Jack the Donkey began his lighthouse service at Maine’s Whitehead Light Station in 1885, ten years after Isaac and Abbie Burgess Grant moved from Matinicus Rock Light in 1875 to assume the positions of keeper and assistant keeper at Whitehead Light Station. Whitehead Lighthouse, like Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, was for several years a fog whistle station, but unlike Matinicus, there would only be Isaac and Abbie to tend the light and feed the coal-fired steam whistle boilers. The story of Jack the Donkey began much earlier before the Grants received their Lighthouse Service appointments to positions at Whitehead.
In 1869 the first of two steam powered fog whistles, each with its own locomotive style steam boiler, had been installed at Whitehead to replace a Jones Patent fog bell. One was to operate during fog with the other on standby. Each boiler was housed in a separate building, one of wooden construction and the second of brick, and with a large steam whistle protruding on top of each.
Hezekiah Long and his daughter Abbie were keeper and assistant keeper of Whitehead Lighthouse at this time. Whereas they previously needed only to attend to the fog bell weight for the bell clockwork to sound two strikes each minute during fog, for this new fog signal they now had to operate steam boilers. Regulations required that the boiler must be at all times attended when operating. This meant hauling and shoveling coal, shoveling ash, attending to the boiler water supply, keeping close watch on fires and draft of an often obstinate boiler when it was operating, and, as needed, attending to steam and water leaks, and all this while that 10-inch steam powered fog whistle sounded one long eight-second ear piercing, bone rattling blast each and every minute from its elevated location above the roof. The whistle was so that loud complaints often came forth from people living on the mainland a mile or more distant from Whitehead, claiming that their cows went dry and the chickens wouldn’t lay when that whistle was sounding. At times this whistle could be heard over12 miles distant.
The fog whistle steam boiler consumed 140 to 150 pounds of anthracite coal each hour to produce the needed steam. In subsequent years this fog signal operation averaged 1920 hours (80 days) per year, the highest average for New England fog signal stations. In one year it operated over 2400 hours. To meet the anticipated demand for coal, the Lighthouse Service constructed a granite wharf with a landing stage adjacent to the boathouse located at a cove some distance from the lighthouse. A large shed was constructed nearby on the shore to store 300 tons of coal, a much more than ample supply for Whitehead steam demand. It was intended that this coal might be used in an emergency to fuel a lighthouse tender or meet unanticipated needs at other light stations.
The Lighthouse Service delivered coal to the coal shed, but it was left to keeper Long to carry the coal as needed to fill the coal bunkers in his two steam whistle boiler houses. This was about a quarter mile journey over what somewhat resembled a road. The road was little more than a wide up-hill path through the woods, across tree roots and ledges, and passing through a small swamp in the middle of the island. In the winter much of the road was glare ice where water running down the slope would freeze.
In recognition of the demand for hauling this coal, the Lighthouse Service graciously added five dollars a month to the keeper’s pay, and provided a brand new wheelbarrow (one with a bare metal wheel). Steam whistle operation would consumed, in 24 hours, the equivalent of 22 one-half mile round trips to the coal shed and back, a total distance of 11 miles pushing that wheel barrow. The service thoughtfully provided two new coal shovels so one would not have to take a shovel along to load the wheelbarrow on the many coal-hauling round trips.
Keeper Long had earlier served with the 20th Maine Regiment starting as a private and later, when he received a medical discharge, at the rank of lieutenant. This coal-hauling task was a challenge for anyone but much more so for Long who was being partially disabled with chronic and degenerative back problems from his prior military service.
Conveniently for Long, at the west end of the island was a farm that was owned and operated by Horace Norton. Norton was always ready and willing to help the light keepers and quite willing to be hired by Long to maintain a sufficient supply of coal in the whistle house coal bunkers. He also hauled other supplies and worked for Long to improve and maintain the road from the landing to the light station.
Norton hauled numerous loads of coal for Keeper Long for several years using his farm wagon and his horse nicknamed Drom, short for Dromedary. In time, for reasons of his worsening disability the Longs resigned from the lighthouse duty in 1875. Isaac Grant replaced Long and Abbie replaced Abbie Long. Norton continued hauling coal for Grant for ten years. However, with concerns for the need to provide a formal education of his four children, Norton liquidated his farm and moved to the mainland in 1885. To meet the continual need for hauling fog signal coal, keeper Grant acquired a cart from the mainland and a donkey to pull it. Thus it came about that Horace Norton was replaced by a donkey, a donkey named Jack.
Jack the donkey moved in with the family cow. The cow was sheltered in a structure that Grant and Norton had previously erected for the cow at the east side of the light tower. Should Jack desire privacy away from that cow, there was more than ample room within the 100-ft long rain-shed. During his free time when not occupied with light station work and not otherwise roaming around the lighthouse reservation, and on the occasions when not being watched, Jack often wandered off to explore the woods and fields of this ninety-acre island. No doubt he visited the crew at the life-saving station located at the island’s west end.
Being an overly curious sort with a tendency to wander, Jack would have had to be escorted when hauling coal. Otherwise, Jack, with wagon and coal in tow, would likely have diverted to places on the island more interesting to him than the intended destination at the whistle house. But then, one of the Grant children could often supervise Jack in the conduct of this duty.
In 1890, because of Abbie Burgess Grant’s progressive illness, the Grants resigned and left Whitehead, leaving Jack behind with the new keeper Frank Jellison. Jack was employed hauling the Grant family household items to the wharf, including Abbie’s loom; likewise he also transported the Jellison family property from the wharf to the lighthouse. In those days, about all the government provided to the keepers were a lamp or two and the kitchen stove. Everything else for the household was the property of the keeper.
