Digest>Archives> November 2005

Shadow of Death Follows Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse to a Watery Grave

By Bob Trapani Jr.


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Though built to protect mariners from the deadly shoals at the entrance to Sullivan Harbor in Frenchman’s Bay, Maine, Crabtree Ledge Light’s appearance seemed more foreboding than friendly. Located about a mile off Hancock Point, the cast iron caisson sentinel stood 54 feet high above the water, with a black cylindrical foundation pier, surmounted by a brown conical tower. The light’s daymark was a rather ominous cloak that would come to exemplify the dark side of tragedy that seemed to hang over the doomed beacon.

First lit in 1890, a trail of mystery soon became the legacy of Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse. A mere eight years passed when the first unexplained mishap befell the dreary sentinel as the steamer Sebanoa violently rammed the structure being manned by unsuspecting keeper Charles Chester and his assistant on November 18, 1898. The collision rattled the very core of the light’s foundation and inflicted severe damage to the ill-fated vessel, which was forced to run for shore and beach itself to save its crew and passengers. The Daily Kennebec Journal reported at the time that the ship “lies on the beach there (Hancock Point) in a very bad position, and it is doubtful if anything but her machinery can be saved.”

Low tide would not only reveal the full extent of the damage incurred by the Sebanoa; it would also have a hand in its further demise. The newspaper account went on to say, “When Captain Dixon beached the steamer, she struck on a ledge, so that her keel amidships is unsupported. When the tide ebbed, the weight of her engine and machinery almost broke her in two. She now lies with six feet of water in her hold.” The steamer, which was built by Bath Iron Works in 1880, was operating as a ferryboat between Bar Harbor and Mount Desert. Though the 89-ton vessel was critically injured, its crew, passengers and mail were all fortunately removed without further incident.

The U.S. Lighthouse Service changed Crabtree Ledge Light’s daymark from a brown tower to a white tower in 1903, presumably for safer navigation and to improve its visibility on the seascape during the day. That said, one can only speculate as to whether the color scheme change was also deemed a needed psychological improvement in order to add a touch of cheeriness to an otherwise bleak light station.

As it turns out, even a more sprightly appearance of the lighthouse could not remove the aura of doom that dangled about the station’s existence. The shadow of death would pass over the lighthouse on October 2, 1916 — and in its wake, the lives of keepers Chester and Leon Brinkworth would be lost to the clutches of the sea.

Though there were no witnesses to the tragic demise of the Brinkworth brothers, investigators were all but certain, based on a myriad of clues scattered about the lighthouse, its dory and the evidence relinquished by their watery graves, as to how the keepers met their misfortune. The first Friday of that fateful October in 1916 seems to have started out well enough. Keeper Chester Brinkworth, 30 years of age, and his 18-year-old brother, who was acting assistant keeper, went about performing their daily, normal duties. With the light source readied for service and the station chores complete, the keepers decided to sit down for supper. It was at that point that a dire decision was made that would soon have fatal consequences for the Brinkworth brothers.

It appears that whatever meal was settled on for the nightly meal, key ingredients must have been missing. Being only a mile from shore, the younger Brinkworth must have decided to set off for the general store on Hancock Point in order to pick up some quick provisions. As he crawled through the main deck hatch door to climb down the ladder to the station’s awaiting dory, the 18-year-old keeper had no idea that he was preparing for a supper he would never have the chance to partake in.

Keeper Leon Brinkworth eventually rowed safely ashore at Hancock Point, gathered up the necessary provisions he sought from the store, bid friends a good evening and started back for Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse in short order. By now, the realm of dusk was settling over Sullivan Harbor, no doubt creating a sense of urgency for the keeper to return to his station before the very last trace of daylight was chased from the evening sky.

Upon arriving back at the lighthouse, Leon scooped up his bundle of provisions in one hand and grabbed the dory’s line in the other before beginning his ascent up the side of the caisson. Though both hands were preoccupied, the keeper’s thoughts were on getting topside as he grabbed the rungs of the light’s ladder. At some point midway up his climb, Brinkworth lost his hold and fell from the rust and sea-encrusted lifeline to the chilly harbor waters below.

Flailing alarmingly in the water, Leon called out desperately for his brother to help him. Chester heard his younger brother’s screaming plea and ran to the light’s main deck railing where he spotted him losing his battle for life. Without hesitation, Chester scampered down the cast iron ladder to the water below. The elder Brinkworth could not use the light station’s dory because it was now adrift —never having been secured before the younger keeper fell from the structure. With no other course of action amidst the terrifying dilemma, Chester jumped in the water to try and save his brother. Within moments, both keepers disappeared under the darkened waters and drowned.

