The Great Gale of January 1891 that wreaked havoc along the Downeast coast of Maine, was remembered for many years
by the people who lived through it. Today, those memories, just like many of the memories and stories of the lighthouses and their keepers can only be found in the dusty pages of time, but fortunately continue to surface to help us piece together the history and save it for future generations.
Such was the case recently when a number of photographs and old newspaper stories were donated by Chris Crowley, a descendant of the Drisko family of lighthouse keepers who served as keepers of Maine's Libby Island Lighthouse from 1877 to 1891.
Maine newspapers of the time described the January storm as the most violent storm to ever plummet the coast of Maine. The storm was more violent and the seas were higher than ever previously been seen or recorded. One newspaper reported that a tidal wave had actually hit the nearby Machias area. The storm brought high winds and torrential rains that washed away all the winter signs of snow on the ground, and overflowed dams and wharfs.
The lighthouse keeper at Avery Rock Lighthouse said later that he expected to lose his life as the water surges, smashed into the keeper's house, eventually washing away the boathouse, boat slip, the station's boats and all the other buildings on the island. Although it had suffered severe damage, the keeper's house with its protruding tower was the only building to survive the wrath of the storm.
Alexander M. Drisko, the keeper of Libby Island Lighthouse, faired much better than the keeper at nearby Avery Rock Lighthouse. Probably in part because the lighthouse is higher above water than Avery Rock was.
A number of vessels were lost in
the storm. A few days later, one of the lucky survivors, James Jackman, of a shipwrecked fishing schooner, out of Massachusetts, recounted his harrowing experience off the Coast of Maine on that dreadful night.
“A fresh breeze from the south sprang up that evening and the schooner was headed for Cutler Harbor. Suddenly, the wind increased on the run in toward the land and the heavy rain and thick fog made it impossible to see a cable's length ahead. Directly, land was sighted, the wheel was put hard down at the order of the captain, just as the vessel plunged into the breakers.
“It was then 11:30, and five minutes later the schooner went over on her beam ends, and as the sea rushed on board, it smashed three dories to kindling in a few minutes. Some of the men tried to save their clothes while others attempted to launch a dory, but it was swamped and carried away. Another met with success.
“When all of our crew of 16 were in the dories, we started for a light that we could see when the fog lifted occasionally and after a struggle came close to it, only to find it rock-bound and no landing in sight. Then, we shouted for help and were glad when we saw a lantern waved at us and then carried along the rocks.
“We followed the light around to the lee side of the island, where the sea was smooth and by the aid of a small railway, our boats were brought up on the rocks.
“Alex M. Drisko, keeper of Libby Island Light, was the man who saved us and good care we had afterwards.”
The following day, the men were taken to town where 13 of the lucky fishermen had planned to take the train to Portland and then on to Boston. However, they had lost all their belongings and money when the vessel sank and the railroad officials refused to let them ride the train without paying. A stranger, hearing of their problem gave them $3, which paid their way.
Jackman recounted that the other three crew members were from the nearby town of Cutler and they went home swearing they had made their last fishing trip.
To learn more about Libby Island, you can refer to the following past stories in Lighthouse Digest — “The Best Years of Our Lives,” in the April 2003 issue and “Rare Photos Donated,” in the September 2005 issue. These stories can also be found on our website at www.LighthouseDigest.com by simply typing in Libby in the Search Box.
Of special interest is the wonderful book about Libby Island called,
Lighthouse In My Life, by Philmore Wass, which is available from Lighthouse Depot as item #31638 for $14.95 plus shipping by calling (800) 758-1444.
This story appeared in the
March 2006 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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