Vermont is more widely known for thousands of acres of rolling terrain, its maple syrup, and its numerous covered bridges than for its lighthouses. But, for having less than a dozen lighthouses, the Colchester Reef Lighthouse probably stands out as the most famous in Vermont.
As with many lighthouses, there are a number of stories about the lighthouse that are more folklore than fact. One of those actually starts with the story that there was a national competition to come up with the design of the lighthouse; however, there is no “real” proof of that. Although the lighthouse was designed by Albert R. Dow, there were a large number of other lighthouses that had almost the exact same design, all built about the same time, such as Rose Island Lighthouse and Pomham Rocks, both in Rhode Island, and North Brother Island Lighthouse in New York.
But one thing that is not folklore is that the lighthouse that once stood out in the water of Lake Champlain to mark some dangerous reefs was moved to land, thanks to the tenacity of one ingenious lady.
In December of 1871, Herman Malaney became the first lighthouse keeper of the newly completed Colchester Reef Lighthouse. Although keeper Malaney got himself a brand new house to live in, the government did not provide any type of fireplace, furnace, or stove for heating the lighthouse. However, a chimney was built into the structure with an opening for a stove on the first and second floors. Keeper Malaney had to purchase and install his own stove on the first floor and a pot belly stove on the second floor. Fortunately, the government supplied the coal, free of charge.
Too Much Coal
Once a year, the lighthouse tender delivered nine tons of coal to the lighthouse, in spite of the fact that Mr. Malaney wrote letters stating that he did not need that much coal.
But every year, nine tons of coal was delivered. Apparently local fishermen benefited from the extra coal for the stoves that they used in their ice shanties in the wintertime. Whether keeper Malaney gave them bags of coal for free or sold the coal at a reduced rate is unclear, but in the end, it was the taxpayer who suffered the consequences.
Birth at the Lighthouse Incurs
As with many other remote lighthouses, the Lighthouse Service provided Colchester Reef Lighthouse with a medical kit with a manual and supplies that included such things as Epson salts, syrup of rhubarb, bandages, castor oil, mustard platers, quinine, and paregoric. But there was not much in the medical kit that could help the keeper with the birth of a baby.
During the time when Walter M. Button was the keeper, his wife Harriet went into labor on January 29, 1888. As a prearranged signal, keeper Button rang the fog bell for the doctor. As nighttime fell, the doctor and his assistant began their journey across the ice to the lighthouse. About halfway to the lighthouse, the ice cracked and broke up, and the pair began to drift on an ice floe. As the ice continued to break up the pair jumped from ice floe to ice floe and somehow miraculously they were able to reach shore - four miles from where they had started. A bouncy baby girl, Myrtle Edna Button, was born that night without the help of a doctor.
However, the birth of the new baby at the remote lighthouse did not sit well with Mrs. Button and keeper Button; resigned two months later. However, apparently life at Colchester Reef Lighthouse really appealed to him, because a few years later he returned to the lighthouse, again as its keeper.
However, a frightening event caused them to question their return to the lighthouse when their 3½ year old son, Chester, disappeared and could not be found. The frantic couple searched the lighthouse over and over, howling out his name. Finally they came to the sad conclusion that Chester had fallen off the lighthouse and drowned.
The distraught Walter Button decided that he needed to row to shore and report his son’s disappearance and likely drowning to the local law officers. Before he left, he remembered that he needed to wind up the clockwork mechanism that primed the fog bell in case it needed to be used while he was gone. As he opened the small trap door at the base of the well chain, he discovered the missing child curled up asleep on the floor, just inches from being crushed by the large weights.
Son Takes Over
When Walter Button’s health began to deteriorate, he decided it was time to retire and he recommended to the government that his son Chester take over. Because Chester Button had spent most of life growing up at the lighthouse, the government agreed, and in 1902 Chester Button became the lighthouse keeper and his brother Albert Button stayed on to help him as an assistant. Albert remained until 1905 when he became ill and left the lighthouse, to never return.
By 1903, Chester F. Button found love and married a local girl named Ruth, and before long, like his father before him, Chester began to raise a family at the lighthouse. However, by 1908 the family decided that lighthouse life was no longer for them, and Chester resigned from the Lighthouse Service. Soon they opened up their own grocery store in Colchester, and eventually Chester became a rural mail carrier. Chester F. Button passed away on August 21, 1939 at the young age of 59, and Ruth lived to be 72 at the time of her death on September 15, 1950.
