Interwoven Island Life
It has often been said that there is no light station in Maine with a history that is more interwoven into the everyday life of an island community than at Eagle Island Lighthouse; a family light station that was located on a 263 acre island in Penobscot Bay.
But, in February of 1964, the United States Coast Guard, over the objections of just about everyone in the private and political sector, did its best to destroy the fabric of the interwoven history of the island to the lighthouse when they destroyed the keeper’s house that rested peacefully in its quaint and picturesque setting. It was here, in this keeper’s house, where the keepers and their families once lived in harmony with nature and the small community of island residents. It was here, while facing many obstacles that few of us could even imagine today, that some even died, as they provided, in one way or another, toward the safety and well-being of the mariner at sea. Those families could never have imagined that in future years the United States Coast Guard, which had been assigned by the Congress of the United States in 1939 the task of carrying on their proud tradition and heritage, would so cold-heartedly destroy what had been entrusted with them by the people of the United States.
That interwoven history between the small island community and the lighthouse goes back to when the light station was first established in 1839, something that became more evident as the poorly constructed station needed desperate help by the time that Nathan Philbrook became the lighthouse keeper in 1841, at a salary of $350 a year.
Philbrook wrote at the time that the house was poorly constructed and leaked everywhere and that the tower leaked in every direction. He wrote that “the whole tower was a rough and defective piece of work and that the lamp is half concealed by the door of the lantern, which should have been placed on the land side where no light is required.” The chimneys in the house smoked, and the mortar was crumbling. Although the government delivered to Philbrook six pounds of yellow paint, three pounds of black paint, ten pounds of red paint, and four ponds of putty, they provided no supplies of substance for repairs.
However, before long, a collective effort was made by both the keeper and the approximately thirty-five island residents of Eagle Island, at that time, whom were proud of “their” lighthouse and banded together to help the lighthouse keeper with repairs and prevent the tower from literally falling down, all while assisting him in as many ways as possible to make his life there as easy as possible. Fortunately money was eventually appropriated, and in 1857-1858 the entire station was torn down and rebuilt.
With the passing of time, Eagle Island Lighthouse became one of the finer family stations and numerous repairs and additions were made over the years. In the 1870s Eagle Island Lighthouse was provided a small three pound bell, which was used to signal passing ships and use in time of fog. Finally in 1897 a 4,200 pound fog bell arrived at the island and was mounted on a gallows-like structure.
On November 21, 1871 Ambrose P. Sweetland signed in as the new keeper at was then still known as Eagle Point Lighthouse. A number of years ago, lighthouse author and historian, Richard Clayton, who copied some of the more poignant entries written in the station’s log book during Sweetland’s tenure as the lighthouse keeper, shared them with us:
December 1, 1877 I have had a long spell of illness, but am better now. There has been nothing of importance transpired, only very bad stormy weather and winds from the south NE. Seas have been very heavy at times, but no damage has been done at this station.
December 25, 1877 This is Christmas Day, the anniversary of peace and good towards men, and how we should love and reverence the day, above all others.
May 19, 1879 I have nothing of note to report. I have been hurry all of the time cleaning, painting, white washing at dock on the premises building fence for marking, garden and such. Light keeps me up nearly all night as it requires a great deal of care and watching to keep a good light. I wish the Light House would go back to whale oil.
(In 1879, the lamps were refitted to burn kerosene, which was cheaper to buy than the whale oil and gave a better light.)
Mar 26, 1881 I went to Camden yesterday and returned today. Found things all right on my return. I left the station in charge of my older daughter.
July 2, 1881 We heard with profound sorrow and regret of the death of President Garfield today by assassination
Nov. 22, 1881 Ten years ago yesterday, Nov. 21, I took charge here as Keeper and I hope and think that I have given satisfaction and will say that all officers and men connected with the Light-House service visiting here have treated me with the upmost kindness and respect, never once to my recollection having spoken an unpleasant word to me or about me, for which I am truly grateful.
