In the fall of 1875, Civil War veteran Ambrose Wasgatt was pretty proud of his appointment to become the first lighthouse keeper of the newly completed Egg Rock Lighthouse in Maine’s Frenchman Bay.
A native of Bar Harbor, Maine, Ambrose Wasgatt was familiar with the sea, and having been wounded twice while serving with the Union forces, his knowledge and duty were the reasons for his appointment at this rocky outpost that had been built with the newest and best materials of the time.
But shortly after taking on the position as keeper, he wondered if it had been the biggest mistake of his lifetime. Because certain things were not yet fully completed at the new lighthouse, he had decided to wait a number of months before moving his wife and family to the light station, which he finally did in March of 1876, just a few weeks before a violent storm struck the island.
Hardly had the family moved their furniture to the island and settled into life at the lighthouse when, on March 21, 1876, a severe storm struck the area. Although it is unknown what the wind speed was during this ferocious gale, the family huddled for their lives in the new house as they watched the gale-force wind sweep water up and over the island and carry away the fuel shed.
As the storm intensified in strength, it blew out the windows on the sea-side of the keeper’s house and water began flooding into the structure. The family fled up into the tower to take refuge as they watched water coming in behind and underneath them with each ocean swell. With no windows in the tower, they could only speculate what was going on outside as they prayed that the entire structure would not be washed away to sea with them inside.
When the storm finally subsided and they were able to venture back to the main floor they saw that their furnishings had been heavily damaged by the water; their personal belongings were water-soaked, and most of their food supplies had destroyed. As they ventured outside, they saw the island covered with ocean debris. Amazingly, the fog bell tower was still standing, although it had been moved 30 feet.
Although none were as bad as the storm of March 21, 1876, over the next ten years the Wasgatt family experienced many other storms at Egg Rock Lighthouse that also brought fear and discomfort to the family.
Food Supply Gone
In later years, Ambrose Wasgatt’s son, Francis (Frank) recalled one time when high winds and rough water prevented his father from rowing the four miles to Bar Harbor for food. As the food supply ran low, all the family, consisting of keeper Wasgatt’s wife, Adelma, (Delia), and several small children at the time, had left to eat was peas and flour. Consequently, they had to live for ten days on pea soup and croutons made from flour and water mixed together without any lard or milk. “They were as heavy as fish leads,” Frank Wasgatt recalled, “but they did stick to the ribs and they kept us from starving.”
The family had no tea or coffee, so they parched some the peas in the oven and used them as a coffee substitute. Frank Wasgatt said that he was never been able to enjoy pea soup since that ordeal.
The Apple Retriever
Landing the station’s boat on the boat rails could only be done at certain times of the tide, and it could be very tricky, and at times, even dangerous. One time when Ambrose Wasgatt was returning to the island with food supplies, a rogue wave slammed the boat into the rails and overturned it dumping all the supplies into the sea. Among those provisions was a bag of apples that had ripped open and were bobbing up and down in sea. Keeper Wasgatt called his big Newfoundland dog Hero and commanded him to retrieve the apples. Hero immediately obeyed and jumped into the water and retrieved one apple, then went back for another, and then another, and yet another, and four apples arrived safely on shore. With the fifth apple, the dog accidently bit into one of the apples, and liking their taste, began swimming around and nibbling all of the apples without bringing them back to shore. From the shore, keeper Wasgatt hollered all types of commands and threats at the dog to stop it and bring the apples to shore, but his commands were to no avail.
Apparently Hero ate too many apples. That night the poor dog tossed and moaned with a green-apple stomach-ache all night long. The dog received no sympathy from the Mr. Wasgatt.
The Missing Duck Supper
One bitter cold February afternoon, keeper Wasgatt saw a giant flock of ducks and knew that they would make a good addition for the family’s evening meal. But, because of the cold weather and icy water, he decided to keep Hero locked in the woodshed. He did not want the dog to catch pneumonia from jumping in the icy cold water.
So keeper Wasgatt took the small boat around to a cove where he could land the boat and shoot the ducks from the shore, and the tide would wash them into the protected cove. Once he got there, he began popping off ducks as fast as they appeared. It was snowing hard and he was unable to see the ducks after he fired at them, but he could hear the splash when the dead ducks hit the water.
After nine ducks had fallen and the wind was blowing toward him, keeper Wasgatt decided to pick up his ducks and head for home. But when he rowed out into the cove, he was unable to find a single duck. He couldn’t figure it out. Although it was snowing hard, the wind and the tide were just right and the dead ducks should have been fairly easy to find and pluck out of the water. Then, in a brief moment, when the snow let up, he glanced toward shore and saw Hero sitting there, looking somewhat bored, with nine ducks piled up at his feet that he had retrieved from the water. When he and the dog with their catch arrived back home, he discovered that the big Newfoundland had dug a hole under the shed so he could go hunting with his master.
Learning at Home
Frank Wasgatt recalled that as a youngster he was often not aware of the hardships his parents endured living on an island. From a young boy’s point of view, life on the island was pretty neat, and he did not have to sit in a schoolhouse during the day like the kids on shore. His father hired a private teacher to come out to island to teach him the Three Rs.
A New Life
In 1885 Ambrose Wasgatt received the plum appointment on the mainland as the lighthouse keeper of the Prospect Harbor Point Lighthouse in Prospect Harbor, Maine where he would serve until his retirement in 1918, for a total of 43 years of service as a lighthouse keeper.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 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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