Former Keeper Drowned
William H. Howard became the keeper on April 8, 1908, but he only stayed for a little over a year when he resigned effective November 5, 1909. Contrary to some accounts in various sources, he did not move or become a lighthouse keeper in Massachusetts. Instead he became a fisherman, who disappeared on a January day when he was last seen out in the water; and it was assumed that he drowned.
Loved His Isolation
August Lorenz became the lighthouse keeper on November 5, 1908. He loved the solitude of the lighthouse and, with the exception of getting supplies from town, he rarely left the lighthouse. It was reported that for exercise he would row the lighthouse boat for long distances. One time he got caught in an ice storm upon his arrival at his destination, he had to use a knife to chip away the ice to free himself from the boat.
One of the biggest fears of damage to the lighthouse was the winter ice floes. To help protect the structure, the government installed riprap around the foundation. However, as much as this helped, there was one time that Mother Nature proved to be a formidable opponent.
Late one evening in 1923, keeper Lorenz rushed to the kitchen after he heard an awful crunching sound and the splintering of wood. He discovered a gaping hole in the corner of the structure and chucks of ice literally moving across the kitchen floor. As he started making quick plans in his mind to evacuate the lighthouse, the ice stopped moving. When daylight arrived, he went outside to examine the damage and realized that the lighthouse structure itself was safe, but would need extensive repairs. He also discovered that the lighthouse dory had been ripped from its davits and was now upside down on a wedge of ice floating near the lighthouse. With his long pole with a hook that he had made and always kept on hand, he was able to snag the ice floe and pull it toward the lighthouse and rescue the boat.
No Place Like Home
For August Lorenz, the Colchester Reef Lighthouse was more than a job; it was his home, one he had believed would be his home until the day he died. He was a frugal man who spent as little as he could on groceries and much of his diet consisted of canned beans and fish. When his paycheck arrived, he would cash it and only deposit half of it in the local bank. Then, when he had time, he would row the far distance to another town and deposit the balance in another bank. He believed that by doing this people would never know how much money he had.
In 1931, after living at the lighthouse and being its faithful keeper for 22 years, the Lighthouse Service notified August Lorenz by mail that, at age 70, he was now too old to remain as the lighthouse keeper. The letter said he would be replaced in three months. Mr. Lorenz was shocked. He had simply assumed that, because he was in good health and in great physical shape, he’d be allowed to stay on as the lighthouse keeper for as long as he wanted. Old stories indicated that he was so shocked by the letter that what hair he had left turned almost white overnight.
The End of an Era
In the spring of 1931, Joseph Aubin became the last person to be become a lighthouse keeper at Colchester Reef Lighthouse. Mr. Aubin did not get the opportunity to enjoy the many years at the lighthouse like his predecessor had. In August of 1933, the Colchester Reef lighthouse was automated and boarded up, and a blinking beacon was placed on the corner of the masonry crib. The lighthouse was then left to the elements, and over the next 20 plus years, it began to seriously deteriorate.
Enter Electra Webb
In 1952, the government decided to cut its losses and auction off the lighthouse, with the stipulation that it be moved off the concrete crib within 30 days to make room for a beacon mounted atop a 45-foot tall skeletal tower. A young couple, Paul and Lorraine Bessette, won the auction with a high bid of $50 with plans to dismantle the structure and use the lumber to build a new home in Essex, Vermont. It turned out to be the best investment the couple could ever have dreamed of.
When Electra Havemeyer Webb, a wealthy heiress and founder of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont, found out about the auction, she made the young couple an offer they could not refuse. She offered them $1,300 for the lighthouse that they had paid $50 for, plus the cost of all the building materials needed to build them their new home, and on July 24, 1952 the deal was closed.
Electra Webb was no stranger to having something moved from the water to land. In 1950 she had purchased the steamboat Ticonderoga, one of two remaining side-paddle wheel passenger steamers with a vertical beam engine of the type that once provided freight and passenger service from the early 19th to the mid-20th century. In 1954, under her leadership the Ticonderoga was hauled across highways, over a swamp, through woods and fields, and across the tracks of the Rutland Railway to reach her permanent home on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum where she remains on display to this day.
Although moving the lighthouse would not be as expensive as the move of the Ticonderoga, it was still complicated. But the project only required a crew of five men who carefully numbered each and every piece of wood, window, stairway, and door as it was disassembled so that the lighthouse could then be historically reconstructed on land at the museum.
Today, the beautifully maintained Colchester Reef Lighthouse is one of over three dozen buildings on the grounds of the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vermont. If planning a visit, it is recommended that you allow two full days to explore all of its treasures.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 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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