Standing as he had for so many journeys before upon these waters, the thirty third OIC (Officer in Charge) of Maine’s Wood Island Lighthouse peered into the distance towards the island, which was his home so many years ago. Thirty six keepers had operated this lighthouse over the last 200 years – well really for 178 years after the light had been automated in 1986 and its last keeper left. During the years 1976-1979, Keeper Mike McQuade and his wife Patsy, kept Wood Island Lighthouse Station. Only four other keepers would follow, Russ Lowell, and Phillip Brothwell stood duty for the next seven years. Then in August 1986 as the end was in sight, Merton Perry and Warren Rowell finished up the last two months of duty.
Jerry Murray, the keeper who preceded Mike McQuade from 1973 to 1976 had heard talk of “a-soon-to-be automation” – but nothing happened. McQuade, Lowell and Brothwell toiled on keeping the light on task and the house in good condition. In 1986 the prediction of the closure became reality. Keepers Perry and Rowell were on island August and September of that year and saw the end. Perhaps it was their job to facilitate the abandonment. Though the Coast Guard would keep the lens turning and the signal correct, the house and even the tower was now on its own.
Mike’s wife Patsy, also on board Lightrunner on that brilliant September day, must have had her own memories as she held and comforted her granddaughter Aleyda, only 11 ½ months old. The child was uncomfortable in her new life jacket.
Aryana, Mike and Patsy’s other granddaughter sat on Damian McQuade’s lap the boat made its way to Wood Island. What were Damian’s thoughts? Damian, Mike McQuades’ son, was only two years old when he departed Wood Island Lighthouse. Would she foster her own memories of this brief trip to her grandparents’ and father’s early home?
Thirty two years had passed since Mike, Patsy, Damian and his wee baby brother, Brendan, had left Wood Island Lighthouse. A lot had happened and not happened in those years and it was with some anxiety that I escorted the group off the boat and down the boardwalk. I was sure that the dwelling house was in tip top condition when the McQuades left in 1979. I knew this because the care of the facility was a top priority job for the keeper. The Coast Guard inspections were known as the “white glove treatment.” If something wasn’t up to snuff during the inspection, it would be by the next monthly visit. Another proof of how the McQuades kept the station was noted in the Certificate of Appreciation, which was presented to Mike by the Coast Guard in March 1980 which stated:
During his term as Officer-In-Charge of Coast Guard Light Station Wood Island, Maine, Petty Officer McQuade’s diligent efforts and concern for his unit were at all time immediately apparent; indeed, the District Inspector was sufficiently impressed to comment on his official report that “the appearance and material condition of this unit is the best of any family unit I have inspected in the past two years.” His remarkable performance was a source of great pride to this command, and to him and Mrs. McQuade (as his able and enthusiastic assistant) go my sincere personal thanks, signed R.I. Rybacki, Commander, U.S.C.G. Group Portland, Maine.
During this 2010 visit to the light station the interior of the house, empty of furniture and light keeping equipment, ravaged by time and intruders, was a sad looking place. Families of ten keepers have revisited their old home in the last few years and to them, it was a shocking sight.
The day of their visit was a very hot day and a swarm of wasps had managed to infiltrate the kitchen – I was able to make it safe with the weapon - wasp spray. The family took their time to wander the house, tower and grounds. I wondered if they were remembering events, activities and happenings of thirty plus years ago “clear as a day.” Maybe they would recall the beautiful birthday cake for Damian’s first birthday. It was a small replica of the lighthouse including the tower with a candle right on top.
Perhaps they saw the new lantern room (fabricated to look like the old cast iron lantern) as an improvement over the “headless tower,” which they had presided over. At that time, the light consisted of two aero beacons perched on the tower with absolutely no enclosure to protect it or the keeper from the elements.
Mike graciously gave an interview back on the mainland and turned over his family album giving us permission and time to scan the photos. In our archives, we had only a few pictures of keepers piloting their peapods. Mike had many more to add. We also had fewer pictures still of keepers at the top of their tower – Mike holding Damian right beside that aero beacon was a priceless addition to our collection. Keeper McQuade is also an historian in his own right. In May 1973, he was approached by Roberta Blanchard, a writer who’s main interest was lighthouses. By June, Mike had written a long report on the history of the light station, which included many news articles written about the place. As a person also interested in the history of Wood Island Lighthouse, I would say that Keeper McQuade knew quite a bit more of the history of his home than was expected of its keepers.
The family must have looked forward to a return visit to the island, because they drove all the way from Nebraska to Rhode Island to pick up Damian and his kids, then drove to Biddeford Pool for their journey back to the lighthouse. We are extremely grateful for their visit and their sharing of information and photos.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2011 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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