March 15, 1883 The Keeper, my father, is sick. Had a doctor here from Camden brought by the Revenue Cutter “Levi Woodbury.” The bay is full of floating ice, the wind first part was SW it is now NW blowing fresh pleasant and cold. Hope father will be about in a few days. (This would have been written by the oldest daughter, Mary.)
April 7, 1883 Father not any better.
April 18, 1883 The Keeper died today of heart disease. A beautiful warm day but one of sadness.
April 19, 1883 Cloudy and dreary. The Keeper’s remains were taken to Camden for interment today.
Apr 22 Another spring day has passed away. How lonely it is here alone, almost.
Apr 28 Received a letter from the Inspector requesting me to remain here until an appointed keeper arrives.
May 7 Nothing new has happened to record. Have looked every day for the arrival of keeper, John Ball.
May 10, Captain John Ball, the keeper, came this afternoon.
May 11, 1883 New light keeper commenced duty today.
May 14, 1883 The family of the deceased Light House Keeper moved furniture today.
By the time Captain John Ball arrived at Eagle Island, he was well suited for the position of lighthouse keeper, he had spent most of his life sailing on the high seas and was previously a keeper for a short time at the Heron Neck Lighthouse, where he was stationed with his wife, Amanda. Capt. Hall served as the keeper of Eagle Island Lighthouse until 1898 when he retired and the position of keeper was awarded to his son, Howard T. Ball. However, Capt. John Ball continued to live at the lighthouse station until his death in 1905 at the age of 92
Howard T. Ball’s first year as the keeper was one of epic proportions in United States history when the USS Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, which eventually plunged the United States into war against Spain. Although many men rushed to join the military, Howard decided that the glory of war was not for him and decided to stay on Eagle Island. Sadly, during his tenure as a light keeper at Eagle Island Lighthouse, two of his nine children, Agnes and Elmer, died as youngsters.
During a bitter winter day in January of 1913, with a harsh cold blowing wind and a wet slushy snow falling, Howard Ball left the island in his personal boat to render assistance to a fishing vessel that had been caught in the gale and needed help finding a safe harbor. The trip proved to be fateful. He returned to the lighthouse and almost immediately became ill with a severe chest cold. Within days, the severe chest cold developed into pneumonia, and like Ambrose P. Sweetland who had preceded his father as the keeper, on January 31, 1913, Howard Ball also died at the lighthouse.
Howard Ball’s wife Lucy followed government guidelines and took over the responsibilities of caring for the lighthouse for the next seven weeks until the new keeper, Edward Farren, arrived.
The assignment to Eagle Island Lighthouse was a promotion for Edward Farren, who had previously been a second assistant keeper at Petit Manan Lighthouse from 1898 to 1902 and then a first assistant keeper at Maine’s Manana Island Fog Signal Station from 1902 to 1913.
Stories from the time state that although Farren and his wife, Bertha, were well liked by the residents of Eagle Island, the Farrens did little fraternizing. After the Farrens left the island for another assignment, one lady was quoted as saying, “I seldom saw him. He seemed to be a very retiring person. Likewise, Mrs. Farren does not appear to have been interested in mingling with the other housewives.”
Another islander, in commenting about Farren, said that although he appeared to be a good man, he was not a boats-man. However, the inspector of the U.S. Lighthouse Service gave Farren high grades for maintaining the lighthouse above the required standards and awarded him the Lighthouse Service Efficiency Star.
Farren stayed at Eagle Island Lighthouse until 1919 when he received a choice assignment as keeper of Fort Point Lighthouse, a station on the mainland. Farren has the unique distinction of being perhaps one of the few, and perhaps the only Maine lighthouse keeper, to ever record an earthquake when he wrote about the event in the Fort Point Lighthouse log book on February 29, 1925[actually March 1]. He retired as a lighthouse keeper in 1929 and moved back to his hometown of Cherryfield, Maine. When Edward Farren died at the age of 92 in 1954, he was the towns oldest living resident.
