Digest>Archives> October 2009

A Terrible Tuesday

By Richard Clayton


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Libby Island Lighthouse in Machias Bay, Maine as ...

It was a bitter cold Tuesday afternoon when the Alfaro Velo weighed anchor and left Jonesport to sail a northeasterly course, down wind to the Port of Lubec, Maine. She was carrying a load of coal with two scheduled stops, along the way, at Machiasport and Cutler. In Lubec, she was to take on a load lumber and sail non-stop, up wind to Boston.

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Roscoe C. Johnson served as the assistant keeper ...

As the snowfall increased it caused the sails and lines to ice up. Walking on the slippery deck was treacherous. The brig Alfaro Velo had the customary two square-rigged masts, was 150 feet long and carried a full crew of sixteen sailors. Her next stop, Machiasport, was a twenty-five mile run where her Captain planned to drop anchor for an overnight stay. It was Christmas Day in 1872.

Every child’s dream of a white Christmas would come true this day. A major nor’easter brought heavy snow from South Carolina into New England. 1 to 2 feet of snow fell in many places. Nearly two feet fell in Baltimore and 18 inches fell in New York City.

All hands were instructed to be on the lookout for the lighthouse at the tip of Little Libby Island, as it would signal the turning point for entering the bay. Libby, located at the entrance to Machias Bay, was actually two islands connected by a sandbar.

Little Libby Island on the south end and Big Libby Island on the north.

In less than an hour out of Jonesport, the fog began building up. Libby Island had a reputation for being the foggiest location on the Maine coast. As visibility decreased, all on deck were listening closely for the sound of a fog bell. The lighthouse, built in 1824, was a 42-foot granite tower with a fourth order Fresnel lens in its tower.

Forty-nine-year-old John C. Ames, the head keeper at the Libby Island Light, was taking the first turn at ringing the fog bell. He was counting out thirty-second intervals and then rang the bell twice. By previous agreement, his wife Clara would spell him after twenty minutes so he could go inside and warm up by the fireplace. The second assistant, a very young man named Roscoe G. Johnson, was on watch in the tower where the light was already burning. In the logbook, he made this entry:

“December 25, 1872: Christmas very cold. Wind west- north-west. Vapor thick. May be called the cob. Christmas at about 4 o’clock pm the Brig Alfaro Velo struck on the north Libby Island. Floated off and came to anchor off the light.”

This was a time in history when ships along the coast were as common as semi-tractor trailers are along the interstate today; shipwrecks were also common along the coast of Maine and were said to number in the thousands. High seas, tidal currents, fog, winds and human error were the usual causes. Among the most noted wrecks is Libby Island where Maine keepers’ records show 35 shipwrecks.

The sea was too rough and the temperature to cold for either of the keepers to row out and offer assistance to the stricken brig. It was thought that the storm might blow over by the next day, but the brig was more heavily damaged than the keepers knew. The next entry in the keeper’s log was a bit grim:

“December 26: The brig being badly iced and unmanageable, some of the crew was frozen. The Captain and crew left and came ashore to the house. The wind having changed to the north-northeast and a severe snow storm set is expecting she would sink before morning.”

The keepers began stoking up the stove and boiling water while their wives began foraging in their pantries to prepare extra warm food for the sailors. They were encouraged to remove their wet clothing, wrap themselves in wool blankets and sit by the stoves. A number of them suffered frost bite on their hands and feet. There was no way to get help from some of the fishing boats in the area because no mariner would venture forth in the face of this type of weather.

It was a record storm that blew into the area with gale force winds that created giant waves in the Bay. The snow continued to pile up drifts around the trees and rocks.

On Friday, the following entry was made in the logbook:

“December 28: The Brig sunk this morning at nine o’clock. The Captain and crew are still here. The wind and weather will continue on. Too severe to leave the island.”

When the storm subsided, the assistant keeper, Roscoe Johnson, took the station boat into Machiasport and reported the incident. Fishermen came out in their own boats to assist the Captain and his crew to get to port and receive the medical attention that was needed. The lighthouse keepers thought of themselves as having a life-saving career and it was times like these that confirmed it.

Up until 1874, the rescue of a ship wrecked on the coast of Maine was carried out by volunteers. The Revenue Cutter Service aided vessels in distress. Possibly this incident at the Libby Island Light Station had something to do with what happened in Congress the next year. In 1873, they allotted funds to build five lifesaving stations along the coast.

In the 136 years since this act of Congress, over 200,000 lives have been saved by the Revenue Cutter and the Life Saving Service. In 1915 the two organizations merged to become the U.S. Coast Guard. Also, it might be noted that twenty-six years later, after the incident with the brig Alfaro Velo, the young second assistant keeper, Roscoe G. Johnson was appointed as the head keeper of the Libby Island Light Station.

This story appeared in the October 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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