Digest>Archives> August 2009

The Favorite Small Harbor

By Richard Clayton


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Maine’s Burnt Coat Harbor Lighthouse was ...

In Eastern Maine, in a remote place about six miles south of Bass Harbor one will find Swan’s Island. It is the largest of twenty islands surrounding Mount Desert where Bar Harbor is located. On the southern side of Swan’s Island is a natural bay that is a half mile wide and one mile inland called Burnt Cote Harbor. Mariners claim that it is the best small harbor in Eastern Maine.

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Burnt Coat Harbor Lighthouse, Swans Island, ...
Photo by: Ron J. Foster

In the nineteenth century, hundreds of merchant vessels plied the waters off the coast of Maine and found great comfort anchoring in this natural harbor while riding out a storm. It was their favorite small harbor.

When the Civil War ended in 1865, requests were made to the Lighthouse Board for a lighthouse to be built atop Hockamock Head to mark the entrance to Burnt Cote Harbor. In 1870, work got under way and the light station was built with two towers and the keeper’s house. The smaller tower, in front, was a beacon light.

Frederick Alexander Allen was born in Sedgwick, Maine in 1823. He grew up working at his father’s trade and, in 1847, married Mary B. Freeley. They moved 3 miles

southeast to Brooklin where they raised nine children; the first born was a girl, followed by eight brothers. In January 1872, F.A. Allen received a Presidential appointment from

Ulysses S. Grant to be the first keeper at the newly built Burnt Cote Harbor Light, located across Blue Hill Bay; about ten miles southeast of their hometowns.

The USS Iris was a paddle-wheeled steamer, acquired by the Union Navy during the American Civil War. She was part of a Union blockade in the South Atlantic to prevent the South from trading with other countries. Also, she supported a number of General Sherman’s operations off the shores of South Carolina and Georgia. The USS Iris sailed with eight other ships, on April 28, 1865, to the coast of Florida to intercept Jefferson Davis and his cabinet in their flight toward political asylum in Cuba.

She was decommissioned at the Washington Naval Yard in July 1865 and was transferred to the Treasury Department for the Lighthouse Service. Her side paddle wheels were removed and she was refitted as a propeller-driven steam tender. She was 87 feet long with a beam of 19 feet and plied the waters at a speed of 10 knots.

In November, 1874, the lighthouse supply ship Iris cast off her lines at the supply depot on Great Diamond Island, outside Portland Harbor, and began steaming her way into Casco Bay with much needed supplies for the fifty-two lighthouses in Maine.

F.A. Allen, who wrote with fine penmanship, made the following entry in the keeper’s logbook: "December 19, 1874: N.N.W. winds clear and very cold last night had a little snow at 1:30 p.m. U.S. Steamer Iris, Capt. Johnson, came off the Harbor, ran into ice off Harbor island points, had to back out and go round to the Eastern passage, ran into the ice as far as he could and made fast to the ice by cutting a hole and hooking his anchor into all full of ramming ice. Eastern outer harbor all clear of ice."

When a cold Nor’ wester was blowing across Hockamock Head, the waves crashing on the rocks set up a thunderous roar and it felt as if the wind would go right

through you. Strong gusts would knock a person off their feet.

The keeper’s three teenage sons, Charles, Edward and Prentiss were charged with the duty of hitching up the two-horse team to a wagon and then going with their father around the bay from the western tip to the eastern tip where the Iris made fast in the ice. It was not a pleasant task driving the horses and wagon along the bumpy road around the bay, but there was no other way to get the supplies to the lighthouse. It was all in the line of duty and, at least, on the trip back home the winds were at their backs. The frigid, cold winds must have caused the two towers on Hockamock Head to resemble an ice castle.

Winters were hard in Eastern Maine. A year later, Frederick Allen wrote:

"February 9, 1875 N.W. gale very cold weather. At 2 a.m. so cold could not keep the light burning had to take them down and heat them on the stove and sat them agoing again with hot oil."

(It should be noted that in 1863, lard oil was adopted within the lighthouse establishment as the standard illuminate, replacing sperm oil. The lard tended to congeal in cold weather, which was why kerosene began use in 1877)

This entry was made the next day, "Feb. 10 Still cold had to keep a regular watch to keep the light burning. The harbor all closed with ice."

