Digest>Archives> September 2008

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Stormbound On Minot’s Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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We recently picked up some early magazine articles at an auction. Included was this wonderful account by Parmalee McFadden entitled "How We Boys Were Stormbound On Minot’s Lighthouse". Published in St. Nicholas Magazine, August 1903, this great article describes a visit by the author with the keeper’s wife and son to this storm-lashed offshore lighthouse. I thought that you might enjoy his account, printed here in full, which give an insight into the keeper’s life there:

"Every New England boy-certainly every Massachusetts boy - knows of Minot’s Lighthouse, that stands like a sentinel a few miles south of Boston harbor, and about three miles from the shore, warning mariners against the dangerous Cohasset rocks, of which Minot’s Ledge is one of the farthest out to sea.

The lighthouse is a favorite object for sight-seers during the summer. If the sea is very calm, the more venturesome will approach the base and mount the ladder, which reaches some forty feet up to the first opening. If the sea is too rough for this, or when ladies desire to make a visit, the boat is made fast to the lighthouse’s buoy, and the visitor is securely tied in a wooden armchair and hauled up by a block and tackle. This precaution of fastening the visitor in the chair is especially imperative with timid persons or those who are at all liable to become dizzy; for although the chair is hung so as to give it a tilt backward, yet if a person fainted and fell forward, nothing but a strong rope would keep him from falling out of the chair. The rope is tied across from one arm of the chair to the other, very much in the manner in which a baby is made secure in its baby-carriage or go-cart. In winter, when one of the staff of keepers, who has been off duty on shore, comes out to the Light to relieve one of the other two keepers, it is usually so rough and the ladder so incrusted with ice that no other way of gaining admittance is possible except by being hauled up.

When I made my first visit to the Light, it was when I was a boy of fourteen, and that was more than a very few years ago. At that time the head keeper was Captain Levi Creed, a distant relative of mine, and our party consisted of his wife and son, a lad of my own age, and myself. As the keepers remain for weeks on the Light without coming ashore, a visit from their family is the pleasantest possible break in their monotonous duties.

We started out on a bright August morning, and we instructed our boatman to return within two hours. Win and I walked up the bronze ladder which you will see in the pictures, but his mother was drawn up in the chair.

I had often climbed up ladders in a barn-loft, where a fall would have landed me on a comfortable mow of hay, and had even ventured up ladders that the painters and other workmen had left leaning against our house. But here was a metal ladder running almost perpendicularly out of the water, and, as the tide was low, a misstep would have meant, not merely a disagreeable wetting with a prospect of being safely fished out of the water, but a fall on the hard rocks below, with scarcely a chance of being picked up alive. I do not think Win and I thought much of the danger until afterward, so intent were we to get to the top - he to greet his father, and I to make my first inspection of a lighthouse.

On reaching the first opening in the side, we came into the store-room, filled with fishing tackle, ropes, harpoons, etc. In the center of this room was a covered well that contained drinking water, and extended down the very core of the otherwise solid granite structure nearly to the level of the sea. Above this room was the kitchen, and above that the sleeping rooms, and the watch-room, where the keeper sat at night and constantly watched, on the plate-glass of the outer lantern, the reflection of the blaze of the lamp. There were always two keepers on the Light at one time - each being on watch half the night.

But the story I had to tell is how we were prevented from returning ashore as planned, and of our imprisonment on

the Light.

We had not been "aboard" more than an hour when the noon meal was announced. As relatives of the keeper, we enjoyed privileges not accorded to ordinary visitors; so we sat down to a fine luncheon, which we boys, with our sea air appetites, heartily welcomed.

I noticed that Win’s father kept looking out of the window every once in a while during the meal, and finally excusing himself, he suddenly left the table before we were through. He returned in a few minutes, saying that he had intended signaling our boatman, who, he thought, would be leisurely sailing about not far off. It looked to him, he said, as if there was an "easterly" coming up, and he thought we had better be getting ashore. He could see nothing of the man, however, for he, too, had seen the storm coming and had put back to Cohasset.

By the time luncheon was over it looked still more threatening, and in a little while a fog had set in, and an easterly wind brought the rain. All hopes of getting ashore that day were given up, for, if the boat had been able to find the lighthouse in the fog, the sea had now become too rough to allow of our being put aboard. Captain Creed made this announcement to the consternation of his wife and to the great joy of us boys. We stayed that night, and all the next day and night. The second night was one that neither of us has ever forgotten.

A little past midnight the storm increased, and the waves dashed high up the curved walls of the Light; but they were still far below us, and gave us no concern. What did frighten us, though, and kept us awake the rest of the night, was the beating of the rain and the howling of the wind about the top of that tall sky-scraper away out there in the Atlantic Ocean, miles from shore.

To us it seemed as though the whole structure was preparing to fall down. Mingled with the beating of the rain and hail were loud screams that to us sounded like the shrieks of many locomotives - faint at first, then approaching with increasing volume, then quickly dying away. Now would come a thud like the beating on a loosely headed base drum; then again the shrieks; and all the time the wind and the rain and the hail.

Soon after daybreak Win and I got up and dressed, and mounted to the watch-room in the story just under the lamp. The keeper was there, though his vigil was over, and the lamp had been put out, for the calendar said the sun had risen, in spite of the darkness of the dull, foggy morning.

The wind had now died down, and it had stopped raining.

"Well, boys," said Win’s father, " how did you pass your second night aboard a lightning-rod? No chance to get lonesome, was there? It was a pretty tough night, I’ll admit; and your mother, boy," turning to Win, "is ready to go ashore if she has to swim it. But come up here; I think there will be something worth seeing for you land chaps."

We followed the captain up and out on the upper balcony; and there we did indeed see a sight.

Lying on the floor of the balcony were a dozen or more sea fowl of various sizes and colors, either dead or crippled. There were one or two gulls, several smaller mackerel-gulls, and a number of Mother Carey’s chickens - stormy petrels; while flapping about like a caged eagle was a butter-bill coot with a broken wing, vainly trying to scale the high railing, through whose bars his broad frame failed to pass.

The explanation was plain. In the driving storm the birds had been attracted by the glare of the lamp, magnified a thousand-fold by the delicate prisms that surround it; and, as a moth is drawn into a candle, so these storm-driven fowl guided their flight to seek a shelter that proved their doom.

The dead birds were mostly on the windward side of the light, where, after striking the heavy plate-glass panels, they first fell; while the cripples had managed to "hunch" around to the more protected lee side of the balcony. Doubtless many birds had been blown off, especially the smaller, Mother Carey’s chickens.

We now saw that it was the passing flocks of sea fowl we had heard in the night, and we knew that it had not all been a nightmare.

On that afternoon - the afternoon of the third day - the fog lifted, the wind drew around to the west, and in a little while the sea went down. We had not long to wait. We could see through the spy-glass our faithful boatman’s little sloop coming out of Cohasset Cove around the point of Whitehead, and a couple of hours later we were safely landed in the keeper’s snug cottage on Government Island. There the rain might fall and the wind might blow, but no fowls could come to disturb our nights, unless it were the staid old barn-yard ducks of our neighbor, and chickens that might be anybody’s but Mother Carey’s."

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the September 2008 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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