Construction began in 1787 at the directive of George Washington, and was completed on January 10, 1791. Whale oil lamps were originally used for illumination. In 1855 a fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed; that was replaced by a second-order Fresnel lens in 1864. That lens was replaced with an DCB-224 aerobeacon in 1958.
In 1787, while Maine was still part of the state of Massachusetts, George Washington engaged two masons from the town of Portland, Jonathan Bryant and John Nichols, and instructed them to take charge of the construction of a lighthouse on Portland Head. Washington reminded them that the colonial government was poor and that the materials used to build the lighthouse should be taken from the fields and shores. They could be handled nicely when hauled by oxen on a drag, he said.
The old tower, built of rubblestone, still stands as one of the four colonial lighthouses that have never been rebuilt. Washington gave the masons four years to build the tower. While it was under construction, the federal government was formed (in 1789) and it looked for a while as though the lighthouse would not be finished. The first congress made an appropriation and authorized Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of the Treasury, to inform the mechanics that they could go on with the completion of the tower. The tower was completed during 1790 and first lit January 10, 1791.
When Halfway Rock Light was built, Portland Head Light was considered less important and in 1833 the tower was shortened 20 feet and a weaker fourth-order Fresnel lens was added. The former height and second-order Fresnel lens was restored in 1835 following mariners' complaints. During the American Civil War, raids on shipping in and out of Portland Harbor became commonplace, and because of the necessity for ships at sea to sight Portland Head Light as soon as possible, the tower was raised eight feet. The current keeper