Digest>Archives> May 1997

Portland Head Light - A Strout Tradition

By John Strout


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Portland Head Light, Maine as it appears today.

I have always believed that it took a different sort of person to become a lighthouse keeper. They were a breed apart from the rest of us. They were not necessarily someone who didn't like people, or wanted to get away from things, but a special type of person-a very special type. As many kept remote lights, they were persons who could accept the challenge of loneliness in exchange for a job that many considered unskilled, a job that didn't always offer any real security, nor any great rewards.

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Early morning at Portland Head
Photo by: Charles Crockett

I feel it was one of the greatest contributions that rarely received a simple "Thank You" from the other men, yet a contribution that has meant mariners from all over the world would be able to return safely to their homes and families.

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Keeper Joseph Strout (r) with wife Mary and son ...
Photo by: Lubin Moving Picture Company

Many keepers, especially those who have tended lights for quite a few years, loved their position of trust with such devotion that many even refused to take their annual leave. When they were persuaded, where did they go? Often to visit another light and its keeper. (Much like the postman who went for a long walk on his day off).

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John Strout (l) with Portland Head Light's Coast ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

My father told me of a keeper known to him who loved his work dearly and took his vacation only on paper. As far as the Lighthouse Department knew from the records, he had taken his leave but he only replaced himself. When the Department did find out, how could they "punish" such devotion to service?

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Joseph Strout (l) with Assistant Keeper John ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

Keeping a light was, in my family for many years, a family tradition. The son helped the father and learned the skill and knowledge that no job training course could ever teach. The son one day took over the duties of the light, and then taught his son how to tend to the lantern and fog signal. The Strout family held possession of Portland Head for over a century in this manner.

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Mary Strout (l) is shown here with wives of ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

Capt. Joshua F. Strout was the first of many Strouts to keep the light. When he was a young man, he began to follow the sea. At eighteen, he was cook on a tugboat. Then he took command of ships in 1854, and was owner and captain of the brig Scotland, which he sailed to South America and the Cuban Trade for two years.

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Keeper Strout white-washing the tower at Portland ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

Captain Joshua was one of those daring skippers who crowded sail on the tall barques, brigantines and full-riggers that for five decades, in the middle of the last century, brought to our foreign trade a greatness and a glory that remains unsurpassed in the history of our mercantile marine.

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Joseph W. Strout 1859-1931. He was appointed ...

Other vessels in his command were, the bark B. F. Shaw, schooners Starlight, Nellie Chase, L. T. Knight, Hannah Westbrook, and the barks Arcadia and Andres. There was no talk in those times about "seeing America First." It was indeed quite the reverse. They saw every-thing else first, and the homeland last. Capt. Joshua carried many of the "Forty-Niners" to Frisco.

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Joshua Strout 1827-1907. Joshua Strout was ...

It was a hard life with storms, bad cargos, failures, dreary stretches and even mutinies at times. However, it was also a life crowded with adventure, success, honorable careers and a varied knowledge of the wide world.

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Keeper John A. Strout 1891-1955. He was born in ...

Not infrequently, these deep-water sailors, on retirement to more humbler pursuits ashore, were placed in interesting positions where strangers often misjudged the extent of their knowledge.

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Joseph Strout with his flower garden, which he ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

After an accidental fall on the Andres, Capt. Joshua was forced into accepting one of these humbler pursuits ashore. This was his appointment to Portland Head Light in 1869. Joshua Strout was the ever efficient keeper for many years. Mrs. Mary Strout, Joshua's wife, was his assistant for 10 years.

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This old photograph shows what appears to be the ...
Photo by: Strout family collection

He was the keeper who often met the poet Henry W. Longfellow on his visits to Portland Head when taking his long tramps out from Portland. Longfellow would sit with Joshua, and both would chat and sip cool drinks prepared by my great-grandmother.

Once or twice a week, Mr. Longfellow took his long walks from Portland and would bask in the sunshine of his favorite rock on the south side of the tower. He found the lighthouse tower reservation most enjoyable and I would like to believe he acquired at least some of his inspiration there.

At the time Longfellow visited the lighthouse area, it was but a virgin forest. Juniper bushes, alder swamps and spruces surrounded the path that led into the lighthouse reservation.

Of interest to many who now visit the light, are the words painted on the wave-swept outer ledge, which is the buffer that protects the lighthouse. Between the huge outer rock ledge and rock ashore, a deep ravine exists fifty feet below, through which the rushing waters rage at high tide. This also causes the ravine to become impassable and of double fury in a tempest. Across the gap, in large lettering are the words: "In Memory Of The Annie C. Maguire Wrecked On This Rock, Dec. 24, 1886."

