“Use your eyes,” admonished Captain Effie. “Always look to the sea in case a boat needs help.”
Ephraim Johnson knew. He tended Maine’s West Quoddy Light Station for 30 years, 25 as Head Keeper.
“He knew he had an important job,” granddaughter Gwen Wasson said to me. “Conscientious, methodical, and very, very careful about everything he did.”
Ephraim Nelson Johnson, born in Roque Bluffs, Maine in 1863, started lighthouse work at Libby Island Light. The year was 1889, when he married Ada Miller from Easton in Aroostock County. They were all Mainers in this family. He moved to West Quoddy Light Station in 1901 under Warren Murch at $480 a year. Then in 1905, he became Head Keeper – at $660.
“He felt like a very rich man,” said Gwen. “He loved it, there on the ocean, doing what he wanted to do with his family around him. And we never lacked for food.” Ephraim built his own fishing boat and lobster traps. The two keepers planted the garden together. “Grandmother kept chickens and sometimes raised pigs.” But Grandfather drew the line at cows. “Too much work!”
Lots of work, the light and the fog signals and even painting the tower...the keepers did everything in the old days. The children (three girls and a boy,) then the grandchildren, helped keep the house clean and often more. “Sometimes we went up the tower to assist polishing the brasswork,” said Gwen Wasson. The first granddaughter after five grandsons, all born at the lighthouse, she did her part even when younger than her eight years when her grandfather retired in 1931. Youngsters in those days learned the meaning of family responsibility at a tender age. “Grandfather said that you can’t leave any finger marks, because they collect dirt.” He sometimes let the youngsters “bong the bell” during fog. “But it must be ten times per minute!”
Families necessarily worked together.
The six miles into Lubec Village seem nothing today, but amounted to a substantial journey in the 1920s. Fortunately, the garden provided potatoes, carrots, beets, turnips, squash, peas, and beans. “I really enjoyed going “a-berrying” with Grandmother,” said Gwen. “Wild raspberries and blueberries and cranberries, too.”
Back at the lighthouse, Ephraim regularly wore work clothes but always with his official cap. Sometimes he knew inspections were due but not always. “If he got a call that the government boat was coming, he speedily donned his full uniform with the brass buttons shining,” she said.
Gwen’s father was Ephraim and Ada’s son Harry, whose 20-year career was served mostly at the Coast Guard station a mile up the road. They later acquired a nearby house with Ephraim and Ada retiring to a house farther north in South Lubec. It made for close family ties, always an elemental characteristic of light keepers’ lives with the whole family together intimately for a single and vital calling. Gwen Wasson said that Ada would sometimes go out to the “whistle house” and even sleep there on foggy nights when Ephraim was tending
the coal fire. Perhaps a longing for basic
family fulfillment illuminates much of today’s fascination with lighthouses.
Ephraim Johnson retired in 1931 at 68. He was succeeded by Eugene Larrabee, and, in 1934, the 18-year tenure of Bob Gray, who also raised a family at the easternmost lighthouse. During Ephraim’s final nine years, he continued the woodworking he had practiced in his West Quoddy shop, a building since razed. He visited West Quoddy often.
“I continued to go there, too,” added Gwen. “The Gray family had children about the same age as I, especially Carolyn.”
“He never complained about anything,” she said. “He was one of the
best known and well-loved people in Lubec.” A very religious family, they traveled to church by horse and buggy or, in winter, a sleigh. On Sunday afternoons, the family gathered about the parlor pump organ. “Grandfather was very musical with a deep, booming bass voice. My father was a tenor and also played violin.”
Forty-two years in lighthouse service.
“He was a complete and happy man,” concluded Gwen. “Being at Quoddy Head served all his needs.” And he always kept his eyes to the sea.
This story appeared in the
June 2005 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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