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Great Stories: Lighthouses of Maine

Isle au Haut

Cape Elizabeth

Owls Head

Boon Island

Brown’s Head

Mount Desert Rock

Hendricks Head Light/A Gift from the Sea

Isle au Haut Light, Isle au Haut, ME - 1907

One of the youngest and prettiest lights on the Maine coast, a white bridge links tower to keeper’s house.

Isle au Haut has long history -- first discover was Giovanni da Verrazano in the 1520s; French explorer Samuel Champlain in 1604, wrote "nearly in the middle of the sea there is another island which is so high and striking that I named it Isle Haute."

Miss Lizzie Rich was for years an island fixture -- ruled as postmaster from the post office in front room of her home. She started working at the post office in 1909, when she was 16. When forced to retire at age 70, she immediately hired on as supervising clerk. When she was 78, her hips gave way and cracked. She was strapped in her rocker on a boat and rushed to hospital. Back to the post office in no time, using walkers to lug in pails of water walking up the hill to Sunday church. (See Bibliography: Caldwell p. 183-4)

Now the restored light station is a popular bed and breakfast with five bedrooms, four in main house and one in oil house. Heated by wood stoves, and lit by gas lights -- no phones or electricity. Guests arrive by the mailboat, are served three gourmet meals per day, enjoy biking and exploring the village and the Acadia National Park. Lots of natural wildlife abounds on the island.

Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth - 1829

Very visited and popular. First built in 1811; rebuilt in 1828 with two towers that were lit simultaneously off and on for almost a century; second light discarded in 1924.

Famous 1929 Edward Hopper painting of this lighthouse that is often reproduced, is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Famous story is of keeper Marcus Hanna and rescue of the crew of the Australia in 1885. A ship had run ashore during a terrible winter storm, 100 yards from lighthouse. Captain had been swept to sea; two crew members clung, freezing to the mast. Hanna was coming off shift and was sick; storm so bad he had to crawl on hands and knees in snow. He had gone to bed sick when his wife saw the silhouette of the ship on the rocks. Hanna sent the assistant to get Lifesaving Service. Meanwhile tried to throw lines to the crew. He had to go waistdeep in the freezing water. Finally got rope to first crew member, Pierce, who finally got it around his body and Hanna pulled the line to shore, slowly and painfully, fighting hypothermia. Pierce’s eyes were iced shut and jaw frozen in silent scream. He then threw a rope to rescue Kellar, and started to haul him, when he was relieved by the US Lifesaving Service crew. He received a gold lifesaving medal for his bravery.

For other shipwreck stories, see Caldwell p. 70 (286-ton Tasmania; 1947 Oakley L. Alexandria)

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Owl’s Head Light, Rockland, Maine - 1826

This lighthouse got its name because many claim they see the face of a giant bird in the rocks southeast of town.

It is a stubby little lighthouse, only 20 feet tall, but it sits handsomely on a high promontory. It has never been rebuilt.

Several encounters with Indians in the mid-1700s:

  • -- in 1747, an English soldier Thomas Sanders got captured by Indians, asked to borrow a musket to shoot ducks, and managed to escape.
  • -- in 1757, a large Penobscot Indian war party sailed in fleet of 30 canoes to Owls Head, and attacked a small force of white soldiers, who, in fighting them off, turned the tables and scalped two Indians.

November 9, 1844, the brig Maine sailed out of Rockland Harbor and disappeared with its crew of nine. Three years later, a ship appeared in Rockland Harbor with a mahogany chest, a ship’s atlas, and a navigation book, which locals said all belonged to the Maine. The crew said three Portuguese sailors had left them behind when they jumped ship in Vera Cruz.

In the winter of 1850, Henry Achorn, keeper of Owls Head Light rescued and revived a couple who had been frozen under a blanket of ice aboard a shipwrecked schooner. The captain had disappeared and a mate brought his bride to be on board. Only other person there was a deckhand. He managed to get out of the blanket and ice, thought the others were dead and managed to get to Owls Head Light. They were nearly dead when rescued but they actually recovered and got married. (see Roberts p. 39)

In 1930s, keeper had a springer-spaniel named Spot, who would bark when he heard ships and ring the fog bell by pulling on the rope with his teeth. He supposedly saved the Matinicus mail boat from crashing on the rocks by barking repeatedly during a blizzard that eliminated visibility and froze the fog bell. (He first tried to ring the bell but it was frozen!

Clara Emory Maddocks, when widowed, kept the light for several decades. She was involved in many rescues; including that of her cow when it fell off a cliff.

Boon Island Light, Boon Island, ME - 1812

The story of how it got its name: The island was so desolate and isolated that for 200 years fisherman from York, eight miles away, packed emergency rations in a barrel and left them as a boon to shipwrecked sailors on the island.

There is a story of shipwrecked sailors from the English ship Nottingham Gallery in 1710 resorting to cannibalism when marooned there for weeks during storms.

The story of construction: -- First beacon built in 1800, but washed away in great storm of October 9, 1804 and was replaced by a stone beacon. New tower was financed and built in 1812. A storm in 1831 washed away most of the lighthouse and Pleasanton authorized another tower. In 1852, Congress authorized still another tower, which was finished in 1855 and still stands.

It was difficult to retain keepers in this desolated location. Many such as David Oliver in 1811, quit after just a few weeks or months. Others had hard time holding on to the job because of political pressures. When keeper James Thompson was removed from the position in 1843, so that John Kennard might get it as a political reward, he wrote to President John Tyler: "I have been a seaman from a boy -- being now 60 years old, am poor, have a family to support, with little or no means. I voted for Your Excellency for Vice-President and intended to exert my feeble influence to promote another election for you as President, so why I am removed from keeper’s job, I am at a loss to know." Despite this protest, he didn’t get his job back until 1849.

