Digest>Archives> March 2005

Memories of Coast Guard Life in the 1930s at Maine's Popham Beach

As recalled by Shirley Morong

By Shirley Morong


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A 1941 postcard by L. Taylor showing an aerial ...

The beach stretched ahead into oblivion...dark, cold and deserted. To the right was the dim outline of the beach grass and cottages; to the left at restless sea barely visible under the star-studded sky above. Beyond were the steady white lights of Pond Island and Seguin lighthouses. A lonely place with no sign of habitation anywhere.

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The Coast Guard Life Boat in the ice at Popham ...

Suddenly, in the direction of the point where the riverside beach joins the south beach, a faint light appears moving steadily forward. It is a member of the crew at the Coast Guard Station at Popham Beach on his way to the key post several miles away. His thick jacket is buttoned snugly, his collar turned up around his neck and his wool hat pulled down over his ears. He wears boots and thick mittens, in one hand he carries a kerosene lantern and, from a strap over his shoulder, is a Costan signal and a time clock.

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Life Boat Station crew in 1935. Starting with the ...

His progress is rather slow as it is hard walking in the soft sand. A dog follows at his heels, sometimes scooting towards the grass at a slight sound from that direction, or running ahead but always returning to walk beside the man.

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The Coast Guard Life Boat station in 1935 from ...

Beach patrol, one of the unpleasant duties of the Coast Guard. It began at 8 p.m. every night with two men on watch, one in the tower on top of the station and the other on the beach. The clock was punched at 9 p.m. with the key that was attached to the wall of the small wooden building called the key post, and at 10 p.m. the two men changed places from tower to beach. At midnight, these men called two other crewmembers from their bunks to go on watch and they “turned in.”

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This building was the key post on Popham Beach ...

Such was life in the United States Coast Guard when my husband, Clifton Morong, enlisted in January 1935 and reported for duty at Kennebec River Lifeboat Station at Popham Beach, Maine.

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Home severely damaged at Popham Beach during the ...

The first few months after his appointment, our four-month-old son, Robert, and I lived with his parents, Keeper and Mrs. Alonzo Morong at Fort Popham Lighthouse until the keeper’s death in March 1935.

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The vessel Collie Berwindvale high and dry on ...

A new keeper was appointed and we moved to a summer cottage near the station, which was the only rent available. About three months later, we rented a duplex next to the station. Later, when a cable was laid under the river bringing electricity to the village, we moved again, this time to a two-family house on the other side of the station, which was to be electrified.

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As the storm progressed, the old house that had ...

A small village nestled on the shore of Aitkins Bay, the Kennebec River and the Atlantic Ocean, with summer cottages along the beach. Popham was a busy place in the summer but quiet in the winter when the population dwindled to a few locals and Coast Guard families. Situated near the Civil War fort and the lighthouse were a store, post office, library and school. A church next to the library was never used while we lived there.

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Inside the walls of old Fort Popham from an old ...

The Coast Guard station halfway down the Riverside beach sat on the grassy knoll. A wide platform led to the boat room in the center with the chief’s office on one side, drill room on the other and the kitchen and dining area in the rear. On the second floor were the sleeping rooms topped by the tower where watches, were held. The boathouse was at the river end of the platform. We were fortunate to live so close to the station so that Clif could come over once in a while when not on duty.

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Maine’s Popham Beach Lighthouse was also known as ...

The routine at the Coast Guard Station kept the crew pretty well occupied. In addition to the night watches there were the so-called dogwatches with a man in the tower and, in case of fog or a snowstorm, there was daytime beach patrol. In good weather, a trip to nearby Rockledge Hill would be sufficient as there was a good view of the sea in all directions.

Boat drills were held when the crew seated in a double row in the large surfboat slid down over the track from the boathouse with oars upraised. As the water was reached, the oars were lowered in unison and the rowing began.

Beach cart drills in the summer usually attracted quite an audience of summer residents. The beach cart would be placed at the side of the station, the equipment taken off and placed in position, the rope fired from the brass cannon and made fast to the wreck pole by a member of the crew who, when the breeches buoy was hauled in, climbed into it and was brought down. Each man had his own duty to perform.

In addition to watches and drills, there was always cleaning and painting to do and when the cook went on liberty or leave, a member of the crew would take his place. This meant that he wouldn’t have to stand watches while cooking.

Each man had a 24-hour liberty every six or seven days so they could be home. We certainly looked forward to those times when we could go to Bath to visit relatives and do a little shopping.

In January 1937, four men from the Coast Guard Station left in the station surfboat for Portland where the boat was placed on a flat car and the men were sent on a special train to Cairo, Illinois for flood duty. The Ohio and Mississippi rivers had flooded and towns and cities were under water. Twelve Coast Guard surfboats manned by 48 men were sent from Maine stations. There were four men left at Popham.

