Located 20 miles off the coast of Mt. Desert Island at the entrance to Frenchman’s Bay, Maine’s Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, along with one of its Maine counterparts, Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, have long been considered by many as two of the most isolated
and exposed lighthouse stations in the United States.
Designed by noted architect Alexander Parris, Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse was called one of the “Wind Swept Lighthouses” by government officials. As we have written in numerous stories about the lighthouses over the years, life there was extremely difficult as well as dangerous. It’s hard to imagine that families lived on the rock year-round. Even the modern day Coast Guard keepers, as late as the 1970s, before the station was automated, were not happy being stationed there. Ever since the lighthouse was first established in 1830, stories of life-threatening storms surround the history of the lighthouse.
When Lighthouse Digest subscriber Jim Walker of Cape Cod, Massachusettts read our recent story (December 2009 edition), with photographs of the devastation caused at the lighthouse by Hurricane Bill last year, he pulled out his scrapbook and recounted
with us his memories of the day when Hurricane Daisy struck the lighthouse in October of 1962. He should know; he was one of the men assigned there to restore the damaged station.
There were three lighthouse keepers on duty during that frightful 1962 hurricane. As waves crashed over the island and tossed boulders and rocks around like they were made of Styrofoam, the keepers sought refuge in the tower. Even behind the thick walls of the granite tower the keepers feared for their lives as the tower swayed under the force of the wind.
When the storm finally subsided and they left the tower, they witnessed devastation everywhere. They were lucky to have survived. The storm had completely destroyed a 20-by-20 cinder block building, and a boulder had crushed another building. Water had literally ruined the interior of the keeper’s house. They soon learned that they had survived the worst storm to hit the area in 132 years.
However, unlike in Hurricane Bill in 2009, the boat house at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse had survived the 1962 hurricane. The men had opened the doors at both ends of the structure before they took refuge in the tower. This allowed the water to rush in and pass through the structure, thereby saving it from being washed away. However, equipment and debris was everywhere; there was nothing left in working condition.
Because of the impending winter months and the following spring weather conditions, it would be nearly eight months before the Coast Guard could arrive with the necessary supplies and work crews to start the major repairs at the station. So, for the next nine months, the keepers had to make do with what they had, or use temporary gear that was brought out to them. Naturally, some immediate repairs had to be made so the keepers could live there, especially during the tough cold Maine winter months. And winter storms would have to also be contended with. Water in the cellar was pumped out, the boiler was repaired for heat, and the water system had to be rebuilt. They operated the station with a portable generator.
The task of making the major repairs at the lighthouse went to the Industrial Department at the Woods Hole Coast Guard Base in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Lieutenant Martin J. Ruben, commanding officer at the time, said he was honored that his unit, a combination of military and civilian employees, was chosen for the work, especially since the assignment was completely outside the base’s normal area of responsibility.
Upon an inspection visit to the lighthouse, Ruben described the island as “A pile of rocks and debris, utter desolation, not a tree or a blade of grass. And you can walk around the outer edge of the island in less than 15 minutes, if you don’t sprain your ankle.” George Nemetz, a maintenance mechanic who was one of the work crew from Woods Hole, recalled later, “Out of the 73 days the men worked there, the fog horn has blown right in their ears on all but seven of the days.” Adding to that, Ruben said that the fog was like a blanket covering the men, making visibility even for close work difficult. Everything was almost always damp.
Although 12 tons of supplies and a 3,000 gallon fuel tank were brought to island by a Coast Guard helicopter, the men had to drive seven hours by car to Southwest Harbor, Maine, where they would board a 65-foot Coast Guard cutter that took them out to the island. However, the cutter had to anchor at a mooring and then the men and supplies had to get to the island in a peapod. The ride in the peapod, often loaded with supplies, up and over the breakers, in itself was often harrowing. Once at the boat ramp, the men generally jumped from the boat; hung on to a handhold while another secured the winch to the boat. Often times the peapod was too heavily loaded to haul the boat up the ramp, so the men had to balance themselves while carrying lumber and other supplies up the ramp and over the rocks.
Because there was simply not enough room to accommodate a large work crew, only seven workers, along with the keepers, could stay on the island at any given time. To get the project completed before the rough fall and winter weather, the men were assigned 12 hour work days for 21 straight days. To get the project completed, the work was distributed among the men, and by the time the job was finished most of the crew from Woods Hole Industrial Unit had all spent sometime on the island. Jim Walker recalled that he was with the first work crew and returned again with the fourth work crew. However, to provide continuity to the project, one man, Charles Verrill, Engineman First Class, was assigned to the island during the entire restoration project. However, on the rare occasion when the weather permitted, he got shore leave on the weekends.
The rebuilding project was immense, they had to replace the main light, install new fuel tanks, build a new generator building, repair a storage building, and nearly fully rebuild the interior of the keeper’s house that had been heavily damaged.
If, during the renovations, saying whether it was an unusual season or not may have been a good question for the men who were there, and who later agreed that the words “good weather” on the island was a phrase that could only be used loosely when recalling their experiences.
The 1963 renovations from the hurricane damage to
Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse had the full resources of the United States Coast Guard and the government of the United States behind it, something that the modern caretakers,
Allied Whale and College of the Atlantic, do not have. Instead they will need to depend on donations and volunteers.
This story appeared in the
April 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.