Records indicate that as far back as 150 years ago, half of the twenty islands surrounding Mount Desert Island were inhabited. Swan’s Island was named after Colonel James Swan of Fifeshire, Scotland who purchased this island in 1786, but in 1791, David Smith, an American Revolutionary War veteran, became the first white man to settle on the island. When the Allen family moved there in the fall of 1871, they joined several families already living there; most of them engaged in lobster fishing or in raising lumber.

As with most families of that era, Frederick, the father, would have had full charge of the lighthouse and all of the duties that went with it. However, if they still lived at home, the three oldest sons would have acted as assistant keepers; his wife would have done the cooking and looked after the housekeeping; the daughter would have tended to her five younger brothers; and all of the men and boys would have looked after the horses, the cow and the chickens. Charles, Edward, Prentiss and William would have attended school in the village and Eugene, the youngest, would have been the only child at home that first year.

During the few warm weather months, the 7,000 acres of Swan’s Island would have been one grand playground for the younger boys, as well as the children from other families on Swan’s Island. There were forests to explore; roads and trails on which to hike; a stone quarry to go swimming in and a large peaceful bay to row a boat or sail across. Also, there were tide pools to explore in the rocks around the shoreline and there was fishing. Harbor Island was only a half mile from the entrance to the bay.

An example of what life at the light station was for Frederick, the following two entries written in the log:

"June 4, 1875 Light Southerly breeze cloudy weather a rain squall in the afternoon. The Iris was off the Harbor painting buoys and did not come into the Harbor.

My family all sick with the measles. Done a little white washing and repaired the boxes."

"July 30, 1875 Steamer Myrtle Captain Foster came in the Harbor with General J. C. Duane on board who came in the Harbor. A carpenter and painter to put up some gutters on the house and paint it."

Frederick Allen died on December 11, 1875. For the balance of 1875, the entries in the keeper’s logbook mostly reported weather reports. The new keeper, W.N. Wasgatt reported to the station on January 1, 1876. He may have been related to Ambrose H. Wasgatt who was the keeper at Egg Rock 1875-1885 and then transferred to Prospect Harbor where he served from 1885 to 1924 for a total of 49 years. Nathan Wasgatt was the keeper at Winter Harbor from 1861 to 1866 and, possibly, was the W.N. Wasgatt.

The 1870 U.S. Census provided the following information about the Frederick A. Allen family, then residing in Brooklin:

Frederick Alexander Allen - born in 1823 father age 49 in 1872

Ruth Roundry Herrick Born in 1825 mother 47 in 1872

Mary Francelia Allen born in 1848 daughter 24 in 1872

Frederick A. Allen, Jr. born in 1850 son 22 in 1872

Henry C. Allen born in 1852 son 20 in 1872

John D. Allen born in 1853 son 19 in 1872

Charles F. Allen born in 1856 son 16 in 1872

Edward Peter Allen born in 1858 son 14 in 1872

Prentiss Albert Allen born in 1860 son 12 in 1872

William Coburt Allen born in 1864 son 8 in 1872

Eugene Judson Allen born in 1867 son 5 in 1872

It must have been a stressful undertaking for a family of eleven to pack up their belongings and household goods on wagons in order to move from the place of their birth; then to take a ferry across the bay to a new home on a small island in winter. Not too unlike pioneer families moving out west in Conestoga wagons.

Hancock County Records show that Reuben C. Stewart, born in 1848 in the Village of Swan’s Island and Mary Francelia Allen, the daughter of Frederick Allen, obtained a marriage license on 7 August 1873 and were married ten days later.

The 1880 U.S. Census shows that Frederick and Ruth Allen were living on Swan’s Island, which kept them close to their children and grandchildren. Mary Francelia and Reuben Stewart had two children when that census was taken and it is probable that Frederick Junior, Henry, John, Charles and Edward were married with families by 1880. Frederick A. Allen would have been 57 and his wife 55 which was considered old in those days.

This story appeared in the August 2009 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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