On January 10, 1939 the 4,411-ton steel collier Berwindvale struck an unchartered ledge just off the Sugar Loaves, two rock covered islands in the channel just off the beach, while entering the Kennebec River at low tide. Making a big tear below the water line, she was beached near the Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard Base at South Portland was notified and soon the cutter Kickapoo arrived, hauled the ship off at high tide and escorted it to Bath where the 6,000-7,000 tons of soft coal was unloaded at the Kennebec Wharf and Coal Company. She went to Hoboken, New Jersey where she was put in dry dock and repaired.

Winter storms during high tides would wash away the sand around the foundation of the cottages damaging bulkheads and porches, also destroying parts of the wooden sidewalk that went along the beach. On Sunday, April 21, 1940, I woke up to a storm of rain, sleet and gale force winds. There was a heavy sea running and there would be a 10.9-foot tide around noon. I was standing near the Coast Guard Station watching the surf when huge waves washed up against the post supporting a two-story cottage nearby, knocked them over causing the front of the building to drop down onto the beach leaving the ell still standing. When the tide dropped, members of the Coast Guard crew managed to enter the cottage and remove the furnishings, which they stored in the garage, located a short distance away.

The storm continued all day and that night with a high tide of 11.7. We joined several other people and went down to the damaged cottage. Car headlights were turned on to the scene showing large waves rolling in and pushing logs and rocks against the shore.

Within a short time, the action of the sea demolished what remained of the first floor of the cottage and now the edges of the roof were resting on the beach, a shell of what had been a fine summer home.

We moved down the road behind the row of cottages and came to another one that seemed to be getting the full force of the waves. This cottage had a glassed-in porch. As we paused to look over the situation, we heard a thump then a splintering of glass as one corner of the front of the building fell to the beach, the glass on the porch breaking into small sections.

The storm slowly died down the next day but at high tide the sea was reaching the edge of the banking and furniture, dishes, cushions and other household items were floating around and once again the Coast Guard crew tried to salvage what items they could. Other storms took place over the years causing a lot of the cottages to be moved back towards the woods and away from the shifting sand.

On September 21, 1941, the coal steamer Berwindvale had anchored near the fort with distress flags up and its whistle blowing. Members of the Coast Guard crew, including my husband, went to the ship in the surfboat. A member of the crew had fallen off a ladder and they thought his back might be broken. He was lowered down the side of the ship into the surfboat and brought ashore to the station. Having no medical facilities at Popham, a mattress was placed on the Coast Guard truck; he was put on it with several members of the crew going along to try to make him comfortable. He was taken to Phippsburg Center where they were met by an ambulance that took him the rest of the way to the Bath hospital, where it was found that his injuries were broken ribs.

During March and April the ice in the upper Kennebec River would start to break up and large floes of ice would float down with the tide and go out to sea. One morning at daybreak, the man on watch in the tower noticed that the life boat was gone from its mooring just off the beach. Hastily summoning the chief and crew, a search was made and it was found grounded on the beach at the point where the riverside beach joined the south beach, a short distance from the station. Little damage was done and it was later towed off by a Coast Guard tug and returned to the mooring. But after that, a light was left burning on the boat at night so the man on watch could check its position at all times.

On April 2, the weather was overcast and cold with a choppy sea running. The chief asked for a volunteer to go out and attend to the light on the lifeboat. Minnihane, who was bothered with a touch of arthritis, said he would go. The chief hesitated because of his lameness but he insisted. He launched the skiff and rowed out to the lifeboat. Securing the skiff, he started to climb on board but slipped and fell into the water. It was believed that the cold water and the arthritis crippled him so that he was unable to grab onto anything and the swift tide carried him down the river toward the ocean. The man on watch saw the accident and immediately sounded an alarm. Within minutes the surfboat was launched from the boathouse and a search began but all that was found was his hat floating on the water. I saw the whole thing from my kitchen window and the shock lasted a long time. His body was found the following August washed up on the shore at Indian Point across the river from Popham Beach.

The salary in the Coast Guard in those days was $60 a month. When my husband re-enlisted at the end of three years, he got a raise of $6 more a month. Our house rent was $8 a month until we moved to a house that had electricity when it was raised to $12 with $2 paying the electric bill.

On July 7, 1939 the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service. When the keeper of a nearby lighthouse went on leave, a member of the Coast Guard would substitute for him taking his family with him. We substituted on five family lighthouses before we got stationed on Race Point at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts and then later to Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.

Maine lights that we substituted on were Squirrel Point, Perkins Island, Doubling Point Range Lights, which were all on the Kennebec River, also Ram Island, Burnt Island and Portland Head.

This story appeared in the March 2005 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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