Over the years, millions of tourists have traveled to or through the beautiful seaside town of Camden located on Maine’s midcoast. Tens of thousands have shopped in its quaint shops, stayed in its beautiful B&Bs, and viewed its picturesque harbor.
However, only a small percentage of those people seem to realize the community has a historic lighthouse located on an island in the town’s harbor. And even fewer know anything about the man from Maine who built one of the largest publishing empires in history that the island and lighthouse were eventually named after.
For many years, the lighthouse, established here in 1835, was known as Negro Island Lighthouse. It is said to have received the name from the fact that an African-American cook of the vessel that brought James Richards, the town’s first settler, and family to the area, exclaimed as the vessel passed the island into the harbor, “Dat’s my island!” And thus, the island got its name.
For many years, the island also served as a signal station for the Boston-Bangor Steamships. The lighthouse keeper could see far up and down the shore and by taking a little care, could know when the boat came out of Rockland in the morning and when it passed Northport in the evening. A tall pole was erected near the lighthouse and a large ball was raised when the boat appeared in either direction. This ball could be clearly seen from the village. A familiar shout in the community was “The ball is up!” which started the hacks and everyone else interested in the coming of the boats to the steamship wharf.
In those days when the large steamship came in during the summer nights, it passed through a fleet of rowboats filled with pleasure seekers who made a practice of getting into the steamer’s wake to be tossed about. This was done to test their oarmanship. But with
the advent of powerboats, those skillful manipulators of the oars passed into history.
The island itself serves as a great shelter to Camden Harbor. While the wind-driven waves of the ocean would fiercely beat upon it and the ledges, the natural breakwater of the island itself keeps the waters of the harbor calm.
In the early months of 1934, the year after the death of Cyrus Curtis, Mrs. Mary Louise Bok, his daughter, suggested that the island’s name be changed to Curtis Island in honor of her father.
The people of Camden, upon hearing of the request, immediately got involved to make Mrs. Bok’s request a reality. It was easy to get behind the request of Mrs. Bok. After all, Cyrus Curtis was one of Maine’s most famous home state people who had single-handedly built one of the largest and most successful publishing empires in American history. Curtis was also well known in the Camden community where he spent most of his summers and he had been a major financial benefactor to many local causes in the area.
Born in Portland, Maine, the story of his rise to publishing magnate status is an amazing American success story, which is unfortunately too lengthy to tell in the space allotted here. For that purpose I would suggest searching the bookstores or Ebay for the book on his life titled, A Man from Maine, by Edward W. Bok.
The mere suggestion of changing the name of an island is much more complicated than the actual act. A number of steps had to be taken. First, the selectmen of the town needed to vote on allowing a warrant to be issued to allow a public vote on the name change, which, in this case, was done without any hesitation and overwhelmingly approved by the community. Once approved, a letter requesting the name change had to be sent to George Putnam, commissioner of lighthouses. Taking no chances, letters of support for the name change were sent to Putnam from a number of influential people including United States Senator Wallace H. White Jr. of Maine, Maine Congressman Edward C. Moran Jr., the Camden Board of Trade and New York Supreme Court Justice Lewis L. Fawcett. An eloquently written appeal was also sent by Eberhardt Mueller of the Curtis Publishing Co., in which he stated, in referring to Cyrus Curtis, “He was a successful man, but one who was very little given to self-publicity and one who maintained more than usual secrecy in his philanthropies.”
Lighthouse Commissioner Putnam gave his approval, but still needed to contact and convince the United States Geographic Board for their final approval of a name change, which came in a letter dated May 2, 1934 at about the same time Putnam was retiring from the Lighthouse Service.
The official name change came in an official document dated
May 9, 1934, in Portland, Maine and was signed by Superintendent of the Lighthouse Service Brush as endorsed by H. D. King, acting commissioner of the Lighthouse Service.
Almost immediately after the name change was approved, plans were underway to have a plaque placed on the lighthouse honoring Cyrus Curtis. In a letter to the Lighthouse Commissioner, Justice Fawcett requested government approval for a bronze plaque saying in a letter, “To be placed on the shaft of the lighthouse, there could not possibly be any detraction from the light or interference with the visibility. Thus, it seems to me, it would not impair the perfect white surface of the light for any purpose. The enclosed rough sketch may serve to illustrate my idea regarding same.” Fawcett’s sketch had suggested that the plaque be placed on keeper’s house.
However, Commissioner King, in approving the plaque, stated, “A more certainly permanent place for a tablet would be on the tower, rather than the dwelling, in event the lighthouse might later be made automatic.” Apparently, King was thinking that the keeper’s quarters might be eventually torn down as was happening with other lights that were being automated at the time.
This story appeared in the
August 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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