My father John A. Strout was first to paint the legend on his twenty-first birthday; the day he became assistant keeper under his father, Joseph. He had to chip off much of the rock to make a flat surface, then make a mix of mortar, sand, and some paint, using a boat-swain's sling. The job was completed on Jan. 14, 1912.

Although most of his work has been reclaimed by the sea, the tradition of renewing the paint has been kept up to modern times, and hopefully will continue to be.

The Annie C. Maguire was just one of four ships that have come to grief at Portland Head. Fourteen persons in all were rescued by breeches buoy that was rigged from the base of the light tower to the cross-tree of the huge three-masted bark by Joshua and his assistant and son, Joseph Strout. Joseph carried many of the survivors to the keeper's quarters where their frozen clothing had to be cut and torn from their bodies.

My great-grandmother was kept quite busy fetching blankets, articles of warm clothing, and rubbing hands and feet with warm kerosene and glycerin. Capt. O'Neil of the ship, his wife and young son Thomas Jr., and crew, were most grateful to the Strout family that Christmas Eve so long ago.

On the next to the last trip on the hastily-rigged breeches buoy, the captain's sea chest was sent from the ship to shore, followed by the captain on the last trip.

A few days prior to the wreck, a sheriff's officer had asked my great-grandfather to "be on watch for her," never conceiving it possible she would be wrecked virtually in his dooryard.

A sheriff's attachment awaited her, and promptly served on the Captain, and his sea chest was seized. An investigation revealed that the ship was heavily insured. However, the charge of wrecking the ship for insurance money could not be proved. After all, who would risk his own life, the life of his wife, son and crew, to help his company collect badly-needed insurance?

On opening the sea chest, no money was found. The Captain's wife had the presence of mind to remove her husband's wallet, place it in her hat-box, and carry it with her over the raging waves from the storm-tossed cross-tree to the base of the light tower.

Can you just imagine hosting so many uninvited guests on Christmas Day? I would love to have peeked into Grannie's diary to see how she coped with it. Capt. O'Neil confided in my great-grandfather (being an old sea captain himself) that he had been northbound to Quebec from South America, and was putting into Portland Harbor to escape the fury of the blizzard. He then became lost when the thick swirling snow hid the light, which in those days was a steady beam, from view.

The personnel of the ship remained with the keepers through Christmas, and for several days thereafter until the business was settled, the crew discharged and sent home by the British Vice-Counsel. What a sad ending for what was an extraordinary clipper ship of 944 tons built in 1852, by Jacob A. Westervelt, at New York. Her name then was Golden State. She was a favorite vessel with the shipper and also a profitable one to her owners.

She made many successful trips to the Orient from San Francisco before she was bark-rigged. In 1883 she was sold to D. J. Maguire of Quebec, who re-named her Annie C Maguire.

Many lightstations were blessed to have a keeper who put his whole heart and soul into the light for years on end. Much like my grandfather Joseph W. Strout, (Joshua's son), who was lovingly referred to as "Cap'n Joe."

Cap'n Joe served at Portland Head Light for 51 years 9 days. He was known to thousands of summer visitors. Each Christmas he received hundreds of remembrances such as fruit from California, candy, delicacies and gifts for his family from folks who had visited the Lighthouse and received his courtesies.

There being no regulations to the contrary in those days, he climbed the tower stairs over and over again to explain its wonders and to give visitors an unrivaled and unbroken view of the sea from the Lighthouse deck 101' above the water. However, regulations did require he wear the uniform at all hours while visitors were present.

My father, John A. Strout, was born Jan. 14, 1891 at the light where his father was keeper, as his grandfather had been. My father would tell me of the heavy ocean storms and winter weather. As a boy of seven, he could remember answering the whistle salute of the steamer, City of Portland, as she passed by with the light's bell.

The year the mechanical fog horn was installed at Portland Head Light in 1898, the City of Portland was lost off Cape Cod in a heavy snow storm. The horn at the light, his father told him, sounded for 72 straight hours, the longest on record for that light in a snow storm.

My father would often tell me of his days at Portland Head and the sight of the magnificent full-rigged ships and the two to six masted schooners. He knew the names of their masters and met most of the crew when off duty.

The palatial yachts of the nation's millionaires were also known to him, as well as the battleships and other fighting vessels.

As a boy at Portland Head, he saw the Great White Fleet and the ships that in somber array fought in the Spanish American War. The greatest treasure in my collection of Portland Head Light artifacts is the original brass sperm oil lantern that was in service inside the great Fresnel Lenses. I also have the brazen measure used to measure out sperm oil and, finally, kerosene for the use in the lamps. The implements are from the youngest days of the light.

After serving at many coastal lights, my father then accepted a shore position to the lightship and buoy station. He was in charge of the machine shop and supplies at Little Diamond Island in Portland Harbor.