Whitehead would no longer remain a one-family station. The Light-House Board was of the belief that women could not do complicated work demanded by a fog signal station. Abbie Long and Abbie Grant would no doubt take issue with this.
A new two-family duplex dwelling was built in 1891. Two years later the position of 2nd assistant keeper was added, creating a challenging living arrangement for three families in the two-family house. A storage shed became home for the 2nd assistant until a second single family dwelling was built in 1899 to accommodate at last this need for additional housing. Jack had a hand (or hoofs) in transporting some of the items needed for this light station building boom.
Whitehead Light had many visitors. Sunday visits by people from the mainland were common occurrences, attracted not only by the lighthouse but also the life-saving station, where on some occasions, an unscheduled beach apparatus drill might be performed for their benefit. At the mainland lights, visitors arrived in wagon loads, as they do now in bus loads. At this island station the large stone wharf offered easy landing for visitors, so they often arrived in multiple boat loads.
Jack the donkey enjoyed all the special attention accorded to him by the numerous light station guests of all ages, and understandably became a popular attraction at the lighthouse. And when visitors were being entertained, there was less hauling work required of him other than the far more enjoyable wagon rides for the children. For his hospitality and other qualities, Jack received publicity in the local newspaper.
“Visitors at White Head never fail to be interested in the cunning little beast of burden attached to the Light House Establishment -- a sturdy donkey about three or four feet high, fat as butter and gentle as a child. Jack is a picturesque feature of the landscape, as he wanders about over the island. And he is a very useful animal. He hauls all he coal from the landing to the station, taking a ton at about three loads, and lots of other stuff.
He is very kind to the children, who like to play with him. But he draws the line when they undertake to ride him. He has never been trained to saddle, as most donkeys are, and doesn’t propose to be either. There are some pretty smart boys in the neighborhood, but none of them have succeeded in riding Jack to any extent.
He has been on the island about ten years, and it is not known exactly how old he is. Long connection with government employment has had the usual effect -- he is adept at getting rid of work. When there is anything for him to do, it is necessary to keep him in hand till the work is done; otherwise he is sure to be missing.
Recently, when the new boiler for the fog-signal station came, there was considerable business for him. Of course, he could not haul the great boiler, but there were innumerable fittings and small matters that went with it that were just in his line. He hauled a load or two, and then, dinner time having arrived, he was turned out. He instantly disappeared, and, though a careful search of the island was made, he was not found for several days--after the time his service was no longer needed, all the stuff having been hauled.
Some observers actually think he sometimes knows by the appearance of things when there is work ahead, for he is always in evidence when not wanted and is generally hidden when his services are most needed. Still he has done and is doing a good deal of work. He hauled all the bricks for the new boiler house, and easily pulls a load that looks very large alongside of himself.”
(Rockland Opinion, Feb.13, 1897)
Keeper Frank Jellison was the person most responsible for purchasing the needed school supplies and converting to a school the former storage building, when no longer needed to house the 2nd assistant keeper. This became a one-room school for the children on Whitehead and from neighboring islands. Previously, school was held wherever space was available. Isaac Grant taught school in the keeper’s dwelling except for days when the lighthouse inspector was expected and Isaac would then have to look busy attending to lighthouse matters.
Jack contributed to the new school by hauling from the landing the school desks, the large slate blackboard, and other needed school supplies. As many as 30 children attended the school but not all at the same time. School sessions varied throughout the year and were not conducted continuously as is practice today.
Occasionally Jack disrupted the class when one of the older boys opened the door and invited him in. Being a polite donkey, he was obliged to accept the invitation, but was far less obliging and demonstrated inherent donkey stubbornness when the teacher insisted that he leave. Otherwise, Jack would wait outside, often looking through the window while anticipating attention from the children when the class ended.
Though Jack the Donkey was more inclined to a life of leisure, he did earn his keep during his government service for having hauled nearly 3000 tons of coal to fuel the steam whistle boilers, the wood needed to start the coal fires, and many other supplies and equipment required to efficiently operate this station.
Jack’s notable government service, his valued contribution to the operation of White Head Light Station, eventually came to an end and this was so noted in the local newspaper.
“Jack, the White Head donkey, died last Friday. He was brought to the island about eighteen years ago by Capt. Isaac Grant, of the White Head Light Station. No one knows his exact age but in looks he had not changed any since he first came here. He was liked by all the visitors who came to White Head.”
(Rockland Opinion, Feb. 29, 1904).
Life at the light station had to go on and the steam whistle must always continue to sound during the many periods of fog. What is known, however, and as would happen with light keepers years later with the introduction of ambient light sensors, fog detectors and solar power at island stations, this significant position once held by Jack the Donkey was eliminated by automation. In this instance, this automation was a Model A Ford truck brought to the island to haul the fog signal coal until 1933 when the whistles were replaced by diaphragm air horns having diesel fueled air compressors.
With the Light House Establishment and later the Lighthouse Service, one of the very few things for which they did not keep records, were positions such as Jack’s, so his immediate replacement is not known. Jack’s service time in number of years at this lighthouse was exceeded by that of only one Whitehead keeper. For Jack, no offer came forth for transfer to a mainland light station, especially one that did not having a steam whistle, where the only coal to haul would be for household fuel.
For the nineteen years of Jack’s faithful service, one can only wonder how many vessels under sail and how many passenger ships powered by steam passed safely by Whitehead in thick fog guided by the sound of the steam whistle. Ships would have wrecked and lives might have been lost if not for the work of the keepers who kept that steam whistle sounding and if not for the many wagon loads of coal to fuel the fog signal boilers that were hauled by Jack the Donkey.
Editor’s Note: The author has strong ties to Whitehead Island and the families who have lived there. He currently resides in a home that was built by lighthouse keeper Isaac Grant on land that was purchased from lighthouse keeper Horace Norton.
This story appeared in the
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