Digest>Archives> March 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Keeper Joshua Strout, Portland Head Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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We recently picked up a wonderful lot of early documents including two relating to Keeper Joshua Freeman Strout and his wife Asst. Keeper Mary E. Strout, at Maine’s Portland Head Light Station. These early pay vouchers are dated 1869 and are signed in hand by both Mr. and Mrs Strout. Few realize that Mrs Strout was appointed as Assistant Keeper at this important seacoast light, considered by many keepers to be the most desirable station on the Maine coast. She served faithfully with her husband at Portland Head for thirty five years.

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Capt. Joshua Strout, a native of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, and a former sea captain, became keeper in 1869. He was named for Captain Joshua Freeman, also a light keeper in his day. These documents, signed in their first year of service there, indicate that Keeper Strout was paid $620 per year. Strout’s wife, Mary, as assistant keeper, was paid a salary of $400 per year.

In his 1935 book Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, Robert Thayer Sterling (a keeper at Portland Head himself) called Joshua Strout “…the ever efficient keeper for many years”.

According to Sterling, Joshua Strout was eleven years old when he first began to follow the water. By the time he was eighteen he was employed as a cook on a tug. While still a young man, he soon

became the Captain of many vessels of

various styles and tonnage. In 1854 he took command of the brig Scotland and for two years he sailed her in the South America and the Cuban trade. Other vessels of his command were the bark B. F. Shaw, schooners Starlight Nellie Chase, L. T. Knight,

Hannah Westbrook, and the barks Arcadia and Andres.” An accidental fall from the masthead of the Andres was the cause of his leaving the sea. Shortly after this, in 1869, he received his appointment to Portland Head Light.

Early in Keeper Strout’s first year, a

hurricane on September 8, 1869, knocked the fog bell into a ravine, nearly killing the Keeper as he worked to keep the bell sounding. A new bell tower with a 2,000 pound bell and a Stevens striking mechanism was built the following year.

Sterling further notes that “Captain Strout is the man who often met the poet

Henry W. Longfellow on his visits to

Portland Head when he was taking his “constitutionals,” as he called it. Once or twice a week Mr. Longfellow took his “tramps” toward Portland Head and basked in the sunshine of a warm summer’s day. A white rock on the south side of the tower formed a pleasant lounging place for the poet; and through many of the hot days in summer his athletic form could be seen resting there, from his long walk from Portland to the lighthouse reservation. At the time Longfellow visited the lighthouse the place was nothing but a

virgin forest. Alder swamps, juniper bushes, and spruces surrounded the path that led into the lighthouse reservation.”

The Strouts were succeeded in 1904 by their son Joseph W. Strout, who would come to be known as “one of the most popular light-keepers of his day or any yet to come”. Joseph Strout would remain as keeper until 1928, ending 59 years of the Strout family at Portland Head Light.

For more early information on this and other Maine light stations, you will want to read Lighthouses of The Maine Coast And The Men Who Keep Them, by

Robert Thayer Sterling (Brattleboro, VT. 1935).Sterling was the last civilian keeper at Portland Head Light. The most complete photographic history of Robert Sterling and the Strout family of lighthouse keepers can be found in the book, Portland Head Light, A Pictorial History Through Time,

by Timothy Harrison. It is available from

FogHorn Publishing by calling 207-259-2121 or at www.FogHornPublishing.com.

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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 specialty since the early 1990’s. 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 March 2010 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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