Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Keeper Albert Norwood, Wood Island Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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We just pulled from our shelves a wonderful lot of family letters and an early photograph relating to Keeper Albert Norwood and his family at Wood Island Light Station, Biddeford Pool, Maine. The lot consists of 8 original hand-written letters, many with postmarked envelopes, between members of Keeper Norwood’s family during the period 1860 – 1893, as well as an early cabinet photo of the station taken in the 1880s.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
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Wood Island is about 35 acres in size and lies about two miles east of the entrance to the Saco River, and less than a mile from the village known as Biddeford Pool. The first lighthouse there was completed in 1807 and went into service the following year. Almost immediately, there were problems with the poor quality of construction (typical during this period of lighthouse history).

The rubble stone dwelling almost immediately began to leak and by 1835 the wooden tower was listed by the inspector as “rotten.” The keeper also complained that it “rocked” in rough weather. This early tower lasted only until 1839, when a new 44-foot conical rubble stone tower, 20 feet in diameter at the base, was built, along with a new one-story granite dwelling.

By 1843 this second tower too had difficulties. Engineer I. W. P. Lewis wrote that “the base of the tower rested on an uneven ledge, the walls were cracked and leaky, the mortar was bad, and the woodwork was decayed….” The one-and-one-half- story keeper’s house “was also in a deplorable state; the windows were leaky, the cellar had no floor and was wet and muddy, and the entire building was very defective in materials and workmanship….”

Although temporary repairs were made, still the problems continued and by 1854, Congress appropriated $5,000 for another rebuilding of the tower. A fourth order Fresnel lens was installed in the now 47-foot stone tower, and the present wood-frame keeper’s house was also constructed.

Albert Norwood was born in 1823, one of a number of children including a sister Lucinda and brothers Abraham and Elias. From this lot of letters, it seems that Albert must have been something of a romantic, as an 1877 letter from his sister thanks him for his “geranium-scented letter”. They wrote to each other often and were quite close, as were he and his brothers.

The Norwood family lived on Wood Island and Albert became friends with Light Keeper Edwin Tarbox (1865-1872) and his sister Mary. Their relationship developed over time and soon Albert Norwood and Mary Tarbox would marry. In 1872 Norwood succeeded Tarbox as keeper at Wood Island Light.

Following Norwood’s appointment, Wood Island received its first fog signal, a 1,315-pound bell manufactured by Vickers, Sons & Co. in England. The system was timed to sound single and double blows, alternately, every 25 seconds during periods of fog. The bell and striking machinery was housed in a pyramidal wooden tower beside the light tower. This tower is nicely detailed in the period cabinet photograph.

Albert and his new wife Mary continued their fond gestures to their family often. In an 1880 letter from Mary’s brother to Mary and Albert, he too thanks them and notes that he “was filled with delight by a letter received from our Albert containing a beautiful fragrant boquet [sic] that was cherished & kissed e’er you sent it away. It received on arrival as fond an embrace.” He notes that he wishes he could be there on Albert’s coming birthday and would owe them a kiss for their thoughtfulness. The style of writing during this period is just a joy to read.

One document in this lot contains a short hand-written “journal,” written at the light station during the period April 20-26, 1885. By now, Keeper Norwood was 62 years old. In her account, Mary writes that Father (Keeper Norwood) is “quite lame on his hand and leg and unable to get around well.” For a number of days she worries over him until on the 22nd the doctor was summoned from the mainland to the island to examine him. By the 25th Mary notes that “Father is some better.”

Keeper Norwood retired from the Lighthouse Service in 1886, and Thomas H. Orcutt, a veteran sea captain from Sedgwick, Maine, was appointed his successor. Orcutt would serve from 1886 until his death in 1905.

Albert and Mary continued to live in the family home on the island after leaving the Lighthouse Service. In an 1893 letter from Albert to his “dear sister Lucinda,” he speaks of his brother Elias and family’s recent visit to the island. “We all had a good time. We had plenty to eat and drink. There was fourteen of us. We cooked 5 sea fowl and 7 chickens and one turkey (a feat that would be hardly possible in today’s kitchens) and other things. Life on the island though was still difficult – Albert notes that the temperature that night was 3 above zero, and “it was good sleighing now…. But winter has come in ernst….” Though Albert had hoped for a trip to Saco for supplies, by the next day they were weathered in – “The wind is north and the vapours so thick we cannot see one hundred yards – it is quite cold….” The following day was foggy and rainy, and the next still foggy with rain. Winter had set in.

Such lots of family letters provide a wonderful look into the lives and relationships of the keepers and their family. Though somewhat difficult to find, it is worth the search as they soon they become cherished additions to the history of these early light stations.

Wood Island Light was automated and the Coast Guard keeper and his family were removed in 1986. Fortunately, the keeper’s house and tower (still an active aid to navigation) and other buildings remained, surviving for years and resisting vandalism and the elements. In early 2003, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation was formed to care for the Wood Island light station. The group, Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse, has been working toward a full restoration of the lighthouse tower, keeper’s house, boathouse, and oil house.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects? Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2011 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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