Digest>Archives> November 2006

Memories of Life at Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse

By Shirley Morong


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The old Cape Elizabeth Coast Guard Station which ...

Life at Race Point Lighthouse at the tip of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, in the mid 1940s was rather quiet but we enjoyed being together, walks on the beach, trips to various places when on liberty and socializing with Ozzie and Florence Hallett. However we missed the electricity and other conveniences and most of all, Maine. We heard that there was to be a vacancy at both Portland Head Light and Two Lights at Cape Elizabeth, Maine, so Clif immediately put in for a transfer to one of these lights.

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The east tower of Cape Elizabeth, Maine’s “Two ...

On Friday, January 11, 1946 (Clif’s birthday) he had a 48-hour liberty and we left in the morning in the Jeep which we left at the Coast Guard Station, and got into our car which Clif kept in a garage at the station, dropped Bobby and Jerry off at school and with Joanne went on to Hyannis to do some shopping.

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Cape Elizabeth Life Boat Station crew rescues ...

We had dinner at our favorite restaurant, the College Inn, and roamed around the stores for awhile. Not having much money to spend, we left there early and headed homeward going on roads we had never been on before. We picked the boys up at school and wended our way between groves of pine trees and stretches of sand dunes to Race Point Coast Guard Station. Clif put the car in the garage and we went across to where our Jeep had been left at one side of the station. A young sailor whom we had never seen before was waiting to be taken down to the light - a companion for Hess, the boatswains Mate informed us. Funny, but then we had learned long ago not to be surprised at anything the Coast Guard did.

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The old Cape Elizabeth Maine Life-Boat/Life ...

Good News

As I got out of the Jeep and headed towards the house, Florence Hallett raised her window and hollered at me.

“Have you heard the news?” I went a little closer to her house so I could hear her better.

“What news?” I asked.

“You have been transferred to Two Lights at Cape Elizabeth. They called the Group Office in Boston this afternoon and you are to report there as soon as possible.”

Now we knew why the sailor had been sent down here - he was to take Clif’s place. I called to Clif, who was taking the groceries out of the Jeep, and he shouted “hooray!” And when we got into the kitchen he literally threw the parcels on the table and we both danced around like a couple of lunatics. The three children stared at us in amazement.

What had happened to their usually quiet and reserved parents!

Needless to say the chief subject of conversation during supper and the evening was how to move, where to get boxes to pack in, how soon could we leave, etc.

The next day I began to pack whiled Clif and the boys went to Provincetown to see about hiring a truck to move us. They had to walk to the station but returned in the Jeep.

Because of the slowness in getting our pay, no trucking company would move us and charge it to the government and if we paid the bill ourselves it would cost $200 which we couldn’t afford.

We decided that we would at least get our furniture up to the station then maybe go at least as far as Boston in our car to find out at Coast Guard headquarters just how we were to get moved.

On Sunday, the 13th, Clif hitched the trailer to the Jeep and he and the boys made about two dozen trips back and forth to the station taking our furniture there to store in their garage. It was cold and cloudy with occasional light snow. They worked until dark and got most of our stuff up there.

Snow and sleet greeted us the next morning and the radio warned motorists to stay off the highways. So our planned trip to Boston was cancelled but Clif decided he would go by himself. He left our car in Provincetown, took a bus to Yarmouth and finished the trip on the train. The only furniture we had left were our beds. Hess and Hallett loaned us a few chairs and we had a few dishes and groceries.

Clif arrived home about 9 p.m. He had seen Chief Ellison at the Coast Guard Base and was told that we were to get to Cape Elizabeth as soon as possible and that our house was all ready to move in to. A call was made to a trucking company and arrangements made to pick up our furniture the next day or no later than Thursday. As we had very little food and not enough dishes, we decided we would leave for Cape Elizabeth the next day and not wait for the moving truck to come. It took us all the morning to finish packing and getting the rest of the stuff off the station. We stopped in Provincetown to pick up the boy’s school cards and our transfer papers from the Group Office then got a lunch at a restaurant.

Clif stopped in the baker shop to get some cream puffs for dessert and when the clerk found out that we were leaving, she gave him two extra ones. Said she hated to see us go. We spent that night at Ken’s Overnight Cabins in Accord near Weymouth and got an early start the next morning, arriving at Cape Elizabeth around 2:00 p.m.

