Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2013

Sumner I. Kimball and Whitehead Island

By Dave Gamage


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Maine native Sumner Increase Kimball was the only ...

Unlike many politicians and politically ambitious bureaucrats, Sumner I. Kimball, (1834-1923), the only man to ever serve as the General Superintendent (1878-1915) of the U.S. Life-Saving Service was not self-promoting. His promotional efforts were focused on publicizing the accomplishments of the United States Life-Saving Service, which is often referred to as the sister organization of the United States Lighthouse Service.

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Very little has been written about Sumner I. Kimball’s life other than biographical accounts of his early life and later his Treasury Department service with respect to the U.S. Revenue Marine and the U.S. Life-Saving Service. Little is known of Kimball’s private life and activities during his years of government service. The following is new information about Kimball that describes an activity and interest unrelated to his function as General Superintendent of the Life-Saving Service.

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Sumner Kimball: Whitehead Island Landowner

When researching the history of Maine’s Whitehead Light Station a November 6, 1919 Coast Guard drawing of the island was discovered. This drawing is number #100241 and titled U. S. Coast Guard Station Number 6 Whitehead Island, Maine. A surprising notation on this drawing beside the life-saving station plot of land stated; “Title from Sumner I. Kimball & wife, F. P. Sands & wife, and James C. Bergan & wife, Nov. 11, 1902”. This drawing also defined by the property boundary line an unusually large plot of land for the lighthouse reservation.

Deed research revealed Sumner Kimball and Alexander McCue were joint owners of about fifty-four acres of Whitehead Island. This land was purchased from Freeman Shea, Whitehead Life-Saving Station keeper. The deed was recorded March 1, 1888. Sumner Kimball was at this time General Superintendent of the U.S. Life-Saving Service.

Alexander McCue was a lawyer, district attorney and later a judge in New York City. He also served as director and chief council of the New York Bridge Company, the group whose activities led to the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. In 1885, he was appointed to the position of Solicitor of the U.S. Treasury, the top lawyer of the legal staff of the Treasury Department in Washington, DC. After serving one year, he was appointed Assistant Treasury Secretary and served as head of the U.S. Sub-Treasury in New York City.

This land purchased by Kimball and McCue included most of the acreage of the island including three plots leased by the Government for use by the Life-Saving Service for the Whitehead Life-Saving Station. The other island lands included the 10-acre U.S. Lighthouse Reservation at the eastern end of the island and a 6-acre plot owned by the former Whitehead lightkeeper couple Isaac and Abbie (Burgess) Grant.

The prior land deeds revealed that Freeman Shea, keeper of the Whitehead Life-Saving Station, purchased two plots of land, forty-nine acres from Horace Norton in late 1887 and five acres from Norton’s nephew Francis Snow in February 1888. Shea immediately within two weeks of the recording of the Snow land deed sold the combined lands to Kimball and McCue. From this, it appears that the purchase of the land by Shea may have been on behalf of Kimball and McCue.

The reason for this purchase by Kimball and McCue is unknown. Kimball, McCue, and the McCue heirs had not previously or after purchase resided on the island. McCue having died the following year, had not at any time resided on Whitehead Island before or after this purchase. The only known connection to the Whitehead Island for ether man was occasional visits by Kimball to inspect the life-saving station.

Contested Lands:

Kimball and McCue Heirs vs U.S. Lighthouse Service

At the eastern boundary on the private land owned by Kimball and McCue were structures owned and in active use by the Lighthouse Service: a boathouse with launchway, a large coal storage shed, granite wharf, the access road from the landing to the lighthouse and a reservoir containing water to supply the fog whistle steam boilers. The Lighthouse Service had no lease and no formal right of ingress/egress and uneven topography of the lighthouse land was a barrier preventing constructing an access road.    

Norton had not only willingly allowed the Lighthouse Service to use his land but encouraged it. He was frequently employed to haul fog signal coal and other supplies from the landing to the lighthouse and to rebuild the road. He often served as an unpaid relief assistant keeper and had served one year as the appointed assistant.   

