Along with the switchover from civil service lighthouse keepers to Coast Guard jurisdiction, and thence to automation, a class of unsung heroes was wiped out.
This is not to say that others of the old guard, the crews in the tenders and buoy boats, or the lightships, for instance, were not equally as unsung, but those of us who got to know the roving carpenters and machinists could relate to them much better than we could to the largely foreign speaking deck hands who landed our coal, oil and other supplies.
Today's advances into the sciences reveals air paths and landing possibilities at such places at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, for instance, quite at variance with the old time boat slipway facilities not always in kindly settings.
While the chopper pads favor higher elevations away from the heft of the pounding surf, the boat slip sticks its low tide extremities right into the heavy going of that which might be, on the average, the most sheltered island, or ledge, spot available.
Great Duck Island Lighthouse, in a concession to its size and exposed situation, once warranted two boat slips. Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse prefaced its tough landing possibilities with a forty-foot boom swinging from a quarry type mast to swing people or supplies from small boats to the ledge, or swing a small boat clear of the ugly surf and onto the slip. Like Libby Island Lighthouse, Saddleback took at least one life when an assistant keeper failed to make a landing after shore leave.
Names escape me after all these years but Jack Lyons and Fred Morong, deep lighthouse service roots here in Downeast, Maine, the roving machinists, were responsible for repairs to our fog signal and light tower machinery, while men with names of Webster, Spinney, Colbeth and Beal were more at home with carpenter's tools, even including slip repairs in what was likely the dampest milieu any carpenter ever saw.
Sometimes a storm ripped up the greater part of a slip, but by far the hardest repairs to make came about when the low tide extremity needed major repairs. In the beginning, the stone masons, riggers, coffer dam builders and rough carpenters, often at great peril, had laid the basis for future work at and below low water, but the repairmen who followed could hope at least, that there remained something to build to, even though low run tides didn't always happen fast enough to expedite things.
The slip repair crews were generally ensconced in storm gear and hip boots as they struggled with a supply of diamond drills, sledge hammers, nuts and rods of heavy iron, dynamite, heavy crosscut saws, braces and heavy duty bits, and life did not return to normal until the slipway was fixed and returned to its common denominator status of importance by which most landings and departures from the island were affected.
During that span of time that one island lighthouse station or another was home to us, for lack of a slip, and Dad's experiences at Saddleback Light, before he was married, our coming and going entailed use of the slip several times daily and under varying circumstances of weather. Given the fact of island light stations, or ledge installations, with serviceable boat slips, yet enjoying also the comfort and practicability of the heli-pad, this seeming overabundance of facilities would still point up the importance of personnel, service or hired from the outside, to apply modern techniques to repairs. Thus it is obvious that, in spite of the almost constant use of the past tense, there are exceptions to the demise of things as they were.
There was little of the frivolous in connection with much of the moves it took to man a light station, yet the slip was an area of something akin to tobogganing or sliding when newly greased top timbers did little to temper the force of gravity as some adventurous person, or persons, shoved off on a down hill launching of a small boat from the very top and split the water sharply upon leaving the slip.
This condition didn't last very long before the effect of the greasing wore off and it was back to soggy wood upon more of the same as hand winches or powered ones snaked the boat up out of the water on the end of a inch and one half hawser with a hook in it.
The manmade edifices that are still evident as channel lights - Lubec, Goose Rocks Thoroughfare, whether automated or discontinued - saw the use of davits to handle their small boats and had no slip at all. Making things secure and raising a boat in a bad chop just had to have been a trial.
Editor’s Note: Myron Corbett was the son of Willie Corbett, who was a keeper at a number of Maine lighthouses in the early 1900's. Later in life, Myron wrote many short stories recalling his family's life at the lighthouses. We thank his son Gordon for sharing these stories with us.
This story appeared in the
May 2007 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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