It was here that the government found that it could get better results by operating its own machine shop instead of letting out work (just the opposite of today). It placed my father in charge and engaged another machinist to visit the lighthouses.

His final transfer was to the old lightship and buoy yard at Chelsea, Mass., operating the machine shop and supply depot. In a similar position that he held at Little Diamond Island, my dad would hide his face and chuckle when they sent in a new member of the crew from the lightship for a "bucket of steam" or a "left handed monkey wrench."

I can still remember as a young boy, visiting various lightships in for repairs and standing in the center of the ship on the vibrating deck as the fog horns were being tested until just the right pitch was attained. This shrill sound was most offensive to the surrounding neighborhood. The nearby Naval Hospital was a constant complainer, until eventually a schedule was finally worked out that became agreeable to all parties concerned.

On July 4, 1952, one of my father's fondest dreams was full-filled. After two years of research he saw a memorial plaque erected honoring all the keepers at Portland Head Light since its establishment in 1791.

It was dedicated at ceremonies in the station. This memorial was instigated by my father, John A. Strout, of the Strout Family of Light Keepers.

Edward Rowe Snow, then director of the Massachusetts Historical Leagues' activities, delivered the historical address. COMDR. Christie T. Christiansen, Commanding Officer of the South Portland Coast Guard Depot, made the acceptance speech.

On Oct. 12, 1954, my father, myself, my wife June and daughter, Donna Lee Strout climbed the famous light as guest of W.T. Burns, then the keeper, making five generations of Strouts who have served at the light or climbed its winding stairs.

Someone has said that "The Lighthouse Service is the picturesque and humanitarian work of the nation. It appeals to one's better instincts, because it is symbolic of never-ceasing watchfulness, of steadfast endurance in every exposure and widespread helpfulness." This puts into words the feelings of many who have climbed the tower stairs at Portland Head Light.

In Dec. 1955, my father passed away. I am afraid his years of service, climbing hundreds of tower stairs day after day, night after night, eventually cost him his life at the relatively early age of 64.

It is common enough. We all have our period of grief, very intense, but we also have the assurance that we are but transients here on earth, with the heavenly home of reunion when life ends. That was his faith and he lived by it during his traditionally lonesome occupation.

There was not any great estate left when Dad passed on, but there are the great memories, many cherished photographs and sea chest with his memoirs. This has become his legacy to me, far more enduring and treasured than most heir's inheritance.

Dan Pearson's story of the parrot on Matinicus Rock in your April issue, brought back pleasant memories of "Mickey"...a parrot that the Strouts had on Portland Light. He was also from South America, returning with Capt. Josh, when he was captain of the brig Scotland.

The bird was a macaw, about three feet long with a tail of equal size. His tail had brilliant feathers, a myriad of colors, and a very harsh voice. With some coaxing by my father, he would say "Light the light. Light the light. Fog's rolling in."

He lived a great many years, and as a boy, I can remember him sitting on his perch by my uncle's kitchen stove at Cape Elizabeth as he squawked at everyone.

Both my mother and father also come to mind on Dumpling Rock Light in South Dartmouth, Mass. This light was located on a small barren rock that was considerably damaged in the hurricane of 1938. Off-shore from the famous Hetty Green Estate, I can see my father rowing a lighthouse dory with my mother holding me only days old from the hospital in her arms, landing at the light on April, 1931.

I believe it would take some sort of miracle for a family to be content in such circumstances. Even though the TV and radio gave them contact with the outside world, their contentment with family life can not be compared to present day.

The restless computer age, in which we are trying to exist, would be incomprehensible to those of the age in which they lived. Eventually, with completely automatic equipment, it will mean that within a short number of years, there will no longer be such a job as Lighthouse Keeper. It will have passed into history as another cast-off by Modern Technology.

Thanks to the Lighthouse Digest, the heroic Lighthouse Keepers of yesterday and their brave women-folk will not be allowed to step into the past with stories untold: stories of romance, adventure, loneliness and danger of the service.

Longfellow wrote of the Lighthouse:

"Steadfast, Serene, Immovable,

The Same year After Year,

Through All The Silent Night,

Burns On forevermore

That Quenchless Flame,

Shines On That Inextinguishable Light!

Sail On! it says, Sail On,

Ye Stately Ships

And With Your Floating Bridge

The Ocean Span;

Be Yours To Bring Man Nearer Unto Man!"

Modern technology has certainly made a mockery of Longfellow's words. Henry would be a most discontented person with the Doomsday List of Endangered Lighthouses that appears in Lighthouse Digest.

The entire Strout family is well proud of the generation of "Keepers of the Light."

This story appeared in the May 1997 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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