One hundred years ago on March 4, 1920, a letter was written to a lighthouse keeper at Crabtree Ledge Light in Maine. The envelope was addressed to “O.S. Jordan” and had no return name or address. The letter inside was written on hotel stationary from Boston, Massachusetts, but next to that were written the words “Barren Rock.” It was signed, simply, “Henry.”
A look at the Official Register confirmed that Ora S. Jordan was head keeper at Crabtree Ledge Lighthouse around that time. But who was the author of the letter? It was apparent from the content that the writer was another keeper, but with so many barren rocks with lighthouses on them all along the New England coast from Massachusetts to Maine, it wouldn’t be very easy to find him.
However, as with any good lighthouse “history mystery,” there are always clues to uncover. The first one came in the form of a newspaper article in the Bar Harbor Times dated March 3, 1920 which mentioned that Ora Jordan was being transferred from Mount Desert Rock Light where he has been stationed for the past year. And Mount Desert Rock certainly is the epitome of a barren rock.
A second clue was in another one-page letter, included with the first one, but dated March 10. It was on the same stationary and addressed to “Friend Jordan,” but this one was signed “Ray.” Sure enough, on the keeper list for Mount Desert Rock in 1920, there was a second assistant by the name of Henry C. Ray Jr. He and Ora S. Jordan had served together there for a little over a year prior to Ora’s transfer to Crabtree Ledge Light.
The letter showed that the two keepers were fast friends. Henry was very open in expressing his feelings about being stuck out on the most isolated barren rock lighthouse off the coast of Maine, more than 20 miles from the nearest harbor. He wrote, “It seems dull here. I am tired of this old dump. I hope Beal will soon come. I am tired of this heavy work. I sure need a lot of sleep.”
Henry then asked Ora Jordan how he was liking his new post and getting along with his assistant and then added, “Say Jordan, you are a lucky lad. Only here 14 months and made a getaway and keeper too at $108 per annum. 5 years more and you will be on easy street. Here’s hoping you do.”
Henry Ray went on to mention the plans that they had apparently made together for him to transfer to Crabtree Ledge to eventually to join Ora Jordan as his assistant, but in his second letter a week later, he wrote, “The inspector is coming and we are all ready for him. I did not put your light on the list. I would like to be there but could not see my way clear. Hope you enjoy your new position.”
The letter ended with a little tongue-in-cheek humor, as Henry told Ora that it was too bad he had left the Rock so soon “for the lobsters come right up to the door to get plugged. It’s like getting clams at high water.” There was also a friendly parting warning to Ora about using the station boat: “Don’t take too many chances in that old kettle, you know the water is mighty wet this year, and besides you have no gills.”
This piece of advice became extremely poignant as it was Henry, not Ora, who tragically drowned just two months later in an accident in the station peapod at barren Mt. Desert Rock.
According to a newspaper account published in the Ellsworth American on May 12, 1920, Henry C. Ray Jr. of Mount Desert Rock Light Station “was drowned when a dory in which he and Assistant Keeper Beal were making a landing at the lighthouse slip was overturned. Mr. Ray was forty-three years of age. The body has not yet been recovered.”
A different spin on the story was published in the July 1920 Lighthouse Service Bulletin, in which a commendation was given to Mount Desert Rock second assistant keeper, Harry E. Freeman, “who assisted in rescuing Maurice R. Beal, first assistant keeper, from drowning when he was thrown overboard in a rough sea.” In typical U.S. Lighthouse Service administrative fashion, no mention was made that the incident had claimed the life of keeper Henry C. Ray Jr. The Lighthouse Service was loath to publish such instances of keeper deaths, probably for fear of not being able to find keepers willing to man the dangerous off-shore desolate stations.
The two accounts confirm that Maurice Beal did finally come, but it is unknown what changed Henry’s plans to apply for a transfer to join Ora Jordan at Crabtree Ledge Light. Perhaps the reason had to do with Henry Ray’s family situation.
Henry’s first wife, Eleanor Cobb Jones Mosley, was a widow with three young children when they married in 1906. Eleanor and Henry had an additional two children of their own, one of whom died at the age of two, but Eleanor sadly became unexpectedly ill in 1911 and passed away at the young age of 29. Henry was unable to care for the four remaining children by himself, so they were either sent to relatives or to an orphanage while Henry spent some time working as a fisherman with his father, at least in 1913, which was the same year that he was declared bankrupt by the courts.