In 1932 Eagle Island Lighthouse became the last light station in Maine to have a pyramid style fog building that was built to house the giant fog bell and the mechanism needed to operate it. Interestingly the structure was built almost at a time when technology was beginning to effect the elimination of this type of fog signal.
Steam heat came to Eagle Island Lighthouse in 1908 but, it was not until 1949 that the old outdoor privy was replaced by indoor plumbing. The old coal furnace was replaced by oil heat in 1932. However, the lighthouse had to wait well into the 1950s for electricity when a submarine cable was installed to the island, which in effect led to the end of the era of lighthouse keepers and the eventually demise of the station.
During all this time, the lighthouse keepers lived, for the most part, in harmony with the island residents and in accord with the nature of the island where strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and cranberries grow profusely. Unlike a large number of islands in Maine, Eagle Island has a number of beautiful sandy beaches and fresh water springs for the keepers to enjoy and use. Many of the keepers also grew and raised much of what they consumed.
On April 6, 1923, Eagle Island Lighthouse keeper Charles W. Allen became the first person in the history of the island and the lighthouse to listen to a concert over the radio. In writing about how the radio changed their lives, Allen wrote in 1926 that he and his family “went to church by radio.” Allen was also the first lighthouse keeper on the island to ever witness the landing of a plane on the island and the first of the Eagle Island Lighthouse keepers to receive Christmas presents for his family dropped from the air by the Flying Santa. Interestingly, Charles W. Allen’s wife, Minnie, was the sister to Connie Scovill Small, who was married to veteran lighthouse keeper Elson Small. Connie Small was instrumental in saving lighthouse history in her best selling book, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife and many of her photos of lighthouse life can be found in the book, Lighthouses of the Sunrise County. (Scovill is sometimes spelled Scoville)
It is obvious from the many recorded memories that the keepers and their families enjoyed life on the island. Many of those memories were told in the book, A Family Island in Penobscot Bay by John G. Enk, which was based largely on the recollections of Capt. Erland Quinn. Such was the case of Frank E. Bracey who became the keeper at Eagle Island Lighthouse in 1931. Bracey came to the lighthouse with lots of experience having been stationed on the Portland Lightship and Seguin Island Lighthouse.
Eck reported that Bracey was highly regarded by the people of Eagle Island and was active in island affairs, such as serving as the local school agent. His extensive career knowledge gained him the nickname among the locals as “Mr. Fixit.”
Even after Frank E. Bracey, Jr., the last of the old United States Lighthouse Service keepers, left the island upon his retirement in February of 1945, the oncoming chain of Coast Guard keepers took a special degree of pride at this lighthouses, which was not something that was always accorded by the Coast Guard’s military manner at many other stations of the time. But, Eagle Island was special, if not magical.
An example of this came from Ralph K. Banks, who was a Coast Guard keeper at Eagle Island Lighthouse from 1949 to 1952. He wrote, “On Eagle Island, for the first time in my life, I found real friends and neighbors. There are no words to express how I enjoyed my relations with the people of Eagle Island. I can only express my feelings toward this island as the best place I have ever lived in my life. My wife and children agree with me on that.”
Edmond Sedgwick, who was also a Coast Guard keeper at Brown’s Head Lighthouse on Vinalhaven, Maine, came to Eagle Island Lighthouse with his wife Jeanette “Jean” in 1952 to replace Ralph Banks. Sedgwick was a career Coastguardsman who joined the Coast Guard in 1935 and first served onboard the USCGC Roger B. Taney. In 1937 he took part in the search for famous pilot Amelia Earhardt whose plane had disappeared on the Pacific leg of her attempted flight around the world.
In 1996 Edmond Sedgwick’s wife recalled life on Eagle Island, “In the winter time there was just the lighthouse keeper and a farm family. It was a rare experience. Serene. The type of life people crave and can’t have. A mail boat came once a week, more often during the summer. There was no electricity and the lighthouse was powered by oil lamps.” During his Coast Guard career Sedgwick traveled all over the world but he didn’t sit around and tell yarns like other Coasties. However, he was always excited to tell of visiting the gravesite in Samoa of noted author Robert Louis Stevenson of the famed family of Scottish lighthouse engineers. The Sedgwicks loved Eagle Island so much that for many years they returned to the island and spent many happy summers there where they were hosted by Erland Quinn and his wife Edith, whose father, Howard Ball, and grandfather, John Ball, were former keepers of Eagle Island Lighthouse and whose property adjoined the lighthouse property.