Two Lights, where we would be stationed, is at the tip end of Cape Elizabeth and about eight miles from Portland, Maine. We crossed the bridge from Portland to South Portland then on to

Cape Elizabeth.

Just before going down over the hill into the village of Two Lights, a dirt road branched off the highway which we followed. We passed a couple of houses, a short stretch of woods and came to a fenced-in enclosure with an open gate, the other side of which stood

a lighthouse tower and a dwelling. Nobody was around so we continued along the road past a house, barn and three-car garage, up over a hill past another house and then on to the second lighthouse dwelling and tower. There we saw Chief William Woodward who was in charge of the lighthouse unit or the keeper as they were called under the civilian regime. He was surprised to see us as he understood that we wouldn’t be there until January 29. He then explained the set up.

Mr. Elliott, who had been head keeper, was retiring as of January 29. He had moved some of his furniture down to his cottage at nearby Hannaford’s Cove. Woodward, who was to take his place, had moved some of his belongings from the dwelling by the old lighthouse tower up to the keeper’s dwelling. Arthur Marston,

the 1st assistant keeper, lived in the quarters next door with his family. Our early arrival created a few problems which were soon straightened out.

Our home would be the one next to the old lighthouse tower and Clif and the boys were put right to work helping Woodward move the rest of his household goods up to the keeper’s dwelling while Joanne and I took shelter in first one house then the other. We met Woodward’s family consisting of wife, Beatrice, and daughters, Ruth and Evelyn who were teenagers, and daughter, Margaret, who was married and had a baby.

We went to Portland to get some supper and thought about getting a room at a motel for the night but we didn’t know what to do with our dog, Dixie, so we went back to Two Lights and into our empty house. Willie, as everybody called him, had left a studio couch there on which Clif, Joanne and I slept. We spread some quilts on the floor for Bobby and Jerry to sleep on.

The next day Clif borrowed a few cups from Beatrice and we managed to get a makeshift breakfast. We went to Portland for dinner and to do a few errands taking Arthur and Sadie Marston with us as she had a doctor’s appointment. They insisted that we spend that night with them so I decided that Joanne and I would as Woodward had taken his studio couch up to his house. Marstons gave Clif a couple of cots to set up at the house so he and the boys could sleep there. They had nine children but only two of them still at home, Freddy about 11 years old and Noel, 15. It snowed that night and the fog horn blew - three blasts that ended in a grunt. Clif had his first watch which was from 4:00 to 8:00 a.m.

The last of the afternoon our furniture arrived and with the help of Arthur, Willie and a few boys from the Coast Guard Station, it was put in the house but it was too late to try to get beds put up, etc. So Joanne and I spent another night at the Marstons.

The next few days were busy ones trying to arrange the furniture and unpacking boxes. We had a pantry, kitchen, dining room, living room and bathroom downstairs but only two bedrooms upstairs. We had to put our studio couch in our bedroom for Joanne to sleep on and the boys had the other room. There was a large high cellar but it was too damp to store things in.

Thus began our life at Two Lights.

Willie, Arthur, and Clif divided the watches and liberty hours. On good days they did various chores around the station, on foggy days or during snowstorms they stayed in the whistle house down over the hill on the shore. Light-up time at sundown meant climbing the stairs to the top of the tower, taking the protective curtain off the lenses and pressing a switch to turn on the electric light which was then set in a revolving motion sending 6 flashes in each direction at 30 second intervals. The light was white and could be seen some fifteen miles away.

The lighthouse tower was built in 1828 and it set on the eastern point of a hill. Another tower was erected at the western end of the lighthouse reservation guiding boatmen in both directions. A Fresnel lens was installed in 1855 and in 1873 both towers were removed and cast iron ones built. In spite of protests from seafaring people, the government decided that two lights were not necessary so discontinued use of the west tower. The light was removed and

the keeper’s dwelling, which had been a two-family home, was remodeled into a single family home, and that is where we were to live. It was also the house that Clif was born in when his father was one of the keepers at the light.