The Lighthouse Service surveyed the reservation land in 1889 and created a new boundary line. The surveyors disregarding the original boundary marker, a granite post marked with USLHE, ran a straight boundary line westerly of the actual 10-acre lot line to encompass all of the lighthouse station structures at the landing and road from the landing to the lighthouse. Thus, the service claimed ownership of Kimball and McCue land.

Kimball protested. This action by the Lighthouse Service would have taken several acres of the land owned by Kimball and the McCue heirs. This presented a problem for the Lighthouse Service for having no legal rights to the land containing the government structures. It is not known if there was an offer to purchase this land or if taking by eminent domain considering who owned the land. The latter would have involved objection by the McCue heirs Sands and Bergan who were lawyers in a prestigious N.Y. law firm.

The land was surveyed again in 1890. New boundaries were established to define a new 10-acre plot of land that included the light station boathouse, road and reservoir. The result was a plot plan the looked much like a gerrymandered voting district. In exchange, Kimball and the heirs would receive four acres of lighthouse reservation land at the eastern side of the island. This land was useless because of rocky and uneven terrain. This was the land barrier preventing constructing the road from the lighthouse landing on reservation land. Kimball turned down this proposal.

Kimball Resolves The Matter

Eventually Kimball resolved the land issue with a simple solution. A new boundary line was established extending from a new boundary marker beside the boathouse and running in a straight line across the island to the original reservation marker on the southern shore near the lighthouse adding 1.1 acres to the lighthouse property. The matter was settled by transfer of ownership of this land from Kimball and McCue heirs to the Government. A lease was granted for the reservoir land and right of ingress/egress granted to the Government for the portion of the road over the private lands. In return for the gift of this land Kimball and McCue heirs and their assigns were granted right of use of the lighthouse landing and wharf. New deeds were recorded in June 1902.

Apparently, the Lighthouse Service was still not completely satisfied. In November 1902, Horace Norton, now living near Portland, and Isaac Grant, now in South Portland, traveled to Whitehead Island by lighthouse tender to Whitehead where with Freeman Shea they identified for the lighthouse surveyors the boundary line and boundary markers including the original USLHE granite post for original 10-acre lighthouse reservation purchased from retired General Henry Knox in 1803.

Kimball and the McCue heirs eventually sold the Whitehead land in 1916 to Lee Dunn, a former Whitehead surfman. Dunn sold two plots of land to the Government in 1921 on which a Chatham style barracks and a double bay boathouse were constructed. Dunn later served as officer-in-charge of the Isles of Shoals station before returning to take command of the Coast Guard Whitehead Lifeboat Station.


The ownership of this land should have been clearly settled in 1902, but it was not. This became apparent ninety-six years later during the lighthouse property transfers at the conclusion of the Maine Lights Program in 1998 that transferred a number of Maine lighthouses to new owners.

The Coast Guard prepared a Board of Survey report for each of the many subject light stations containing a plot plan for the lighthouse reservation land. In the Whitehead report was the plot plan in current use by the 1st District Civil Engineering Unit. It was the 1890 gerrymander-like plot plan rejected by Kimball that in no way resembled the final and current deed description for the Whitehead Light Station property. The Board of Survey, in addition to the lighthouse property deed also contained the adjacent private land deed and deeds for the other government lands relating to the earlier Life-Saving Service and Coast Guard lifeboat station thus challenging the lawyers responsible to agree upon the land description for the deed for the lighthouse property transfer. This required the services of this author, the island amateur historian to intercede to finally resolve this matter.

* * * * * *

Sources: USCG Board of Survey Reports;

Knox County Registry of Deeds;

Cullen and Dykeman, LLP (formerly McCue, Hall and Cullen) NY, NY;

Treasury Historical Association;

Horace Norton personal journals.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2013 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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