However, life on the island was not without its hardships, sacrifices, and even tragedy; such as when two of the children of lighthouse keeper Howard Ball died at different times from illness and later, even Howard Ball himself, lost his life as a result of his efforts in assisting a mariner at sea. In June of 1922, the young son of keeper Thomas W. Allen died after undergoing surgery on the mainland. Allen pasted his son’s obituary in the Eagle Island Lighthouse log book and wrote below it, “A month full of sorrow for us all.”
The keepers and their families of Eagle Island Lighthouse may have lived lives that, just like any other people everywhere live, but, unlike other people, they did it as a family unit in the service of their country and for the safety of those at sea. Eagle Island Lighthouse was a good family station and will always be known as such through the pages of time.
A Battle Well Fought
The beginning of the end of the Eagle Island Lighthouse Station came in 1959 when the lighthouse was automated and its last Coast Guard keeper, Wayne McGraw, who had been assigned to the station in 1957. was ordered to move out to make way for automation.
Although many of Maine’s lighthouses had previously been offered up to new owners in programs that left the entire light station intact such as at Winter Harbor Lighthouse, Blue Hill Bay Lighthouse, Curtis Island Lighthouse, and Tenants Harbor Lighthouse, such was not the case at Eagle Island Lighthouse. The keeper’s house was put up for bid to the highest bidder with the stipulation that the house be moved from the site. But other than the few people who owned property on the island and knew about it, you would have been hard pressed to find that announcement and it can legitimately be questioned whether any sincere effort was made by the Coast Guard or any other government agency to advertise the availability of the structures. Also, moving the house on this remote island would have been most difficult, cost prohibitive, and outside the scope of common sense, considering that the only place and way to move it was up a steep hill.
Since, for some unknown reason, the government obviously had no interest in preserving the keeper’s house, Erland Quinn, whose family owned the rest of the island since 1844, suggested to the government, since they wanted to keep people out of the lighthouse, that they simply place a fence around the tower and then turn the keeper’s house over to the island residents so that it could be saved. This is where it gets unbelievable. The government rejected the idea of saving the house and issued a statement of their intent to destroy it, rather than let anyone else preserve it. Guided by precedent, Quinn even offered to buy the property from the government to reconnect it to his adjoining property so that the station could be preserved. But the government also rejected that offer. Quinn was shocked, especially since that is exactly what the government had allowed at Monhegan Lighthouse. In referring to Monhegan Island Lighthouse, Quinn said they must have had more pull with the government than he did.
The late Cliff Shattuck, a noted Maine lighthouse historian, later wrote, “Protests arose from every quarter. A letter even appeared in the Washington Post written by Michael W Straus, who was the former Commissioner of the United States Bureau of Reclamation and former Assistant Secretary of the Department of the Interior, decrying the decision. However, Senators, Congressmen, the Governor, representatives of the Coast Guard, each expressed “regret” over the situation, with each being conveniently “out to lunch” when approached for an assist in the preservation of the station.”
The Unjustifiable Destruction
The orders then came from Boston to destroy the keeper’s house. The Coast Guard issued a statement that stated they would salvage as much as possible before razing the house. But nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact the government had apparently already decided, in spite of what they said, that nothing would be allowed to be salvaged or saved by the locals as an historical artifact.
