Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2021

Lighthouse Lucy’s Sea Life at Isles of Shoals


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This 1888 image of the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse ...

My father [James M. Burke], a sea captain for many years, served faithfully as lighthouse keeper for thirty-three years, retiring at the age of three score years and ten. Nineteen years of this thirty-three years were spent at White Island Light.

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Ida Brown Reed Burke, Lucy’s mother, was James ...

Dad was born at Portsmouth, N.H. where he spent all of his early life. Then, seeming to have the sea in his blood, he studied navigation thus passing all his tests and requirements and working his way up to Captain. He sailed out of New York for many years to distant lands.

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Keeper James Monroe Burke served in the U.S. ...

Back in those years the speed or knots that the ship travelled were very slow; therefore, he was away from home many weeks at a time. So, in order to be with his family more, and not being able to give up his sea life, he took Civil Service and entered the Lighthouse Service.

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Aerial view of the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse ...

His first assignment was at Boon Island Light on the Maine Coast for a period of five years. Dad’s second lighthouse assignment was at Burnt Island which was built in the year of 1821 and is located at the entrance of Boothbay Harbor, Maine. While stationed here, he met my mother, who was a native of this community. They were married in 1897 by which time Dad had been assigned to White Island Light at the Isles of Shoals off the New Hampshire coast.

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Close-up view of the Isles of Shoals Lighthouse ...

Three years later, I was born at Portsmouth, N.H., our nearest point of Mainland, and when seven weeks old, they took me to my Island home in the Old Atlantic. I spent all my early years on this Island, and may I say, even too isolated. I grew to love and admire Mother Nature in all forms: the beautiful sky, which entrances us many times, stretching out around us from the north to the south and east to the west; the indescribable sunset painted across the western sky; and the moon by night, when full, was as radiant and bright at times as day, glistening and sparkling on the calm Atlantic, other times on the rippling waves which served as music in our ears.

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Assistant keeper Fairfield H. Moore and his wife ...

Throughout the four seasons, the winds and wild waves played different tempos, and may I say that when those Nor’easters hit, we all experienced many terrifying moments. Lifelines were placed from building to building. The boardwalks which extended between the buildings made of two by four planks were ripped up and torn to splinters as tho’ they were mere kindling wood.

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In emergencies the lighthouse keepers at Isles of ...

And, of course, shipwrecks which ran aground on the rocks and reefs of our Island were many. My father’s watch was from midnight until sunrise, and each night, we seemed to arouse from our slumber and see the flick of the lantern on the wall as the assistant keeper came to the foot of the stairs to call, “Twelve o’clock, Captain!” at which time my father would dress and go on duty.

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Captain Joseph M. Burke sent out a Christmas card ...

Dad, of course, retired very early each evening and on one of the evenings during a terrific storm with blinding snow and mountainous waves lashing our Island, when I was allowed to sit up late, at ten o’clock in the evening, a loud, muffled knock or rather pounding, came on our back door which was just off the kitchen where Mother and I were sitting.

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Lucy Glidden Burke Steffen was born on January ...

Mother got up immediately and went to the door. Of course, it was frightening at that hour of the night and amid the terrible roar of the heavy seas. When Mother opened the door, there stood a man, dressed in oil skins, covered with salt water ice, on the verge of collapse. His voice was very hoarse and weak. He asked for a drink of water. With mother’s help, he stumbled into the kitchen and dropped into a chair. This man was in shock and sobbed all night.

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“Lighthouse Lucy” as she was called, returned to ...

The next day, after the man had received medication and having gotten “thawed out,” so to speak, he related to us his story of how he was one of the crew on a fishing schooner sailing out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, and how the crew had gone in different boats or dories from the ship to set trawls for the day’s fishing, when all of a sudden, a thick snowstorm developed. And not being able to see his way to the ship, he got lost and kept on rowing straight ahead for three days and three nights without food or water.

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If there was one thing Lucy Burke enjoyed, it was ...

His voice had become hoarse and weak from shouting in remorse to the “voices” which seemed to come from nowhere, to “lie down and give up!” which indicated his resistance was so weakened, that death was very near.

Suddenly the blinding snow lifted, and seeing the rays of our lighthouse beam as it flashed out to sea, not having any idea of where he was, and this being his last hope to live, he rowed his boat desperately toward the lighthouse beam. All of a sudden, his boat was picked up by a huge wave, which during these severe storms are 30 to 40 feet high, and thrown high on the rocks of our Island.

Losing consciousness from the impact, he had no conception as to the length of time that he had been lying there on the rocks, but the good Lord had been kind enough to spare him from a watery death and had tossed him, boat and all, out of the reaches of the terrible waves which were lashing our Island. Seeing a light in our home, he crawled on his hands and knees over the rocks in the black darkness up to our back door.

After the storm was over, which comprised several days, my father contacted the Wallace Sands Coast Guard Station thru a code of flags which were hoisted on a huge flag pole at our Island. The Coast Guard man on duty read the message with his high-powered telescope glasses, and immediately dispatched a Coast Guard boat out to our Island to take this man to the Mainland.

