The mission of light keepers was to operate and maintain the lights and fog signals as aids to navigation. Therefore, light stations were not equipped to conduct search and rescue. Most light stations had only small boats that were oar-powered or inboard-powered and others in later years powered by outboard motors. However, during the many years of manning the lighthouses by the Lighthouse Service, and later by the Coast Guard, a number of amazing rescues have been accomplished by keepers of the lights. Many of these rescues were not documented beyond one or two sentences in the light station log book or, perhaps in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, and if so, only briefly.
There were many incidents that occurred where the light keepers could not go to the assistance of the imperiled mariners but were able to summon timely and effective rescue assistance by others. For example, if a vessel in trouble was observed by the keeper of Maine’s Moose Peak Light, a signal flag was flown to alert the nearby Crumple Island Life-Saving Station. There were also rescues accomplished from shore by keepers when vessels were wrecked near the shore close to the lighthouses. A couple of examples of these were the bark Annie C. Maguire and the schooner D. W. Hammond at Portland Head Light and the schooner Australia at Cape Elizabeth’s Two Lights Light Station in Cape Elizabeth, Maine.
Throughout the 150 years of manning Maine’s Whitehead Island Light Station, at the southern entrance to Penobscot Bay, there have been several rescues by the lighthouse keepers. One rescue took place before the Whitehead Life-Saving Station, on the other end of the island, was established; and the other, when the life-saving station was operational, but closed for the season. Two later rescues occurred after the Whitehead Lifeboat Station had been discontinued and re-established on the mainland 10 miles north at Rockland, Maine.
Rescue by Keeper
Wellman Spear, Sr.
In the early morning of November 23, 1860, the schooner Patona, fully loaded with general merchandise, was in route to Belfast in strong winds and rough stormy seas. While passing Whitehead Island and entering the Mussel Ridge Channel, steerage was lost when the wheel rope broke. When attempting to take in the main sheet, the vessel went ashore on the southeastern end of Hay Island. All hands except the captain were able to get off the ship and onto the island.
By the time the stranded schooner was seen by lighthouse keeper Wellman Spear, Sr., the vessel had bilged and heeled off with rough sea breaking over her deck. The stranded captain had climbed into the foremast rigging. It was not possible for Spear and his son, Wellman Spear, Jr., in Spear’s 16-foot keel boat, to remove the man from the wreck where the only approach was through the breaking waves from windward. However, with two boats in tandem, the man might be rescued.
Spear then obtained assistance from two brothers, Horace and Joseph Norton, with their 12-foot wherry. Both boats were rowed offshore directly upwind from the wreck. A length of line was tied between the boats extending from the stern of the Spear boat to the bow of the Norton boat. The Norton boat then backed into the wreck within reach of the stranded captain. When on top of a wave, and steadied by the rope to the Spear boat, the captain was able to pull himself into the Norton boat. With the combined effort on the oars of both boats, the Norton boat was simultaneously pulled by the Spear boat and rowed by the Nortons to clear the wreck and move out through the breakers. The vessel broke up very shortly thereafter.
Horace Norton would later become an assistant keeper of Whitehead Lighthouse, and in 1874, the first keeper of the Whitehead Life-Saving Station.
Rescue by Keeper Isaac Grant
On August 7, 1881, the schooner Vicksburg was at anchor in the harbor north of Whitehead Island. The mate and a seaman went out in a yawl. Conditions at the time were described as dense fog, strong breeze, with frequent squalls, and a heavy sea. Soon after departing the harbor, the yawl capsized in the Mussel Ridge Channel at a location about one mile northeast from the lighthouse. With the two men struggling to cling to the hull, the yawl drifted down the channel.
When they had drifted beyond the lighthouse and the fog had begun to lift, lighthouse keeper Isaac Grant spotted the capsized boat with the two men near the South Breaker about 700 yards offshore. Grant immediately sent his young daughter to inform lifeboat Captain Horace Norton at the Life-Saving Station located about one-half mile distant at the western end of the island.
Then, while leaving his older daughter to attend to the steam fog whistle, Grant and his 18-year-old son, Francis, went immediately to the lighthouse landing to launch his boat and row out to the capsized boat. (Francis Grant had been trained and employed as a surfman at the island’s Life-Saving Station.)
To more rapidly reach the imperiled men as quickly as possible, rather than going around the wide expanse of the South Breaker, Grant chose to row through the dangerous waves breaking over these ledges. He and his son jettisoned their anchor, mast, sail and ballast to lighten their boat to prevent it from swamping.
