elizabeth website listing the names of those killed in the last day of the war.
- USM sings from atop the light. A first of its kind educational event, the University of Southern Maine’s Chorus sang patriotic songs atop Portland Head Light, honoring the sacrifice of our military veterans. This concert can be viewed on the University of Southern Maine Music Department webpage and on YouTube.
When I asked Jeanne what she will miss the most in retirement, she said, “the people.” Talking to the thousands of Maine schoolchildren, elders, civic organizations, and tourist and community organizations. And most of all, she wanted to thank the staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly over the years, including during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021. She also wanted to thank the U.S. Coast Guard with whom she has worked so closely over the years.
In addition to managing one of the most robust volunteer programs in the State of Maine, Jeanne has recently focused on identifying and digitizing thousands of never-before-seen videos, photos, and documents relating to Fort Williams and Casco Bay’s military history. These artifacts show US military wartime activities at Fort Williams and the firing of the harbor defense guns. All these assets have been shared with the Town of Cape Elizabeth, the local historical society, Maine Armed Forces Museum in Augusta, local Maine State Parks, and as far away as Fort Stevens State Park in Oregon. These historic items will now be available for all to enjoy free, in perpetuity.
In her role as manager of the lighthouse, museum, and gift shop, Jeanne works with others to manage crowds, often dealing with harsh weather and answering thousands of phone calls, which range from inquiries about the weather and where to eat or stay, to driving directions from Kansas!
Many things have changed in Cape Elizabeth since its founding in 1765, but Portland Head Light, first lit in 1791, remains a beacon of hope for all who visit, a symbol of peace, and a functioning navigation aid. Jeanne has served for 21 years as an ambassador of Portland Head Light and Cape Elizabeth and has done so with grace and distinction. She now passes the torch of Portland Head Light to a new generation. In June of this year, she will make way for a new ambassador. When you see her – please thank her for her selfless service.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org