If it had not been for Robena “Beanie” Beal, who in 1930 wrote an award winning school essay, “The Life of a Lighthouse Keeper,” many of the memories of the family island lighthouse life of keeper Vinal O. Beal might have been lost forever.
Vinal O. Beal began his lighthouse career in 1909 as the 2nd assistant keeper at the Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, which the Commissioner of Lighthouses, George Putnam, stated was the most exposed light station in the United States. And most lighthouse authorities agree that Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, located more than 20 miles from the nearest port, was the most dramatically isolated and dangerous light station for a lighthouse family to reside.
While stationed at the far-flung outpost, Vinal Beal proved himself with good marks on his reports and in 1910 he worked himself up to 1st assistant keeper. By 1911 he was appointed the head keeper at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse.
“Beanie” Beal was the 5th of seven children born to Vinal and Nettie Beal, and she was only six weeks old when she arrived at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse. About three months before “Beanie” was born, her mother became ill wit, what believed, at the time, to be typhoid fever, and she went ashore to the mainland to stay with family members in Jonesport, Maine. Nettie may have gone to the home of her oldest daughter, who was already married. Soon thereafter, in October of 1911, baby Robena, who became known as “Beanie,” was born.
In December of 1911 when Nettie and baby “Beanie” were well enough to travel, Nettie decided to make the trip to the lighthouse. In those days, there was no way to pick up the telephone to call and say that they were coming home; there was no telephone service to the island, and weather and sea forecasts were almost nonexistent. As they approached the island, the sea got rough as it often does out at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse. It took two tries to land the boat, but they arrived safely.
The family lived in the double keepers’ house for the 1st and 2nd assistant keepers, with their living quarters facing the distant mountains of Mount Desert Island. A smaller house was the residence of the 3rd assistant keeper. In those days the keepers kept watch in the tower on four-hour rotating shifts.
When Beanie was six years old, her father applied for more hospitable light station to be stationed at, which was granted; in 1918 he was transferred to become the head keeper at Franklin Island Lighthouse at a pay rate of $648 per annum. For some reason, this is not where Vinal Beal had wanted to be transferred, and he accepted the position with the stipulation that he would be transferred to a more desirable location when one became available.
Unlike at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, at Franklin Island Lighthouse the family could easily row to shore to get groceries and mail. But the island offered young Beanie no playmates other than one older brother and two younger sisters. The other children in the family were grown and out on their own by that time.
In a 1990 interview with reporter Jeannette D. Violette, of the Bangor Daily News, Robena “Beanie” Beal Smith said of life on Franklin Island, “We had to entertain ourselves and use a lot of imagination. One favorite pastime was to take long-stemmed lobster trap buoys and pretend they were our little children. Sometimes we dressed them up and walked them around.”
In 1919 Vinal Beal received orders that he was being transferred as head keeper to the Great Duck Island Lighthouse, a lighthouse station where there was a 1st and a 2nd assistant keeper and their families living on the island. His pay was now $1080 per annum. He was the third person in the history of Great Duck Island to serve as the head keeper. But by 1921 something went seriously wrong at Great Duck Island Lighthouse. Some type of major dispute erupted between the three keepers stationed there. We don’t know exactly what the dispute was, but one of Nettie Beal’s descendants recalled hearing from Nettie that when she had enough of another keeper’s kids misbehaving, an altercation of some type developed between the mothers and Nettie wound up sitting on the other keeper’s wife; a story which may or may not have been exaggerated. However, on August 30, 1921 the Lighthouse Service sent the following letter to Vinal Beal:
“In view of the recent misunderstanding between keepers at Great Duck Island Light Station, the Department has decided that it would be in the best interest of the Service to transfer you from your present position, and it has therefore approved of your transfer to the position of First Assistant Keeper, Seguin Light Station, Maine, at a salary of $840. per annum, effective on or about September 18, 1921.”
The letter was signed by Carl E. Sherman who was, at that time, the Superintendent of the First Lighthouse District out of Portland, Maine.
However, while stationed at Seguin Island Lighthouse, the Beal children did not go out to the lighthouse, but stayed on the mainland during the school year to attend school at Popham Beach while their father stayed on the island with the other keepers. Previously while at Great Duck Island, a school teacher came out to the island to teach children. So this was “Beanie’s first public school experience.
Then, in 1924, Vinal Beal was again appointed the head keeper at the remote Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse where he had started his lighthouse career. However, this time the family secured a home in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and Beanie and her brother and sister continued their schooling on the mainland while their father lived at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse for the second time in his career. Later the family purchased a home in Manset, Maine, but there were return trips to Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse.
Although Beanie Beal lived at four Maine lighthouses, she said later in life that, in spite of Mt. Desert Rock’s remoteness “It’s the place that is closer to me than any of the other lighthouses. We had good times and enjoyed ourselves as kids.” Bangor Daily News reporter Jeanette D. Violette wrote in 1990 that Beanie recalled the good days and bad days at Mt. Desert Rock. She remembered the spray from the crashing waves in a storm hitting the windows of their house. The water would wash over everything. No one dared to venture outside. An inner passageway connecting the house to the tower was used during the storms.
Later in life, Nettie Beal, Vinal Beal’s wife, recalled that the winters were always harsh at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse. But there was one winter in the 1920s when a March storm was worse than others. The family hunkered down in the keeper’s house to wait out the numerous gales, with the wind often blowing at a steady 60 mph. One time “the sea was rising high,” she recalled, “as the water and wind pounded the boat house until it seem it would break the doors. The snow turned to sleet and no fresh supplies reached the lighthouse for weeks and ‘the hens were not laying.’” Food was scare, but the Beals shared their food with the other keepers. Occasionally, during a brief lull in the constant storms that seemed to come one after another, the keepers would rush out and haul up some lobster traps for food and rush back to the island to secure the station’s boat.
Nettie went on to recall that because of that particular severe winter there were very few birds on the rock. “In fact only one English sparrow was left from the thousands that were there the previous fall,” she said. “And he would have perished with the rest if the keepers had not left their sheds open for him to get out of the cold and the wind and left food out for him.”
In the early days at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, when the children were all younger, Nettie Beal would attach a line to the children’s waists and at the other end of the line was a loop that slid along a clothesline suspended between the keeper’s house and a derrick at the island’s edge. This way the children were prevented from being washed away when they were out of their mother’s immediate care.
Beanie recalled the lighthouse tender that generally came once a month with provisions and the mail. “You had to open, read, and answer the mail the same day before the boat left.” And a list of the next month’s provisions had to be ready before the boat left.
The hard and strenuous life of being a lighthouse keeper for two decades at island lighthouses finally caught up with Vinal Beal. In a letter dated June 9, 1930, it was stated: “From a report of the physician of the Public Health Service as to your physical condition, it is considered that you should be retired on account of disability. It will therefore be recommended that you be thus retired at the close of business, July 31, 1930.” A follow up letter from the Lighthouse Service dated July 19, 1930 said that he would be receiving retirement pay of $780.11 per annum.
As for Robena “Beanie” Veal, in 1941 she married Clarence E. Smith of Bernard, Maine, and in 1945 the couple purchased a general store in Manset, Maine, which she continued to operate by herself for 16 years after the death of her husband in 1967.
Lighthouse keeper Vinal O. Beal passed away on April 7, 1944 and he was buried in the Mt. Height Cemetery in Southwest Harbor, Maine. On September 28, 2016, in a Lighthouse Digest sponsored ceremony, lighthouse keeper Vinal O. Beal’s years of service to his country were honored when a U.S. Lighthouse Service memorial lighthouse keeper plaque was placed at his gravesite.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2017 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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