Digest>Archives> March 2004

Life at Fort Popham Lighthouse with Clif & Shirley Morong

By Shirley Morong


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The fort, keeper’s house, shed and lighthouse. ...

On January 3, 1935, my husband, Clifton Morong reported for duty in the U.S. Coast Guard to be stationed at the Kennebec River Lifeboat Station at Popham Beach, Maine, a small coastal town 16 miles from the nearest city of Bath, Maine.

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Keeper Alonzo Morong at the lighthouse’s bell ...

We were both very pleased for several reasons. I was born and had always lived in Bath, had visited Popham Beach many times. Clif and I had met there. His father, Alonzo Morong, was the keeper of Fort Popham Lighthouse where we and our three month old son, Bobby had been staying since shortly after Christmas. Not only would the three year enlistment in the Coast Guard assure us of a steady income, we would be able to live in a place that had always been special to us.

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Clifton Morong and Prince at the entrance to the ...

Popham Beach was a small community nestled on the shore of Atkins Bay and bordered by the Kennebec River as it joined the Atlantic Ocean. There were summer cottages along the beach making it a busy place in the summer but quiet after the season ended.

About twenty-five native and Coast Guard families lived there the year around. The center of the village consisted of a one room schoolhouse, one grocery store, the post office which carried a small amount of miscellaneous goods, a church that remained closed most of the time, Society Hall where dances, children’s programs and public suppers were held, and a small library. Also at the time there was a two and a half story wooden hotel facing the beach. It was called the Riverside Hotel and a tourist attraction was a cannon on the front lawn. The Coast Guard Station was just beyond this hotel.

In 1862 a stone fort was built on a point of land where the Kennebec River widens into Atkins Bay on one side and the river passing swiftly to the sea on the other. The fort was never completed.

Because of a treacherous channel passing the fort, a light on an iron spindle next to the fort that was established there in October 1899. In 1903 a small square building was constructed on the waters edge next to the fort reached by a long wooden bridge from the shore, and the light was moved to the new building. A two-story stucco dwelling for the keeper and family was added in 1909. A dirt road led from the parking area outside the fort to the nearby grocery store, separating the keeper’s house from the story and a half shed and toilet. A small building halfway to the light tower was used to store the oil for the light.

The fog bell machinery was located in a room at the base of the tower. A cable extending from the top of the tower with a weight on it was wound around what resembled a large spool. As the mechanism was set in motion, the cable slowly unwound from the spool as the 16 pound hammer was lifted back then forward through a small aperture on the side wall of the tower to strike the big bell that hung on the outside. It struck once every few seconds and shook the whole building. It took approximately four hours for the cable to completely unwind but the lighthouse keeper generally wound it every three hours.

A small flight of winding stairs led from this room to the lantern room above which contained the tall kerosene mantle lamp with gleaming chimney stood inside a round globe of thick glass called the lens which was mounted on small wheels. Each night at sundown, after the wick was trimmed, lighted and burning smoothly, the whole thing was pushed out into a square green glass enclosed compartment that resembled a dormer window and formed a part of the top of the tower. In the morning at sunrise the lamp was pulled back into the lantern room, its base filled with kerosene, the wick trimmed, a clean glass chimney put on and often a mantle replaced.

Some time during the 1940s the light was moved to the top of the fort with the mechanism to run it on the second level contained in a brick structure. The old lighthouse and the bridge leading to it were damaged by storms and were considered unsafe. The tower had been struck by lightning that ripped off a line of clapboards. The light had been automatic before its transfer to the fort.

I enjoyed living at Fort Popham Light. The six-room house was pleasant and warm with a coal-fired stove in the kitchen and a furnace in the basement that kept the radiators in each room hot. There was no electricity or bathroom and water for bathing and drinking was obtained from a cistern in the basement fed with rainwater that ran into gutters along the roof through a pipe down into the cistern. A pump in the pantry brought the water up for personal use. When clothes were to be washed a large metal so-called boiler would be filled with water the night before and set on the back covers of the kitchen to heat over night. In the morning a bench was set up in the pantry with a clothes wringer in the middle and places on each side for the big washtubs to be placed, one for the hot soapy water and the other for the clear rinse water. A scrub board was used for the real dirty clothes. After washing the clothes could be hung outside in good weather and, in the winter, would freeze as the clothespins were attaching them to the clothesline. In the spring of 1937, electricity was brought into Popham by means of a cable that was laid on the riverbed from nearby Bay Point, poles were set up and everyone was glad to hook into it.

On the day that Clif joined the Coast Guard, his father, Alonzo Morong was taken by ambulance to the hospital in Bath. Several nights earlier during a snowstorm, he had crossed the bridge leading to the lighthouse tower to check the lamp when a wave struck the underpinning sending up spray that soaked him. Drafts from the wind around the light were causing the mantle to black up and he had to stay in the unheated tower the rest of the night to be sure that the problem would be checked.

He caught a cold that in spite of home remedies, turned to pneumonia. He was in the hospital until March 5th, when he passed away. During Alonzo’s stay in the hospital, his son, George, came down from Parker Head about five miles away where he lived, to tend the light and perform all other duties of the keeper.

Unfortunately Alonzo Morong would have been able to retire that year when he would have reached 30 years of Lighthouse duty. He had served at Goose Rock, Two Lights, Cape Elizabeth, Petit Manan and Browns Head, which were all in Maine.

In the winter a lot of ice would form in Atkins Bay and one morning we looked out of the kitchen window and saw the top of the mail boat sticking out of the water. The ice had pulled it down along with the freight shed and the end of the wharf that was located at the end of long wooden pier leading from the village.

In spite of the fact that the Coast Guard Station was located down the beach just a short distance from the lighthouse, Clif was only allowed home for a half hour or so unless he was on liberty, which was a 24-hour one in seven days. If a rescue call came in, a horn would sound all men not at the station would have to get there right away. I would accompany Clif on the 8 to 10 p.m. beach patrols sometimes. It was hard walking on the sand to the key post a mile or so away where the clock had to be punched at a certain hour but it gave us a chance to be together.

On March 15, we moved to a cottage next to the Coast Guard Station when a new keeper was assigned to Fort Popham Light.

This story appeared in the March 2004 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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