Digest>Archives> June 2006

Keeper's Quarters Now A Coast Guard Home

By Craig Idlebrook


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The keeper’s house at Maine’s Bass Harbor Head ...
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Like many tourist attractions on Maine’s Mount Desert Island, the Bass Harbor Lighthouse has a spacious parking lot and walking trails. Tourists can walk down to the lighthouse and around the outside of the old keeper’s cottage.

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Commander Burchell and daughter Sophie in the ...
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But for the last two years, tourists who have missed the signs warning of the uniqueness of this tourist attraction might have been surprised if they peered into the cottage and saw someone peering back out at them.

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Vintage postcard image of Bass Harbor Head Light ...
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The cottage is currently inhabited by Coast Guard Commander Robert Burchell, his wife Brooke Lindsay, and their two children, Sophie and Ethan.

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Commander Robert Burchell, giving a tour of the ...
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"The kids sometimes like to tap on the windows," Burchell said.

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The hallway from the house that leads to the ...
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Burchell is commander of all Coast Guard operations from Eastport to Stonington and gets to live in the historic keeper’s quarters while stationed on the mainland-connected island.

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Mrs. Burchell points at one of the many historic ...
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"It’s a perk," Burchell said.

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From the relaxing deck overlooking the ocean, the ...
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The cottage is relatively small, 1 1/2 stories with three bedrooms.

"But we’re not big people, so it’s okay," he said.

The view from the cottage is quite appropriate for a Coast Guard family. The lighthouse overlooks Bass Harbor, the southwestern-most point of the island, and Burchell says the kids love to begin and end their day watching the ships pass through.

"They yell when they see a Coast Guard boat go by," he said.

Burchell’s family also often spy porpoises in the water and mink and deer on the nearby footpath. They like to pause at the end of the day to take in the breathtaking sea sunsets. In the winter, they relish the sound of the storm-driven waves crashing onto the rocks.

"You like that sound," Burchell said. "You definitely get in touch with nature."

Burchell thinks it is a good idea to keep a Coast Guard family in the keeper’s house. It maintains a Guard presence on the island while at the same time providing housing. The Guard owns and maintains the lighthouse.

"It’s kind of historical for the Guard," he said.

The Bass Harbor Light was built in 1858 to warn boaters of the hidden bar at the eastern entrance of the harbor.

"Mariners still use the lighthouse as kind of a reference point," Burchell said.

The family’s stay is not connected with the lighthouse’s upkeep, but they have helped. Though fully automated in 1972 and equipped with a backup system, the light has actually gone out twice in the family’s two-year stay. Each time, they were the first to notice and report it.

"I felt like I did my duty the one or two times it went out,"

Lindsay joked.

The keeper’s cottage was built in 1902, but has since been renovated to be cozier for young families. Plush carpet covers the old floorboards and historical photos adorn the house. The horse-barn has been converted into a garage; Burchell says he can still see chew-marks on the wood there.

The lighthouse is connected to the house by a hallway and Burchell’s family can go up there whenever they want. Unfortunately, they have to share the cramped space with a million flies each spring.

At first glance, it may seem like Burchell’s family has been trapped between a crush of tourists and the deep blue sea. A busy parking lot lies just above the house and jutting rocks lie below. Burchell says in the summer, the lighthouse draws more than a thousand tourists a day.

"It can get pretty crowded down there," he said.

But a fence closes off the family’s private yard from wandering tourists, and signs remind visitors that the house is actually a residence. Of course, not everybody reads the signs. Once while he was outside grilling dinner, Burchell found a tourist wandering around his backyard.

"We’ve gotten used to it," Lindsay said of the tourist crush. "It took a little while the first summer."

It helps that the yard includes a small hill hidden by trees where the children can play. Sophie, 5, likes to build fairy houses on the hill and the children pick blueberries there in the summer.

This summer will be the last opportunity to see Burchell’s children tapping at the lighthouse windows, however. Their stay on MDI is coming to a close. Burchell is often transferred to a new command post every two years.

"That’s the downside," he said.

Most recently, the family has lived in Maryland and Long Island, New York.

Burchell and his family love Maine and he put in

a request to be transferred to a position in Portland. Instead, they will go to New London, Connecticut this fall, where they will have to fend for themselves for housing.

Living in a lighthouse might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"We know we’ll miss it when we leave," Burchell said.

But if you visit the Bass Harbor Lighthouse before they leave, and two children with mischievous grins tap on the window and wave

at you, remember to wave back.

This story appeared in the June 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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