ROCKLAND, ME—In 1968, Coast Guard Commander Ken Black had an idea. As Commanding Officer at the Rockland Coast Guard Station, in Rockland, Maine, it was Black’s job to notice everything — and what he noticed was tourists.
After just a few weeks in Rockland, Black came to realize that the Coast Guard Station was a regular stop along the area’s blossoming tourist circuit, drawing in visitors from across the country who were curious about the Coast Guard — and especially about lighthouses. That’s when Black decided it was time to give the tourists what they wanted — a Coast Guard Museum.
Over the next 30-odd years, what began as a simple idea has grown into the nation’s premiere collection of lighthouse artifacts, all assembled for public display at the Shore Village Museum on Limerock Street in Rockland. Touring the museum is like leafing through a three-dimensional text on the history of nautical navigation.
“We like to teach our visitors about the history of lighthouses without them knowing they’re being taught,” said Black with a smile, “and we do a pretty good job of it.”
And if anyone knows America’s lighthouses, it’s Ken Black. Both director and founder, Black can explain the history of any lighthouse in the northeast with ease, offering up the dates when lights were changed more quickly than most people can remember their family members’ birth dates.
Together with curator Bob Davis, Black offers his wealth of nautical knowledge to bus tours, school groups, and anyone interested in the history of Maine’s craggy coast.
“We get all kinds of people here,” said Black. “They think we’re just the greatest.”
The history of the museum is almost as fascinating as that of the items housed within it. While still at the Coast Guard Station on Tillson Avenue, Black began to offer visitors something more to look at than simply the station itself. He framed a collection of lighthouse post cards. He positioned a pair of buoys near the front door.
Gradually, the Coast Guard Station began to develop a museum quality collection that was becoming more and more popular to those visiting the Rockland waterfront.
Before long, Black invited some top Coast Guard brass to take a look at the collection that was taking shape. They liked what they saw and quickly designated Black as the curator of the first official marine exhibit of the United States Coast Guard.
Black was given authorization to travel to every lighthouse in the northeast and gather any artifacts that he felt were worthy of exhibition.
“Back then, there was no such thing as an artifact,” said Black. “Nobody kept track — lenses were destroyed, things were just thrown away.”
With cooperation from both the public and members of the Coast Guard, the collection grew rapidly, filling the fledgling museum with everything from buoy gongs to harpoon tips. The Coast Guard has since established a program for preserving items for posterity, following the path pioneered by Black in the 1960s.
When the Coast Guard approved the construction of a new Rockland station in 1975, it became clear that the Coast Guard’s growing collection of artifacts would need a new home.
“They (Coast Guard officials) knew that the museum had become quite popular, and they also knew that if they tried to move it out of Rockland they would be facing some strong objections from the community,” said Black.
After negotiating with the City of Rockland and a number of area historical groups, the museum was moved to its current location at 104 Limerock Street and renamed the Shore Village Museum.
Twenty-five years after its last move, Black would like to see the museum move again — back to the waterfront.
“We think a waterfront location would be a vast improvement,” said Black. “We’re meant to be near the water.”
Black is currently working on a plan to relocate the museum in the hope that a waterfront location will make it both more accessible and more meaningful to its visitors.
In addition to its collection of lighthouse and nautical artifacts, the museum houses a collection of handmade dolls and an extensive gift shop.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. from June 1 to Oct. 15 and through the rest of the year by chance or by appointment. More information is available by calling 207-594-0311. There is no admission charge.
This story appeared in the
December 2000 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. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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