In mid February of 1964 crews from the USCG cutters, Laurel, Snohomish and the Swivel went to the island on a mission of destruction. They apparently thought no one would be around to witness the destruction. What they didn’t know, is that there were still a few year around residents living on the island. Among many others things, but referring specifically to the Coast Guard’s previous destruction of Avery Rock Lighthouse in 1947, the burning of the keeper’s house of Nash Island Lighthouse, also in 1947, the nearly unpublicized destruction of the keeper’s house at remote Pond Island Lighthouse, and the destruction of the damaged the keeper’s house at Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse, Shattuck later wrote, “The Coast Guard for all their caring and being “the life-savers” have little time for historic values. They were all too eager to destroy what rightfully should have been preserved. The Coast Guard has destroyed more history, than the average American can begin to realize since the care of lighthouses was entrusted to them in 1939. Here at Eagle Island, they just got caught at it.”
Down East, ‘The Magazine of Maine,’ probably gave the event the best coverage when they reported in their May, 1964 edition: “Windows and doors were ripped from the former lightkeepers home and from a nearby barn on the northerly end of the island; glass panels and frames were splintered with mauls, and the debris was tossed in a pile. In a new bathroom, installed in 1958, the sledge hammers served to demolish the bathtub. Radiators and copper tubing, connecting the furnace, were torn out and pitched from the windows. The ‘service room’ built up with brick to connect with the stone light tower, was ripped apart, leaving an unsightly rubble at the base of the tower.”
They went on to report, “The government bonfire, which completed the razing included almost all ‘salvageable material.’ Even 12-pane outside windows and combinations doors stored in the barn were reduced to splinters with sledge hammers, as was the transom over the door of the small brick oil-house, still standing.”
One island on-looker who watched in disbelief, with tears in her eyes, said that no one was allowed to salvage anything of value. In fact they were in total shock that the Coast Guard was actually doing this at all. How could their own government and the Coast Guard, whom they all respected so much, do something so destructive?
In the mean time, Erland Quinn, who had fought long and hard to try and save the keeper’s house, received word on the mainland that the destruction had begun. Quinn was able to get to the island to witness first hand what he thought would never happen. Down East magazine reported, “There he saw for himself how fine old doors and windows were being ‘salvaged’ with pulverizing sledge hammers, their remains piled high in readiness for the government bonfire.” They went to report that as he left the island for the mainland, it was the first time in Quinn’s 63 years, “that he felt too heartsick to look back, where the familiar landmarks had been wantonly reduced to nothingness.”
When former Eagle Island Coast Guard lighthouse keeper Ralph Banks, who served there from 1949 to 1952, made a return visit to the island he was literally shocked at what he saw. He wrote, “The house we had loved so well had been torn down, all of the outbuildings were gone.” The only thing left was the light tower and the old fog bell tower and the floor of the bell tower was rotted through. “It didn’t seem possible that this was the same bell tower where I had spent many a night operating it by hand when the fog signal mechanism had failed.”
Obviously shaken and disturbed by what he saw, and probably disappointed that the Coast Guard that he once served in so proudly could have done this, Banks went on to write, “It is hard to believe that this was the same light station that I had received a letter of commendation for as the best looking lighthouse from Maine to Texas.”
The loss of the 4,200 Pound Bell
Considering the disturbing accounts of the inexcusable destruction of the keeper’s house and out buildings of the Eagle Island Light Station, it is not surprising that the 4,200 fog bell, cast in 1897 by the Blake Bell Company of Boston, and used at the station for so many years, also nearly met the same fate as the rest of the station.
There are two separate accounts about the last days the fog bell on Eagle Island. The reportedly official account states that shortly after the crew of the USCG Cutter Snohomish had partaken in the destruction of the keeper’s house they were given the assignment of removing the fog bell from the island for future display on the mainland. Somehow or another, the men lost control of the heavy bell and it tumbled down the eighty-foot embankment and disappeared into the waters of Penobscot Bay.
The other version reported in various places, was that the Coast Guard crew chopped the 10-inch by 12-inch timber which supported the bell and reportedly jettisoned the bell to “let it fall clanging and banging eighty feet down over a rocky cliff into the ocean.”
