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It’s unimportant whom, but someone once said: The easiest way to sell something to a tourist is to put a picture of a moose, a lobster or a lighthouse on it. The next time I was in a gift shop after I heard that I looked around at the items for sale and was surprised at how many moose, lobsters and lighthouses I saw. (In case you’re wondering that’s one of the reasons I named my latest book, “A Moose and a Lobster Walk into a Bar.” I figured I’ve got two of the Big Three right there.)
Living in Maine I’ve always like moose, lobsters and lighthouses. As a kid I grew up near a lighthouse – Marshall Point in Port Clyde.
I thought of Marshall Point the other day while watching a public television special that began by asking, “Did you know that of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world only one had a practical utilitarian purpose?” (You probably didn’t.)
I didn’t know what that said about the practicality of folks back then, but it probably said something. Like me, most people these days can’t even name the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, but I do know a little about the one they call the practical one.
In case you haven’t guessed it yet, the program was about the magnificent structure that was built in Egypt more than 2,400 years ago – the Lighthouse of Alexandria – built in about 350 B.C.
Not only was the lighthouse useful for sailors attempting to find and enter Egypt’s great harbor, it was also the tallest building on the planet at the time and they say people traveled thousands of miles just to see it – just like people do today to see our lighthouses.
Except for several large marble stones in the ocean off the island where it’s believed the grand lighthouse once stood, there’s not much left of this ancient wonder. But for centuries, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos Lighthouse, was used to mark the harbor. Its keepers used a huge fire at night and reflected sunrays during the day. The lighthouse was so widely known and admired it even appeared on Roman coins.
In 1300 and 1323 two strong earthquakes caused considerable damage to the structure. Then, in 1480 Egyptians decided to fortify Alexandria and used the fallen stones and marble to built a fort on the spot where the lighthouse once stood.
Most of what we know of the ancient wonder comes from Pliny the Elder (don’t you wish people still went by names like that?) who left a brief description of the tower and its magnificent white marble facade. According to some historians the lighthouse, including the foundation base, was about 384 feet high which is equivalent to a modern 40-story building. Some accounts tell of how the mysterious mirror could reflect the light 40-50 miles away. Storytellers of the time claimed that the mirror was so powerful it was sometimes used to detect and burn enemy ships before they could reach the shore. (Great story. Who cares if it’s true or not?)
At Marshall Point, the first lighthouse built to help mariners find Port Clyde's harbor was a 20-foot high rubblestone tower with a system of seven lard oil lamps and 14 reflectors, built in 1832. The lighthouse that stands there today has a 31-foot brick and granite tower built in 1857. It may not make a list of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World but it’s awfully pretty and come July and August it draws tourists like flies around a bait barrel
One more thing: I’d be interested in knowing if Pliny the Elder ever wrote about ancient moose and lobsters. If he did and you have a copy, I’d appreciate it if you’d send me one.
John McDonald is a humorist and storyteller who performs regularly
throughout New England. John’s e-mail address is
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