In 1918, Henry C. Ray Jr joined the lighthouse service and was assigned to be the second assistant on Mount Desert Rock. On October 28, 1918, Henry married his second wife, Georgia Goodwin, who was a school teacher from Stetson, Maine. She was 32 and he was 41 at the time. According to family records, Georgia was pregnant with their first child during the beginning months of 1920 when Henry wrote to Ora S. Jordan that he wouldn’t be coming to Crabtree Ledge Light. Perhaps it was Georgia who didn’t want Henry to transfer, now that a baby was on the way.
Georgia had gone out to the Rock to live with Henry after their marriage. In the account given by the Ray family, it was Georgia who instigated the tragic events of that March day in 1920 by insisting that Henry go out to check the traps because she wanted lobster for dinner that night, even though there was a storm brewing. The waves were high, but Henry thought he could get back before the weather became too intense.
First assistant Maurice R. Beal, who accompanied Henry on the fateful outing, was a fisherman and lobsterman and at home in all types of weather. He was the son of keeper Vinal O. Beal and had lived at Mount Desert Rock during his teenage years when his father came as an assistant in 1909. Maurice had even served at Crabtree Ledge Light for at least a year in 1913, so chances are that he knew Ora Jordan as well.
According to Maurice’s descendants, the ocean rocks surrounding Mount Desert Rock were covered heavily with kelp, which helped a boat to land safely, but a big hurricane came in some time before the accident and stripped the kelp off the rocks, which made it harder for a boat to get up on the ways.
The wives of Maurice and Henry watched the tragedy unfold from shore as the boat overturned and both of their husbands were thrown into the boiling seas, but there was nothing they could do. Keeper Harry E. Freeman, also watching from the Rock that day, was able to get to Maurice Beal and drag him up onto the higher rocks, but by the time he went back to assist Henry, he had been swept away in the strong current and high waves.
Henry C. Ray’s drowning had a deep impact on all the families. His wife, Georgia Goodwin Ray, gave birth to a stillborn child seven weeks later on July 1st. She went down to Massachusetts to live with her sister for a while before returning to Maine. She never remarried, and in her later years she lived next door to Henry’s sister’s family.
Henry’s mother was broken by his death and in future years, was never able to say his name without a certain inflection in her voice that betrayed deep unremittent grief. She and other members of the Ray family blamed Georgia for causing Henry’s death. If she hadn’t wanted lobster and sent him out to get it, he wouldn’t have drowned. This made it difficult for Georgia to interact with the family for the rest of her life.
Maurice R. Beal ended up leaving the Lighthouse Service within the following year. His descendants say it was because he thought it was too dangerous to get onto the barren rock in the waves. He went back to being a fisherman and lobsterman, which he deemed a safer occupation. He was remembered as always playing practical jokes and doing things to the family, like putting his false teeth in the chowder. But he was also “a tough guy and a typical Maine lobsterman.”
Family stories are also told of Maurice’s wife, Velora, keeping a lit candle in the window and sitting next to its light, waiting for Maurice to come back from sea during bad weather and wondering if he would make it safely. Thankfully, he had no other serious mishaps and lived a long life. Maurice died in 1965 at age 71 and is buried at Mt. Height Cemetery in Southwest Harbor.
Harry E. Freeman, who had been a keeper for five years at three other stations before coming to Mount Desert Rock, only remained there for another year before leaving the Service to work for a steamship company afterwards. He died February 13, 1977 and is buried in the Evergreen Cemetery in Milbridge, Maine.
Ora S. Jordan also left the Lighthouse Service the year following Henry’s death. His descendants say that Henry’s accidental drowning affected Ora deeply because he always regretted that he hadn’t been there to help save him.
Just four years prior in 1916, Ora had assisted in finding the bodies of the two Brinkworth brothers, Chester and Leon, who were keepers at Crabtree Ledge Light and had drowned during a tragic accident there. It must have been difficult for Ora to continually lose his friends who were in Lighthouse Service at offshore stations, due to similar circumstances of rough seas and slippery landings. And for Henry to have warned Ora of that very thing in the letter and then die from it a short time later must have haunted him all the more.
Ora stayed on land for the rest of his life, working as a carpenter and a caretaker at summer cottages in and around the Hancock area. Ora S. Jordan also lived an exceptionally long life, dying in 1967 at the age of 87. He is buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Hancock, Maine.
It is obvious why Ora Jordan kept Henry Ray’s letter. It was probably the last correspondence between them. It is fitting that this letter and history would resurface just in time to be published in the pages of Lighthouse Digest on this, the 100th anniversary, to the month, of Henry C. Ray’s death at barren Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2020 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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