Tragic legend of a keeper who brought his bride back to the light with him. One night during a great storm, he died unexpectedly. His frantic widow ran up and down the 131 stairs to alternately tend the light and be with her dead husband. The storm raged for days and nights, and she eventually lost her reason and the light went out. The next day, fisherman came and found the deranged young widow.

William W. Williams, keeper most associated with Boon Island, spent 27 years from the 1890’s to World War I (See Bibliography: Sterling, p. 54 -61, for reminiscences when he was 90).

  • -- at first he "couldn’t get away from the idea that I was locked in a cell...When the rough weather came, seas swept the ledges clean. I was always thinking what I would do to save my life should the whole station be washed away. ... I believe it is these things which gradually wear on the mind and finally upset the brain."
  • -- used to bring barrels of dirt to plant flowers and vegetables on the rock
  • -- early days carrier pigeons used to transport messages (one pigeon made eight-mile trip to mainland in 10 minutes)
  • -- worst job on Boon island was painting the cap of the lantern black
  • -- early wrecks and rescues including Perkins, Rockland, and Pathfinder
  • -- most exciting rescue -- the Goldhunter: weather was the coldest he had ever seen on a December morning/temperature four below zero; crew was in a yawl boat; keepers rescued them and they were frozen
  • -- near brush with death when their sailboat capsized in squall
  • -- Story of providential Thanksgiving feast when eight ducks, attracted by the light during a storm, flew into the lantern on Thanksgiving eve and killed themselves. Williams and his assistants were stranded on island without much provisions, due to weather. His wife and kids couldn’t get to him. They had resigned themselves to a bleak holiday meal of boiled potatoes and bread.

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Brown’s Head Light, Vinalhaven, ME - 1832

The 18-foot tower and keeper’s dwelling was built in 1832. It was automated in 1987 by the Coast Guard, the Town of Vinalhaven now owns the station’s dwelling and grounds.

The 1,000 pound fog bell is in the Vinalhaven Historical Society Museum.

First settled in 1789, Vinalhaven in the 1800s was a source of granite for Washington, DC and New York City buildings, but now it is a typical Maine lobster fishing community -- great Maine town.

Susan Lessard, community manager, lives in and maintains the lighthouse.

This light marks the western entrance of Fox Islands. Therefore, can combine with Goose Rocks Light at the eastern end. Goose Neck was a stag station, sitting 51-feet above the water, with occupants confined to a few small rooms.

Mount Desert Rock Light, Mount Desert Island, ME - 1830

Mount Desert Rock, 26 miles offshore, an island 600 yards long by 200 yards wide, is exposed to some of the most savage seas and gales of any light on the Atlantic Coast. During a storm, the fury of the sea submerges the rock entirely. In a storm in 1842, a boulder 18’ x 14’ x 6’ weighing 57-tons, was hurled by the ocean like a toy.

There is a story or legend about keeper in 1858 who on a trip back from the mainland (delayed 2 weeks by a storm) brought her a barrel filled with a surprise -- fresh soil from the mainland and a packet of seeds. She planted the soil in crevices all over the rock and flowers bloomed all spring and summer. Every autumn storms washed the flowers and soil away, and it would have to be replaced and replanted. Sailors loved it and called it "God’s Rock Garden" and every year they would bring boxes of soil to the family at Mount Desert. (See Bibliography: DeWire, chap. 1)

Wrecks and rescues:

  • -- the "oilskin baby:" in 1880s schooner went down and carried down life boat. Mate White first saw nothing, then saw the oilskin -- inside was wrapped his sister’s baby. He wrapped the package to his chest and clung to the overturned boat in the gales, until they were rescued a day later, 10 miles from the site.
  • -- Keeper discovered boat of a Maine fisherman. When he pulled on fishing line , he discovered body of the fisherman, caught on the trawl line. He kept pulling and landed the 100 pound halibut that had pulled the fisherman in.
  • -- Story of the Astral: where, despite sub-zero temperatures, keepers managed to save all but one member of the tug’s "more or less" frozen 18-man crew as told to Robert Sterling (See Bibliography: Caldwell p. 227 and Roberts p. 6)

There is a story about an explosion of a photo flash bomb by a Strategic Air Command plane from Dow Air Force Base, near Bangor. The building rocked, windows were blown out, and the walls fell in. SAC forgot to inform Coast Guard.

Light tended for more than 145 years; in 1977 helicopter lifted last two Coast Guardsmen Robin Runnels and Douglas Nute off the island just in time for Christmas. Twenty-year old Douglas Nute had been there only a week, but despite diversions like TVs, books, electronic video games and radios, was ready to scream, saying the constant noise of the 24-hour foghorn plus the Rock’s constricted size got him down.

Hendricks Head Light and A Gift From the Sea

Story of older couple who had baby later in life that drowned one winter day when just a toddler. The couple sorely wished they hadn’t lived at the water’s edge, yet recognized their responsibility to tend the light. The next March, a ship came ashore during a blinding snowstorm. Heavy waves swept over the deck, sending passengers overboard, where the constant sea froze their bodies in ice. The keeper and wife kept futile watch on shore and lit a bonfire on the shore. They watched as the torn ship disgorged many objects, including a bundle, looking like a rolled up mattress bobbing with lots of energy in the water. When they retrieved it, they discovered a baby girl. (See Bibliography: DeWire p. 164-166)

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