The light in the eastern tower was made into a beacon with 500,000 candle power, stronger than any New England Light except Cape Cod. The tower is 129 feet above sea level. Two sets of wooden steps connected by a path led down over the hill to the Coast Guard Station below and the whistle house on the shore. Halfway down the hill to the left was the lookout tower where the Coast Guardsmen stood watch. To the right a cement walk led to the two dwellings that were headquarters for the SPARS (Coast Guard women) during the war. They were just completing their removal when we arrived there and one of the houses was rented to a Coast Guard family.

On the other side of the lighthouse tower on the edge of the hill stood quite a large story and a half frame building that was occupied by the Navy during the war, which was now empty. Its wide veranda made a nice place for the children to play. Down over the other side of the hill from the lighthouse was Hannaford’s Cove, a settlement of cottages with a few year-round residents. The view from the lighthouse was extensive and beautiful. On three sides was the sea with Portland Lightship off in the distance. On the land side were the dwellings with woods in the background. Although we could see the water from our house, our view was limited to the woods. There was a nice yard for the children to play in and a wide piazza across the front of the house.

Bob and Jerry went to school at Pond Cove which was about four miles from Two Lights riding on the school bus. Pond Cove was the center of the Town of Cape Elizabeth. The elementary and high schools were there, the town office, library, fire station, drug store, grocery store and filling stations, also the Portland bus stop. Houses spread out in all directions from there and it was quite a busy place.

About a dozen families lived year-round near the Coast Guard Station and there were six or eight children that went on the school bus. There was a small summer store on the shore next to the whistle house and beyond that were summer cottages.

We found the other lighthouse families very friendly and helpful. We already knew the Woodwards as we had substituted for them at the Range Lights when he was stationed there.

Uncle Fred

Watches were stood in the dwellings except when it was foggy or snowing, then the one on watch would have to stay in the whistle house to make sure the fog horn kept going. Soon after we got settled, the light began to “act up”. It would be revolving as it was supposed to when all of a sudden the man on watch would discover that it had stopped. When Clif was on watch and that would happen he would have to rush up to the light from the house, get it going again and sometimes just get back to the house when it would stop again and he would have to go through the same procedure. Men came down from the Coast Guard Base at South Portland and worked on it and finally Clif’s uncle, Fred Morong, who was a machinist at the Base, got it fixed. It had something to do with the mercury and bearings. As time went on Uncle Fred was a frequent visitor of ours as he worked down to the whistle house installing new machinery there. He was Clif’s father’s brother and he and his wife, Maude lived in South Portland.

Fred, like other members of the Morong family, had been in the lighthouse service for nearly thirty years and planned to retire soon. When the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, Fred remained at the Coast Guard Base which was also the Buoy Depot where navigational buoys were brought in by the buoy boats, cleaned and painted to be returned to their stations. Fred was a very likable man, a musician and poet. His poem “Brassworks” has been read all over the country and is appreciated by lighthouse keepers when they get out their polishing cloths to clean the brasswork.

I began having trouble with my lower teeth and so went to the dentist at the Marine Hospital and he began pulling them out a few at a time. Also I started seeing Dr. John Ward, a physician in Portland, as I

was pregnant.

In June we had a short vacation which we spent at my brother Charlie’s cottage at Popham. But it was cut short as Clif got orders to return to Two Lights at once because Willie had to report to Boston for his final retirement papers. So that cut us down to two men at the light which meant double watches. After awhile Robert Power, his wife and daughter, Susan were sent to take Willie’s place and they moved into the head keeper’s house. They were there for only three months and were transferred elsewhere.

On October 12, 1946 Clif took me to the Mercy Hospital in Portland and late that afternoon Wayne Alfred Morong was born. After five days in the hospital, we went home to a crowded house. Clif had moved our bedroom downstairs into the front room, put our living room furniture in the dining room and tried to arrange things so we would have room to move around. The living quarters were suddenly too small, as a baby can make a big difference in a small household.

The keeper’s quarters next to the lighthouse tower was once more vacant and Clif, explaining how cramped we were, applied for permission to move. What a happy day that was!. We were blessed with a large kitchen, pantry, dining room, living room and full bath downstairs, plus a bedroom, hall and sun porch. There were three large bedrooms upstairs. And our back door led out into the covered way that led to the light tower. The view from each window was one I never tired of. Sitting at our kitchen table we looked down at the cove and Coast Guard Station with the open sea and the Portland Lightship beyond. From a third window in the kitchen we viewed the lighthouse tower and the harbor beyond. Another window, along with the one in the pantry and bathroom, overlooked Hannaford’s Cove. Our bedroom window faced the other dwellings and the house that we had moved out of and, of course, the village below and the sea beyond. Clif and I slept in the downstairs bedroom with Wayne in his bassinet next to my side of the bed so I could tend to him in the night.

