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Guardian Lighthouses Dot the Rugged Coastline of Maine

June 14, 1987|MARY MAYNARD DRAKE | Drake is a Trevett, Me., free-lance writer.

BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Me. — Lighthouses, living symbols of nautical Americana, still guard the rugged Maine coast from Kittery to Canada, as they have for 200 years.

More than just a beacon atop a column of stone, a lighthouse represents man's vigil against the elements.

President George Washington commissioned Maine's first lighthouse, Portland Head Light, in 1789 after 74 ship owners petitioned for a beacon to guide them into Maine's busiest harbor.

During the next century another 124 lighthouses were erected to protect the shipping routes for Maine's timber, fish, granite, lime and other products. Sixty are still standing, more than in any other state.

Maine's lighthouse lore is full of dramatic stories: Keeper Pettigrew throwing open all the doors and windows of his dwelling beneath the lighthouse on tiny Avery Rock to let the seas wash through; the rescue of only one item from a wreck off Hendrick's Head in the 1870s: two featherbeds wrapped around a crying baby girl.

Seventeen-year-old Abbie Burgess tending the 28 oil lamps of Matinicus Rock Light, as well as her invalid mother and younger sisters during a raging gale while her father, the keeper, was marooned ashore for 21 days; and numerous accounts of frozen and half-frozen mariners pulled from wrecks or the frigid surf.

Even Portland Head Light, to which Henry Wadsworth Longfellow frequently hiked from Portland to visit his friend, keeper Joshua Strout, and to meditate and compose under the tower, has been battered by storms. Waves swept away the 2,000-pound fog bell in 1869, deposited the ship Annie C. McGuire at the base of the cliffs in 1886 and smashed in the whistle-house wall, knocking out the fog horn and temporarily extinguishing the light in 1973.

Owls Head Light, an equally tranquil-looking spot on a headland south of Rockland Harbor, saw 11 wrecks between 1873 and 1896. In the 1930s it was the home of a dog named Spot, who saved the Matinicus Island mail boat by barking into the raging gale. When Capt. Ames heard the dog, he regained his bearings and powered into Rockland safely.

But most of the early lighthouse keepers' time was spent tending the lamps, cleaning the glass, maintaining the buildings and equipment and doing the mundane chores of a self-sufficient life with few or no neighbors. Some keepers relished it, serving decades. Their journals and letters provide glimpses of the life, as do the more nostalgic poems and books written by keepers' children.

Hard Life for Keepers

The hours were long and pay low --$200 a year at Seguin because the keeper could fish, raise hay for his cows and cut his own firewood on the island; $250 at West Quoddy Head in 1808, with a $50 raise the second season after the keeper found that he couldn't raise a vegetable garden in the poor soil.

On Boon Island, Saddleback Ledge and Mt. Desert Rock, keepers had to carry soil in boxes or bags from the mainland each spring because every winter the storms washed it all away. They also kept chickens and caught rainwater, stored it in cisterns and hand-pumped it to the kitchen.

They had to request all supplies--whale oil, grease, whitewash, coal for cooking and heating, even rags, brooms and paint brushes. Each item had to be accounted for, and the used items had to be returned to the inspector before new ones were issued.

A small boat was supplied so the keeper could fish or tend lobster traps, row or sail to shore for supplies and take his children to mainland school. Landing at island light stations required skilled boat work, for many had no harbor. At Saddleback Ledge no boat could land. People and supplies had to be hoisted ashore in a boatswain's chair.

Summer visitors eased the isolation of the more accessible light stations. More remote stations had only the unannounced visits by the U.S. Lighthouse Service inspector. These were not social calls, but "white glove" inspections of the entire station--lamps, signaling apparatus, equipment, houses and uniforms. Electricity, radio, the telephone and TV helped ease the lives of keepers and their families.

Changing Lights

By 1789, when the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment was founded, lighthouses were no longer fires burning on headlands or kettles of burning tar on top of poles, but were stone or wood structures topped by glass-shielded whale oil lamps with the light concentrated by metal reflectors.

Later fuels were lard oil, colza (an experimental oil derived from cabbages), kerosene and incandescent oil vapor (in a mantle-type lamp).

After 1822 Fresnel lenses concentrated the beam of light much more efficiently, enabling a small flame to be seen for miles. (Today, airport beacons are being substituted for Fresnel lenses.)

By the 1930s more powerful electric beacons and the decline in shipping made some lighthouses superfluous, and many light stations were sold. As lights were automated during recent years, many unneeded keepers' quarters were sold, boarded up or demolished.

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