Which ever version you choose to believe, what lighthouse historian Cliff Shattuck later wrote could easily be applied to either version. “Attempts to retrieve the bell were given up almost at once and termed hopeless by ‘concerned’ Coast Guard officials. Incredible as it may seem, a service that can discover a floundering vessel or a bobbing life raft in a thousand square miles of ocean during a Search and Rescue mission, could not locate an object measuring five feet in diameter in a radius of a hundred square feet, after a dozen men had seen almost the precise spot where it went under.”
Regardless, the bell was left at the bottom of the bay presumably to become of keepsake of Davy Jones. But, wait, there’s more to the story. What the Coast Guard couldn’t or wouldn’t recover, a local lobsterman did.
The Fog Bell Recovery
Within weeks of what everyone thought was the demise of the fog bell, it was located by Walter Shepard, a local lobsterman, who was also the caretaker for the nearby Great Spruce Head Island, which had been purchased in 1912 by Chicago architect James Porter and then owned by his son, John E. Porter.
In September of 1964, John E. Porter, in a letter to Down East, that was published in their October edition of that same year, he wrote about the rescue of the fog bell that Shepard retrieved from the ocean floor and how he transported it, slung beneath a 38-foot lobster boat two miles across the bay. Through a series of maneuvers he was able to secure a chain to the bell at low tide and after he had taken all the slack from the chain, he waited for the tide to raise his boat and lift the bell off the bottom. The problem was to keep the bell balanced as he travelled across open water, so that it would not slip out of the chain sling, and fall into deeper water and be lost again, this time, perhaps forever. “With his load precariously balanced beneath his boat, Shepard took two hours to go from Eagle Island to Great Spruce Head Island. Once there he moored the boat and waited for high tide before dropping his load as far up the beach as possible.”
From there, with the help of others, two tractors, a sled, and a lot of hard work, the 4,200 pound fog bell was put on up on display where it remains to this day on Maine’s Great Spruce Head Island. Interestingly, the Coast Guard never asked for the bell to be returned to them. At this point, after all the wonton destruction they did at Eagle Island, they probably felt it was best to remain silent.
In spite of the negative publicity that surrounded the destruction by the Coast Guard of the keeper’s house at Eagle Island Lighthouse, the Coast Guard’s hierarchy thought that as time wore on, people would forget. In 1970 the Coast Guard allowed the U.S. Army’s Green Berets, in a training exercise, to blow up the beautiful keeper’s house at Two Bush Island Lighthouse. Twelve years later the Coast Guard, in allowing a military training exercise, did it again when they blew up the beautiful keeper’s house at Moose Peak Lighthouse.
However, the end of deliberate destruction of lighthouse property came to end after a fire damaged Maine’s Heron Neck Lighthouse. Rather than repair the damage, the Coast Guard announced that they intended to tear down the keeper’s house. But the public had enough. The outcry against the planned destruction was loud and clear and even gained national television media attention, especially when a private individual offered to pay for the restoration and the Coast Guard turned him down flat. That story led to the first issue of Lighthouse Digest being published in May of 1992.
But more importantly, it was the Island Institute of Rockland, Maine that stepped forward and negotiated a deal to save the keeper’s house at Heron Neck Lighthouse. That deal led to a plan, developed by Peter Ralston, vice president of Island Institute, to create the Maine Lights Program that literally saved nearly 30 of Maine’s lighthouses and turn over, what was left of some of them, to nonprofits and other government entities. For all practical purposes, the Maine Lights Program, in effect, did save some of the lighthouse keeper’s houses from being destroyed.
Although the keeper’s house at Eagle Island Lighthouse had been destroyed years earlier, the Maine Lights Program, in all probability, saved the Eagle Island Lighthouse tower and its remaining fog signal building from being lost to either from neglect or being torn down. Today, what is left of the Eagle Island Lighthouse is owned by the Eagle Light Caretakers who are saving it for future generations.
Additionally, the Maine Lights Program was the catalyst for the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act that allows for nonprofits and other government agencies to apply for ownership of historic lighthouses, rather than probably having a significant number of them being destroyed. Although the program has some faults, for the most, part it is working.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2012 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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