A Bad Storm

On March 3, 1947 we had a bad storm with the wind blowing up to 8o miles an hour with heavy rain mixed with sleet all night. Electric power was off and the generator in our basement had to be started at light-up time to keep the light in the tower on. Clif went down to the whistle house on the shore below to stand the 8:00 p.m. to midnight watch. He found out that the power was off from Cape Elizabeth to South Portland due to trees falling on power lines.

The next morning Clif woke me up early and pointed to the window where I could see rockets rising in the air. He immediately went down to the Coast Guard Station where the crew was assembling equipment to go to the scene just a short distance away. Shortly after he left the generator slowed down and as daylight was approaching, I went down cellar and shut it off.

The children came downstairs and we looked out the front living room windows to watch the surf rolling up over the stone wall, bordering the cove and into the road. Then we saw Clif at the station where he got the tractor and trailer and headed out on the road leading from the village. A few minutes later we saw a ship coming close to the shore near the whistle house. It was the Portland Lightship which had dragged its anchor until it caught on some ledges just off shore. The buoy boat Cowslip came in from the Coast Guard base in South Portland to stand by as they were unable to get a line aboard because of the rough sea.

It was some time later that I found out what was going on. A neighbor stopped in and told me that the 5,284 ton collier Oakey L. Alexander bound for Portland with a load of coal had been struck by a huge wave as it neared the Portland Lightship and 75 feet of the bow section had been torn away. The Captain and crew managed to get what was left of the vessel headed towards shore and it struck the ledges of High Head a short distance from the Coast Guard Station. The Coast Guard crew responded to the distress signal; set up the breeches buoy apparatus and shot a line with the Lyle gun out to the vessel where it was made fast and one by one members of the crew were hauled in over the pounding waves to safety. A nearby cottage was opened up as a shelter before transporting them to the Coast Guard Station. It took from 8:00 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. to get all of the 32 crew members on shore with no serious injuries. Needless to say; they received a lot of attention by newspaper reporters, Coast Guard and many officials. Fortunately there weren’t any crew members on the bow when it went down.

That night we went out on our sun porch and were amazed to see rockets shoot up in the air in a southwest direction. Clif immediately reported it and the Cowslip, which was still standing by near the lightship; went in that direction but the rockets had stopped and nothing was found. We later learned that distress signals had been received that morning from the freighter Novadoc earlier in the day and the Coast Guard Cutter Snohomish from Rockland and the Algonquin from Portland were sent to try to locate it but nothing was ever found. It was believed that it sank in deep water without leaving a trace.

Except for a few months when we had to move off the station while Clif was on duty on the weather ship Coos Bay; we lived at Two Lights for approximately nine years.

Following substitute duty at Portland head Light in August 1956, Clif decided to put in for retirement after being in the service for 21 years. We spent our last Christmas at Two Lights then moved to a three-family apartment house in Pond Cove, Cape Elizabeth about 20 miles from Two Lights.

Happy Years

Our years at Two Lights had been happy ones even though Clif had been transferred elsewhere several times but always managed to return to Two Lights. In addition to the wreck, I remember November 13, 1949 when we stood at the living room windows and watched the activities connected with the ramming of the Portland Lightship by a naval patrol craft as it entered the shipping lane on its way to Portland. According to reports, a helmsman at the wheel became confused, took the wrong course and rammed the lightship cutting a 16 foot vertical gash which opened a seam from the weather deck to about a foot below the waterline. The Coast Guard Cutter Acushnet responded to the accident and towed the lightship to Portland.

In the middle of August 1954 Clif was transferred back to Two Lights from the weather ship Coos Bay and on August 31st Hurricane Carol struck and the Coast Guard was busy trying to save valuable boats at the Portland Yacht Club. Electric power was off, trees were being uprooted, and seas were pounding the shore and a lot of damage done all over New England. I was at the house alone at Two Lights and was quite nervous when the front screen door blew off.

As I look back over the years, I realize that life in the Coast Guard had its share of excitement.

This story appeared in the November 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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