Digest>Archives> July 2006

Lighthouses in His Blood

By Ron Pesha


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Bob Gray wearing his old Coast Guard hat with the ...

Lighthouses were in his blood. Generation after generation, of Grays; Jessie Gray and probably his father in mid-19th Century, then Joseph, and finally Howard to 1952 all lightkeepers in Maine.

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Lighthouse keeper’s daughter Dorothy with pet cat ...

Howard Gray, known as “Bob,” lived on Great Duck Island at the outer entrance to Blue Hill Bay with his mother Phoebe and father Joseph until 1915 when he entered school at Bass Harbor. During those nascent character-forming years Bob wandered the treeless, desolate island, finding it anything but bereft if life. The shoals and tide pools rich with the mysteries of uncountable sealift surely thrilled the lad and planted a lifelong love of the sea. His mother Phoebe also carried the genes of the sea. Phoebe, who had been a teacher, was born at Bass Harbor Head Light where her father, Jarvis Wilson, was Keeper.

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Sadie Gray entering the kitchen door at West ...

According to LaRue Spiker writing in The Islander magazine, Bob’s father “Captain Joe” (as Head Keepers were known in the old Lighthouse Service) Gray was also stationed on Crabtree Ledge Light (off of Hancock point), Mt. Desert Rock, Great Duck Island at the entrance to Blue Hill Bay, Marshall’s Point near Port Clyde, and finally Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse. Yes, lighthouses were in Bob Gray’s blood.

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Lighthouse keeper Howard “Bob” Gray in the fog ...

Grown, Bob Gray married Sarah (known as “Sadie”) and at 19 began working at a Bass Harbor general store to support his family. Finally, at age 29, he followed his blood and joined the Lighthouse Service in 1932, initially as Second Assistant on Boon Island under Keeper Harold Hutchens and First Assistant Fred Batty. Boon Island lies six miles off York in extreme southern Maine. Gray ‘s duties including climbing the 137 steps to turn on the vapor light in the evening, and again to turn it off each morning. Shortly the Lighthouse Service changed over to electricity.

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Former West Quoddy Head Lighthouse keeper Bob ...

The austere, barren island with its 133-foot granite tower seemingly invites epic storms. (See “My Life on Boon Island,” by Miriam Dolby Hammel, Lighthouse Digest, May 2003).

One historic gale began to blow violently on October 29, 1932...the day Gray’s son Howard Russell Jr. was born in York where daughters Dorothy and Carolyn were living with their mother for the winter.

That night towering waves broke windows at the lighthouse and pounded against the 133-foot tower, the tallest on the coast above Boston. “The men took shelter in the tower and prayed it wouldn’t topple into the sea,” said daughter Dorothy Meyer. The telephone cable was damaged, and Gray did not learn of his son’s birth until a boat could reach the island weeks later.

“Even under normal conditions life on Boon Island was hard,” said Gray in a 1970 article published in the Camden Down East Enterprise. “We would get mail and groceries only once a month, and it cost $10 for this service,” a substantial sum in the third year of the Great Depression.

Less than a year and a half later a letter arrived from the Lighthouse Service Superintendent in Portland reading, “You have been recommended to the position of Assistant Keeper, West Quoddy Head Lighthouse, at a salary of $1200 per annum, effective April 1, 1934.” Gray remained at West Quoddy for 18 1/2 years, until 1952, raising his family under that glorious red-and-white striped tower. He became Head Keeper on the retirement of Eugene Larrabee, and moved the family from the west side to the east side of the duplex, the side facing the sea.

“When Keeper Larrabee retired in 1940,” said Dorothy Meyer, “Dad was painting the tower, and he painted the top of dome black, because he said the rusty red clashed with the cherry red stripes on the tower.” Iron oxide red was the regulation color. “The next day along came the Government inspectors. He hoped they wouldn’t notice, but they did. They agreed with him that it looked better. He was happy because he got an excellent rating, as usual.”

“Excellent” was the top Coast Guard “Efficiency rating, “defined as “performance in every important phase of the work was outstanding and there was no weakness in any respect.” For example, Howard Gray received a notice of Official Efficiency Rating” for the period 4/1/48 to 3/31/49, signed by S.F. Hewins, Commander, U.S.C.G.

As a teenage girl, daughter Dorothy recalls fears for safety during the early years of World War Two. “If it hadn’t been for the South Lubec Coast Guard Base,” she wrote, “somehow I doubt if the Lighthouse would be there. When the sailors ended their patrols Dad would always have coffee and doughnuts ready for them before they started back to the Base after they punched the time clock. They all saw him as a father figure, so many of them kept in touch with him even after he had retired.”

Dorothy also remembers happier times, including the grand view to sea from the lantern deck, the Canadian island of Campobello, and the green forested hills behind the lighthouse. “It was so beautiful up there after we were on Boon Island where the tower, house, walks, and rocks were as gray as our name.”

Gray raised his three children at West Quoddy. Many snapshots provided by granddaughter Pam Grindle show your typical family: mother Sadie, daughters Dorothy and Carolyn, and the youngest, Howard “Bobbie” Jr....except they just happened to be living at West Quoddy Light Station and at the eastern most point of the United States of America. Or perhaps it didn’t just happen...because lighthouses were in Gray's blood.

(More photos may be seen online at the Maine Memory Network website, mainememory.net and in Search enter West Quoddy).

A popular attraction for many decades, the famous red and white striped lighthouse and its unique post marking the easternmost point of the United States, Gray often encountered visitors. He enthusiastically showed them about, answered the questions, and paid close attention to children and their awe. “The Coast Guard said they had no more effective goodwill ambassador than Bob Gray,” said Dorothy. “He earned a reputation as ‘The Friendly Lighthouse Keeper,’” she added

In 1952 he fell eight feet down the steps when he was climbing the tower stairs to clean the lens, and injured his back, Arthritis set in, which resulted in retirement at the age of 49. “It disappointed him emotionally, because Lighthouses were his whole life,” said Dorothy. Indeed, lighthouses were in his blood.

After retiring, he developed a personal cottage industry drying slack salted fish, which he had practiced all during his career. He took with him a huge anchor, salvaged by divers after a 1945 cargo shipwreck on a dangerous ledge off West Quoddy. Gray died on July 5th, 1994, but the anchor still hangs from a tree at his house today, according to daughter Dorothy.

Howard “Bob” Gray returned to West Quoddy on June 30, 1988 as guest of honor. On that date Captain John E. Williams, Commander of the Coast Guard Base at Southwest Harbor, officiated over the automation of this easternmost lighthouse. Massachusetts’s musician Noel Veilleux’s Lighthouse Song was first heard that day.

As the Coast and the U.S. flags were lowered for the last time, Captain Williams presented them to Howard “Bob” Gray, the man with lighthouses in his blood.

This story appeared in the July 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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