Many an anxious moment was endured when our lifeboat, under the command of my dad, the Captain, left our Island in answer to distress calls from some ship or boat on a nearby reef. These exciting times generally occurred during blizzards in midwinter or heavy fogs. The only possible way to locate these distress calls was strictly by following sounds made by those in trouble, such as shouts of “Help!” unless the roar of the sea was too loud. Then, the people in distress on the reefs resorted to firing guns skyward and pounding on tin pans. In fact, noise of any sort was made so as to give the location of their ship.

At this lighthouse, there were two keepers - the head keeper and the assistant keeper - and they had to be on watch constantly as that is the wide-open sea with lots of navigation passing both day and night. The depth of the water is 220 fathoms which is very deep.

We very often witnessed the sea burial service of prisoners from Portsmouth Navy Prison, who died of Yellow Fever. The big naval ships used to bring the bodies out in this deep, deep Atlantic area, and through our telescope glasses, we could see the canvas-wrapped body held over the side of the ship and the chaplain reading the burial service. Then, the body would be lowered carefully down into the deep depths of the ocean.

The ships plying to and from port have their lanes of navigation rules, their courses being controlled by latitude and longitude, just as we have our lanes of traffic here on the Mainland. Each lighthouse has a different time-controlled light and flash. For instance, the Boon Island Light was a steady white light. The light at White Island was a timed flashing red-and -white light every twenty-seven seconds.

The light at the Nubble on the Maine Coast was a steady red light. As the ships approach these various lighthouses, they consult their charts and maps, and by timing the flashing light, it tells them their location. All of this information has to be recorded in the ship’s register or log each time they pass a lighthouse or lighted buoy. The captains follow this rule through, just as we follow the routes on our highways.

Now, as to our living conditions, we had a very comfortable home comprised of six rooms - three bedrooms, living room, dining room and kitchen with pantry. I had a dog and cat. One year, Dad got me a baby lamb. We had our own chickens, lots of lobster and wonderful deep-water fish. Our drinking water was rain water filtered thru sand and purified. Kerosene lamps were for lights, coal stoves for heating. All in all, a very cozy and warm home.

We had shore leave same as any enlisted person, but there were all those fourteen miles of ocean between us and the Mainland, sometimes rough and sometimes smooth. We bought all of our commodities and supplies by case lots- a quarter of beef, half a pig, bananas by the bunch, oranges by the crate, flour by the barrel, 100 pounds of sugar, 100 pound-bag of beans, potatoes by the bushels and apples by the barrel. And I can guarantee you had an excellent meal at any time. You might have dropped in on us as Mother was a wonderful New England cook!

On Sunday evening, we held a little service in our living room! Having an organ, Mother played the hymns and Dad read the scriptures. The assistant keeper and his family always attended these meetings as well as any government workmen who might be at the Island making repairs from a previous storm.

We had daily routine duties, lots of brass to be cleaned and polished, and windows had to be spotless, never knowing when the big lighthouse ship would drop by for inspection. During the school year, we had a government tutor who lived with us and classes were held daily.

There was a spiral staircase consisting of one hundred sixty-seven stairs, all open ironwork, which took us up to the first deck of the tower, where enclosed in glass was the clockwork and mechanism which controlled the revolving light.

The mechanism was so delicate that the revolving turntable would stop should a large speck of dirt get under the wheels. The prisms were beveled glass top and bottom with large bull’s-eyes in the center for magnifying the light. These lenses were made in Paris, France and were so powerful according to the way they were ground that curtains had to be drawn up in the lighthouse tower any day that the sunshine was bright in order to avert a fire.

We had a huge fog horn which blew every twenty-two seconds during fog or snow which vibrated the windows and dishes each time it sounded. This foghorn was also timed by passing navigation and if not accurate, was reported to the government.

In 1912, my father asked to be transferred to an inland light which would be much easier for him, since he had spent nineteen years at this Island, and with his long term of service with the government, his request was granted. The government sent one of their large ships to move us, furniture and all, to the Nubble light, located at York Beach, Maine, which at low tide was connected to the Mainland and at high tide we had to use a rowboat for transportation. We lived at this lighthouse for six years until Dad reached the age of seventy years, at which time he was forced to retire, according to the rules of the Government Service.

There is much, much more that I could relate regarding my sea life of eighteen years, which would fill many more pages, but feel that I have taken up enough of your time on this occasion, and in closing I wish to thank you for your kind attention, hoping you all have enjoyed your trip to the Isles of Shoals – my Island Home!

This poem was found in Lucy’s room after her passing in 1992. Toward the end of her life, she was known as “Lighthouse Lucy” which the obituary listed after her name in the local paper.

Lighthouse Lucy

With all that climbing over rocks,

and waiting for the tide to turn,

girls grow up resourcefully

on the coast of Maine.

Grow old like Nature in her seasons,

with summer eyes, and hair

the white of Camden snow.

Take Lucy now-

balmy and deaf, but so much left

of girlhood on the Isles of Shoals:

the lighthouse which her father kept,

the island floor of blueberries,

the dory, “ten miles to shore from


Patient now in a Nursing Home,

she calls her chair, The Captain’s Chair,

enjoys the fare, “but where’s the lobster?”

And if in pain or lonely, sad,

rides out the storm,

knows the lighthouse will beam her home,

that the tide will turn. It always does

on the coast of Maine . . .

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 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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