But just how did the investigators, which included local authorities and the U.S. Lighthouse Service First District inspector, piece together the events leading up to the demise of the two lightkeepers? It all started when the residents of Hancock Point awoke the next morning and saw that the light from the beacon’s fifth order Fresnel lens was still shining despite the sun’s presence rising in the sky.

This unusual occurrence prompted some men to row out to the lighthouse to investigate. In the meantime, a young boy from nearby Pine Island Camp came upon the light station’s wayward dory, which he picked up adrift with oars properly shipped and painter dragging. The Daily Kennebec Journal classified the youth’s find as “evidence that further confirmed the fears that a fatality had taken place at the lone lighthouse.”

When the men arrived at the lighthouse, they found the structure in good working order but eerily deserted. As investigators began piecing the scattered facts together, it was surmised that Chester and Leon Brinkworth died by drowning that portentous Friday evening, prompting the newspaper account to state, “The lighthouse was found to be uninhabited but there was mute evidence there of a tragic death of its keepers.”

The Daily Kennebec Journal went on to describe other ghostly pieces of evidence, saying, “A bottle of milk cast up on the shore unbroken is mute testimony to the fact that some mishap befell the boy while the dory oars properly shipped and painter dragging indicate that the lad had reached the lighthouse.” The account went on to report, “The table set for supper, the light burning brightly and steadily showed that all preparations for the night had been made and it is probable that with bundles on one arm and the painter of the boat in the other hand, Leon Brinkworth lost his balance, his call for help summoning his brother and that both were drowned.”

The light’s regular keeper, J.H. Peasely, had been ill for some time and was recovering at his home at the time of the fatal accident. It was Peasely’s absence that prompted acting keeper Chester Brinkworth, who served as assistant keeper for two years at Crabtree Ledge, to have his younger brother Leon fill in as the station’s assistant.

Though the U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Hibiscus would steam up from Portland with Inspector Mr. Sherman to assist in the recovery of the missing keepers, it was the Brinkworths’ uncle, George E. Moon, along with Hancock Point resident Ora Jordan, who ended up locating the body of Chester Brinkworth the following Monday. Moon and Jordan utilized the technique of “dragging” around the perimeter of Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse and eventually “snagged” the elder Brinkworth’s body, which was brought to the surface by means of heavy fishing line. The search continued for the body of the 18-year-old keeper but it is unknown whether the search party’s mournful efforts were successful.

Following the death of the lightkeepers, the Daily Kennebec Journal paid tribute to Chester Brinkworth, calling him a “popular assistant” and saying that he “was courteous and genial and much liked by Hancock Point residents, especially by the summer people.” The newspaper account went on to comment, “The accident is one of the saddest in all the years of living toll taken by the sea within the memory of the people of the town. Both were bright, able and highly esteemed young men and their tragic death has brought shock and grief to friends and associates.” Ironically, Ora Jordan, one of the two men who located the body of Chester Brinkworth, would go on to serve as keeper at Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse.

Collisions and death were not to be the final dreadful chapters in the dark history of Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse. Seventeen years after the demise of the Brinkworths, the light station would be deemed unnecessary and subsequently decommissioned in 1933 following the end of the local ferry service earlier that same year. The Federal Government then sold the obsolete beacon to the father of Newbold Noyes, who was the editor of the Washington Star.

Though dark and decommissioned, the Crabtree Ledge Light still held a card or two of mystery up its sleeve before eventually giving up the ghost. The Noyes family maintained ownership of the beacon until 1937 when they sold it to Mr. Fritz Allis, a summertime resident of Hancock Point. Lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont states that Allis married a Tiense Gummere around that time, and that, “the two spent their honeymoon at the lighthouse and ended up being marooned there for several days during stormy weather.”

The harrowing experience no doubt etched a fearful lasting impression on Fritz Allis and his bride, for “he never returned after that, and the lighthouse fell into poor condition until it finally collapsed into the bay in a winter storm,” says D’Entremont. “Some of the metal from the tower was salvaged for use in World War II, but it’s said that much of the structure still lies in one piece.”

The light’s ultimate demise remains its greatest mystery. Though we know the sentinel succumbed to the icy powers of “Old Man Winter,” the question of how an apparently stout cast iron caisson could simply collapse into Sullivan Harbor and remain in relatively one piece has never been answered. The fact that the lighthouse was no longer a Federal aid probably discouraged any formal inquiry into its demise.

Thinking back four decades earlier though, it does make one wonder whether or not the steamer Sebanoa’s collision with the lighthouse in 1898 did indeed inflict some serious damage below the waterline to the structure’s caisson base — damage that would eventually topple the ill-fated Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse. Sadly, only the realm of King Neptune holds the answer to this question and others. What we do know is that the same waters that took the lives of keepers Chester and Leon Brinkworth, also took the very lighthouse they served so faithfully to the same watery grave.

This story appeared in the November 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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