Digest>Archives> May 2005

Life of a 1919 Maine Lighthouse Keeper Revealed

By Terry Hussey


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This rare photo of Petit Manan Lighthouse, Maine ...

As a young girl in junior high school in 1918-1919, Louise Coates Hardie was required to make a book on lighthouses. “I must say it was an inspired assignment by some good teacher, as it was an experience I have long remembered with some affection,” she wrote in 1981.

“Part of the project was writing personally to a lighthouse keeper, asking for the story of his life,” continues Hardie. “A pretty brash request I’d call it – evidently I hit on a responsive keeper at Petit Manan Lighthouse near Milbridge, Maine, because he took the time to write the enclosed. I only hope I had the good sense way back then to thank him for it!”

Many years later, the keeper’s letter found its way to the Maine State Archives. The Archives called the Milbridge Historical Society, asking them if they would like to have the letter for its museum. How thrilled they were to have this piece of history of a keeper’s life just off their shore.

The full text of the keeper’s letter follows. The spelling and punctuation is the writers’:

Petit Manan Light House

Milbridge, Maine

January 9, 1919

Miss Louise Coates

My Dear Madam-

At your request I am sending you a brief sketch of my twelve years (of) experience of Light House life in District No. 1 on the Maine coast.

My First Station was Monhegan Island, twenty-one miles out to sea. The nearest town was Boothbay Harbor. We were transferred by a small steamboat every day in the summer and three times a week in winter. The island is three miles long and one wide. The light house was situated on a high hill in the center of the island. There were two keepers. It was a 2nd order vapor lamp flashing every minute. There was a village of two hundred people and from June until September about five hundred summer people lived there. The two keepers were very busy in summer as they had to take visitors through the tower and government buildings. I spent two years there.

My next station was Saddleback Ledge, five miles to the Village of Vinalhaven. It is situated in the mouth of East Penobscot Bay. The tower and dwelling were together. The light was 5th order fixed white light and fog bell sounding every ten seconds. The keepers were three in number and had a furlough every ten days.Their families living on the Maine. I went to this station because the salary is the largest in the District. Stayed here three years. My next station was West Quoddy Head. The most-eastern point of land in the USA. The tower and dwellings were situated on the end of the this Head.

The tower was striped red and white, fixed white light, a fog signal by steam sounding three times a minute. We were three miles to the nearest village. We had to transfer our children by auto to school. We were two keepers in number; the watches were very hard as the fog never left in summer – only a few hours out of a week. I spent five years here.

My next station was Petit Manan. I arrived here February first, 1917. This is a small island of 5 acres, very low – has two dwellings and a school house. Tower is 127 feet high and a 2nd order vapor light flashing every two minutes. A fog signal run by crude oil engines – the whistle sounding three times a minute. The island is connected to Green Island by a bar. These two islands form a beautiful harbor – a great help in landing. This station is situated at the mouth of Pigeon Hill and Dyers Bay. It is very pretty here in summer but very bleak in winter.

The winter of 1917 was a terrible experience for the three keepers. The nearest village is twelve miles away, making it bad to get supplies. With 5 naval persons and 20 men, women and children and the government only allowing a small amount of supplies at a time. We had to leave quite often for the main. For three months the island was surrounded with fields of ice for miles and three times the keepers were very near losing their lives. If it had not been for the Patrol boats, someone would have gone hungry a lot of times. The 2nd keeper on watch sighted a German submarine 1 1/6 miles east of Tower making it quite a bit of excitement. News came over the telephone the German sub was coming east at a speed of 12 miles an hour. It was sun down. The keeper on watch saw a boat four miles south of station. Took launch and went to warn them they had better make harbor. Arrived back at eleven p.m.

The keeper on watch saw a vessel December 7 making for the island with sails all torn and a flag in rigging, union down. It was blowing a heavy gale W.W. and zero. They tried to make their anchor hold in the lea of the island. It did not and blowed out to sea. I telephoned everywhere for a tug boat to save their lives. At last we got S.P. (Shore Patrol) 265 at Nauset (Cape Cod). Capt Hadlock found the vessel nearly full water, sails all gone, towed them to the nearest harbor.

We have a nice house. Hot water, heat, electric lights and telephone, a new launch, a 88 note player piano with one hundred dollars worth music, a good library and four daily papers.

There is three of us in my family, my wife and a little girl five years old. Our Keepers all have large families. The Salaries have been raised this year. Principle Keeper receives $109, 2nd keeper $88, third keeper $73. Our trouble now is a school teacher for the twelve children here. The Government teacher has been here three weeks this year. We want a teacher one month at a time, not one week. When we get the educational part for these children under control everything will be fine.

Trusting I have made my life plain to you I will close.

Respectfully yours,

Leo Allen

This story appeared in the May 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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