Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2014

Collecting Nautical Antiques

“Dog Watch” at Wood Island Light

By Jim Claflin


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We recently obtained a rare lot from Wood Island Light Station in Maine that I thought might be of interest. Included are a number of photos of the keeper’s dog “Sailor,” a newspaper article and Keeper Orcutt’s embroidered Lighthouse Service hat insignia.

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Wood Island lies off Old Orchard Beach near Biddeford Pool. The lighthouse, first ordered by President Thomas Jefferson, was built early in the nineteenth century to mark the south entrance to Wood Island Harbor.

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In 1873, Wood Island got its first fog signal, a 1,315-pound bell that sounded single and double blows, alternately, every 25 seconds. The striking machinery was housed in a pyramidal wooden tower. A new 1,200-pound bell was installed in 1890.

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Thomas Henry Orcutt, a veteran sea captain from Sedgwick, Maine, became keeper in 1886 and would serve until his death in 1905. Keeper Orcutt brought with him a two-month old puppy who he named “Sailor.” Described by some as a “mostly-black mongrel” and others as a black Scotch Collie marked with tan with a white spot on his breast, Sailor would go on to achieve national fame.

The July 29, 1929 Boston Sunday Globe described Keeper Orcutt’s devoted companion: “…Early in life, when but a two month old puppy, Sailor was brought to the island from Woodbury Bros’ Milk farm in Westbrook, Maine. He was not a sailor then, for his family were farmers….

But Sailor was not long in learning the ways of the sea. He took a deep interest in whatever his master did, and followed him around the light station wherever he went. He noticed, among other things, that his master often pulled a rope that made a bell ring.

The bell was a great heavy one, used to warn vessels in a fog, and to salute them in fair weather. It stood outside the lighthouse, a few feet above a platform, and the rope attached to its tongue came down so near the platform that Sailor could easily reach it.

One day Sailor thought he would have a try at ringing the bell. He seized the rope in his mouth and pulled. The bell rang clear and loud. Sailor was delighted. He wagged his bushy tail vigorously, and pulled again.

As years passed Sailor has kept ringing salutes to passing vessels and steamers. Indeed, he feels hurt if not permitted to give the customary salute to passing craft, while skippers whose course takes them often past Wood Island are accustomed to seeing Sailor tugging vigorously at the great bell tongue….

Sailor is his master’s constant companion, and delights in being made his messenger, especially at dinner time when he will come bounding from the kitchen to announce that the meal is ready. He will also carry letters, papers or small articles in his mouth.

He understands all that is said to him…. Sailor does not share the propensity of most sailors for roaming. He loves to stay near the lighthouse, and seldom goes away from Wood Island, though he might make trips to the mainland with his master. His chief aim in life is to see that everything goes well at the light, and that passing vessels are properly saluted….”

In 1894, the Lewiston (Maine) Journal reported: “The other day a tug whistled three times. The Captain (Keeper Orcutt) did not hear it, but the dog did. He ran to the door and tried to attract the Captain’s attention by howling. Failing to do this he ran away and then came a second time with no better result. Then he decided to attend to the matter himself, so he seized the rope, which hangs outside, between his teeth and began to ring the bell.”

Sailor continued the habit of vigorously ringing the bell for every passing vessel. Passengers aboard local excursion steamers were startled to see the dog’s amazing performances. Sailor’s photo appeared in numerous magazines and newspapers, including magazines as far away as London.

By July 1900, although passed the prime of his life, Keeper Orcutt noted that Sailor was still at the height of his vigor and in fine condition, weighing 60 pounds. Orcutt remarked, “Sailor and I are old comrades. Wood Island would indeed be a lonely place if I hadn’t the dog to keep me company. He is a bright, intelligent companion and is perfectly content to live the life of a lighthouse keeper away from all dog friends.”

Lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont, on his web site www.newenglandlighthouses.net notes that “Keeper Orcutt died after a brief illness in 1905 at the age of 73. His beloved Sailor had died in his arms just a few months earlier. Orcutt was “well known among the sea faring men and was well liked by all,” according to an obituary. His son-in-law, Levi Jeffers, filled in as keeper until a new one could be appointed.”

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2014 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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