The following story is taken mostly from the first hand memories of Alice Morris and her daughter, Mary Morris Dolliver, who wrote down these memories so that they could be saved for future generations. This is the first time these memories have ever been published.
In the fall of 1881, veteran lighthouse keeper James A. Morris was transferred from Maine’s Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse on Mark Island, where he had been stationed at since 1876, to the desolate, remote, and isolated Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse some twenty miles off the coast from Southwest Harbor, Maine.
James A. Morris was no stranger to Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse. He had previously been the 1st assistant keeper there from 1871 to 1876, but now he was returning as the head keeper to the lighthouse that sits on seven acres of barren rock at high tide. But, because of its location and the fact that it was a larger station, it also meant more money for keeper Morris.
He was accompanied to Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse by his wife Alice and their three young children: Augustus, age nine; Mary, age five; and Grace, who was three years old. It was not an ideal place to raise a family. Life at the lighthouse was hard and the work was never ending, but the Morris family did have the luxury of having a pump organ in the keeper’s house. In those days there was no motor launch, no telephone, no radio, and only ten days furlough every three months; mail only came once a month.
The lamp in the tower was fueled in those days by lard oil, which needed to be warm when poured into the lamp. This necessitated the constant presence on Alice Morris’s cook-stove of a large tank of oil to keep it hot. In November of 1881, Alice Morris was taken by others to the mainland to do some shopping, which was a rare treat. She wasn’t away from the lighthouse again until July of 1882.
As winter came on, James Morris’s health began to fail; consequently, more and more of his duties had to be taken on by his wife Alice. In February of 1882, James Morris suffered a paralytic shock and was more or less incapacitated after that. He was also weak mentally from the effect of the shock. As well as caring for and raising her children, Alice Morris now also had to take on her husband’s entire lighthouse keeping duties, including the spring painting.
Finally, in July of 1882, Alice Morris decided she had better take her husband ashore to consult a doctor. She wanted to make the trip with him so that she could be better informed as to what they should do about their future. However, it was a rule that two keepers had to remain at the lighthouse at all times, so Alice Morris made the dangerous but brave decision to take her husband and three small children in the lighthouse boat to the mainland. She left the assistants, who, at that time, were Thomas Milan and William Stanley, to care for the lighthouse.
She waited for a day when the sea was calm and the weather was pleasant. However, she did not know how to sail, which is what the keepers always did to get the mainland. So instead, she was forced to row the heavy, unwieldy boat for that long and tedious twenty miles, all the time knowing full well that if the wind changed direction it would be impossible for her to reach the mainland, and she and her family would have been blown out to sea and lost forever.
As the sun was beginning to set in Southwest Harbor, after approximately ten hours of hard rowing, an exhausted Alice Morris reach port; her hands were blistered, raw, and bleeding. She could hardly move her arms, and her back was aching. The family spent the night with relatives, and the next day, leaving the children with family members, she traveled to Bar Harbor to see a doctor, who immediately sent her to another doctor in the larger community of Ellsworth. He advised to take her husband to a hospital in Boston.
After being in Boston for three days, she got a telegram from the assistant keepers telling her that, since she was officially filling in for her husband as the head keeper, her services were required back at the lighthouse, and it was imperative that she return. So she left her husband in Boston and travelled the long distance back from Massachusetts to the far reaches of “Downeast’ Maine. She picked up her children from the relatives where she had left them and found someone to take her and the children back to the island lighthouse, where she assumed her husband’s role as the head keeper.
In August of 1882, keeper James Morris was able to return to Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse. Just how he got there is lost in the memories of time. Whether it was family members who went and got him from Boston, or if his wife made a return visit, will never be known, but his health had not improved. At the end of August, while at the lighthouse, James Morris suffered another stroke and he was not able to sit up.
This time, 1st assistant keeper Thomas Milan took keeper Morris to the mainland. He carried with him James Morris’ resignation letter to the government with a request to appoint a new head keeper as soon as possible so that Mrs. Morris and her children could leave the island.
Three days later, on September 13, 1882, while assistant keeper Milan was still on the mainland attending to errands and some personal time, keeper James A. Morris “closed his eyes forever to earthly things.” A few hours after the passing of James Morris, assistant keeper Milan left the mainland for the trip back to the lighthouse to give Mrs. Morris the news. He arrived late in the afternoon and the sea was running hard, making for a rough landing. Mrs. Morris quickly gathered the children and told them the news of their father’s passing. She informed them that she was going back to the mainland at once to bury their father, and because the sea was rough, it was too dangerous for them to accompany her; they would have to stay on the island by themselves with the other keeper. In the rough sea, the men had all they could do to get Mrs. Morris off the island for the trip to attend the funeral.
After the funeral, the weather did not improve and it was a full two weeks before Mrs. Morris was able to return to Mt. Desert Island to retrieve her children and pack up the family’s furnishings and other belongings. As she and the children left Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse for the last time, she celebrated her 29th birthday and as night was falling and the boat departed the island. At 29 years old, she was a widow with three children and no means of support.
In reporting the passing of James A. Morris, the local newspaper made no mention of the hard work that Alice Morris had been doing filling in for husband’s duties. They wrote, “the Lighthouse Service lost one of its most faithful and efficient keepers.” Sadly, Lighthouse Digest has never been able to locate any photograph of James A. Morris or his wife Alice. Perhaps none exist, or perhaps they are still hidden away in some dusty trunk in an attic, or an old family Bible somewhere, just waiting to be rediscovered.
1st assistant Thomas R. Milan was appointed as the replacement for James A. Morris as the principle head keeper, he continued in that position at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse for the next 20 years.
Eventually Alice Morris got remarried to a man named Henry Clay Moore and she had three children with him. Two of her sons both died at the age of 19; Augustus in 1892 and Royden in 1906. When her second husband Henry Moore died, she was left a widow for a 2nd time. Although Alice Morris lived to be 87 years old, she was bedridden for the last ten years of her life. In her obituary it was written, “Although practically helpless for so many years, Alice was a wide reader and interested in the affairs of the times and deeply interested in her family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.” In spite of all the hardships she endured while being at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse, for the rest of her life, Alice Morris always had a strong desire to return to the “Rock,” but that the opportunity never arose.
Facts of Interest: Allice Gilley Morris Moore’s great uncle was William Gilley, who, from 1828 to 1849, was the first keeper of Baker Island Lighthouse in Maine’s Cranberry Islands. Also, two of her cousins were lighthouse keepers; William L. Gilley, who served at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse in 1867, and Howard M. Gilley, who served at Mt. Desert Rock Island Lighthouse from 1883 to 1887, at Deer Island Thorofare Light from 1887 to 1896, and at Curtis Island Lighthouse from 1896 to 1909.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2017 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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