This past June 26th, in a ceremony by Lighthouse Digest and the Maine Lighthouse Museum, a small group of dedicated citizens, in honor of the 10th Anniversary of the Maine Lighthouse Museum, gathered at the gravesite of lighthouse keepers Isaac H. Grant and Harris S. Grant, and assistant lighthouse keeper Abbie Burgess Grant, with the placement of appropriate historical veteran’s markers of the United States Lighthouse Service at their appropriate tombstones.
In 1853, Captain Samuel Burgess was appointed keeper of the Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, a rocky outpost that lies six miles offshore from Matinicus Island. Matinicus Rock is one of the more desolate lighthouse stations because it is 15 miles to the nearest landfall, and 26 miles from the nearest significant human habitation of the City of Rockland. Samuel Burgess went to live out there with his wife Thankful, son Benjy, and four daughters: Esther, Lydia, Mahala, and Abbie, who was the oldest of the girls. Having lived in nearby Rockland, the move to the island presented a major change in their lives.
Since Abbie’s brother Benjamin was frequently off on fishing trips, it fell to Abbie to learn how to tend and operate the lights. Soon she became proficient enough to act as her father’s assistant keeper.
Once a month, Captain Burgess had to go to Matinicus Island for supplies: medicine for his sick wife, food for the family, consumable stores for the lights, and feed for the chickens, an important part of their diet. Captain Burgess was comfortable leaving Abbie behind to handle the lights during the night or two while he was gone. She was a big strong girl, and as capable as any man at filling the lamps, trimming the wicks, and cleaning the lenses of the lights in the two separate towers. And she didn’t mind the responsibility.
In 1856, the first of two of the largest storms of the 19th century hit Matinicus Rock Light. About January 19, Captain Burgess had to make a trip for supplies. Soon after he set sail in the small boat, the wind picked up. With each passing hour, it gained force, and soon huge waves, the tallest that Abbie had seen in her two years at Matinicus Light, were thundering against the towers and buildings. The days stretched into a week and still the storm raged – hurricane-force winds drove sleet, rain, and snow before them. For Abbie, the one long work week became two ... three ... then four weeks. And every day of that terrible month, the wind and waves battered the wooden structures without relief. In addition to attending to her three sisters and her sick mother, Abbie made the long climb up the steep tower stairs to light the lights. At one point, with little food left, Abbie was forced to move her family into the tower as water ran through the keeper’s house.
After the storm subsided and Abbie’s father was able to return, word of Abbie’s heroic actions spread and were eventually picked up and reported by newspapers and magazines of the day.
Again in 1857, Samuel Burgess was away for three weeks during a stormy period and was unable to return to the island. This time the family’s food supply was down to one egg and one cup of corn meal by the time he returned. Abbie had again kept the family safe.
Once the newspapers and magazines learned of yet another one of Abbie’s heroic efforts, her fame grew even more, and she soon became a teenage lighthouse heroine, and accounts of her bravery spread far and wide.
In 1861, because of the politics of the day, Abbie’s father lost his job as the lighthouse keeper and he was replaced by John Grant. Abbie convinced her father and the new keeper to allow her to stay on the island and train the new keeper and his son, Isaac, on how to care for the lights. At that same time, Isaac H. Grant was appointed as the assistant keeper of Matinicus Rock.
Soon a romance blossomed between Abbie and Isaac, and the two fell in love and were married. They were able to convince the government to hire Abbie as the 2nd assistant keeper of Matinicus Rock. The couple had four children born to them while at Matinicus Rock.
In 1875, Isaac Grant was able to secure a promotion and transfer for himself and Abbie. He was appointed the head keeper and Abbie was appointed assistant keeper at Whitehead Lighthouse on an island at the southern entrance to Penobscot Bay.
Life was much different on Whitehead Island than it had been at Matinicus Rock. In many ways it was much better, but in other ways it was just as hard.
In 1890, because of Abbie’s declining health, Isaac and Abbie resigned from the Lighthouse Service and moved to Marlborough, Massachusetts where they moved in with Abbie’s sister and her husband, and eventually they bought a house of their own in that town. However, living away from the sea did not set well with Abbie and they returned to Maine and settled in South Portland. Isaac Grant then secured the position of the keeper of the U.S. Lighthouse Service Lamp Shop in South Portland.
However, by the time the family moved to South Portland, Abbie was very ill and she passed away on June 16, 1892 at the age of 53.
In 1898, Abbie and Isaac’s son, Harris S. Grant, followed in his parents’ lighthouse keeping footsteps and secured the position of assistant lighthouse keeper at Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland, and in 1901 he was promoted to head keeper. He passed away in 1916 and is buried in the family plot at Spruce Head Cemetery.
In one of Abbie’s final letters written from Whitehead Lighthouse to a friend, she wrote. “I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more . . . I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body! If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon.”
Although she never got a tombstone in the shape of a lighthouse, in 1945, a half a century later, Edward Rowe Snow, one of New England’s most notable historians and prolific author who for many years was also the Flying Santa to the Lighthouse keepers, along with the poet Wilbert Snow, who had coincidently been born on Whitehead Island, and went on to become the 75th Governor of Connecticut, placed a memorial lighthouse model at her gravesite.
Over the years a number of popular books have been written about Abbie. They are The Original Biography of Abbie Burgess, Keep the Lights Burning Abbie, and The Stormy Adventures of Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Keeper.
A great honor was given to Abbie Burgess when, on July 31, 1998, the United States Coast Guard officially commissioned a 175-foot Keeper Class Buoy Tender named the Abbie Burgess (WLM 553), which is home-ported in Maine.
For many years the tombstones and gravesites of veterans of all military branches of the United States of America were honored by historical markers indicating their service to our country. However, until recently those who served under the government branches known as the United States Lighthouse Establishment later known as the United States Lighthouse Service, and the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses were never awarded this honor. This has now changed.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2015 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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