Soon after reaching the stranded men and getting them on board Grant’s boat, the surfboat from the life-saving station arrived. The two men were transferred to the surfboat and transported to the lighthouse landing. Both men were exhausted from the ordeal and were bleeding from cuts and abrasions caused from clinging for over three hours to the submerged hull that was bouncing and rolling in the waves. The men then were taken to the keeper’s house where Mrs. Grant dressed their wounds and attended to their recovery.
Keeper Grant was awarded the silver medal in recognition of the significant risk to his own life in the action of saving the lives of these two men. Francis Grant received less recognition, but as a surfman, he had done what surfmen were expected to do.
Rescue by BM1c Russell Lane
On the morning of August 19, 1958, four teens and an adult in an 18-foot sloop set sail to Boothbay, Maine from Camden, Maine. A northeaster had just passed the day before and the coastal weather advisory had been reduced to a small craft warning. However, there was an intense high-pressure front progressing up the coast.
By mid-morning, on the southern coast, winds off Biddeford increased to 20 knots with gusts to 25-plus knots. BMC Weston Gamage, Officer-in-Charge of the Fletchers Neck Lifeboat Station in Biddeford Pool, Maine, along with EN2 Fred Almy and SN Henry (Stich) Sczhowicz, had already retrieved a 27-foot sloop with two men on board that was disabled from loss of the mainsail about six miles offshore from the station.
Further up the coast, the little sloop from Camden had entered and progressed down the sheltered Mussel Ridge Channel. After passing Whitehead Light Station in early afternoon and entering the exposed open expanse of lower Penobscot Bay, ever increasing head winds and waves were encountered; the southwesterly wind rapidly developed to produce gusts of 40 knots. Adding to this were large “old sea” rollers, (waves from an easterly direction that were the result of the previous offshore storm.) When attempting to come about some distance from the Whitehead Light Station to sail downwind, in an attempt to return to shelter in the channel, the boat was swamped and thereafter could not be controlled.
The crew at the light station saw the swamped sailboat drifting back with the wind towards the South Breaker. BM1c Russell Lane promptly notified Coast Guard Group Rockland. A boat was launched from Rockland and a second boat was launched from the Burnt Island Lifeboat Station. Lane and another coastguardsman rapidly went to the light station’s boathouse about one-eighth mile away with thoughts of possibly launching the station inboard-powered boat. Lane knew that to attempt a rescue using this boat would be extremely risky. It was too small with barely enough engine power to maintain headway in the existing wind and sea conditions, but he felt he might not have any other choice.
When Lane arrived at the boathouse, there was a lobster fisherman in a 26-foot lobster boat in the cove. The lobsterman and Lane immediately headed out though the channel entrance in the lobster boat to the swamped sloop that was now very close the South Breaker. The five people on the sloop were taken aboard the lobster boat. The sloop was towed a short distance from the South Breaker and then released. The five people were then transported to the lighthouse dock and then taken to the keeper’s dwelling. Lane and the lobsterman went out to retrieve the sloop and tow it to a mooring in the cove at the lighthouse landing. The boats from Rockland and Burnt Island arrived shortly thereafter.
BM1 Lane was recommended by the First District admiral for a service life-saving award. Coincidently, the lobsterman who participated in this rescue was the 16-year-old son of BMC Weston Gamage of the Fletchers Neck Lifeboat Station.
Rescue by SN Ken Johnson
Kenneth Johnson was a member of the crew of the Whitehead Light Station from 1979 to 1981. In December 1980, Station Rockland called Whitehead to advise that a lobster boat with two men on board was disabled and sinking in the harbor between Whitehead Island and Spruce Head. The boat had developed a substantial leak that could not be stopped and the rising water had killed the engine. Seas offshore were running eight to ten feet. Because of the sea conditions and 12-nautical-miles distance from Station Rockland, the 44-footer Coast Guard vessel would not be able to get to this harbor in time. If these two men, not having survival suits, went in the cold water, they would have rapidly been overcome by hypothermia, most likely resulting in death.
Ken Johnson launched the station’s 14-foot Boston Whaler from the light station boathouse. He was able to proceed across the windswept harbor to the sinking boat where he then retrieved the two men and transported them safely to shore at Spruce Head. If not for Ken’s quick response, it is very possible these two men might have perished.
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The Spear rescue was described in Horace Norton’s personal journal. The Grant rescue is described in detail in the Annual Report of the Operation of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, year ending June 30, 1882. The Lane and the Fletchers Neck Lifeboat Station rescues were reported in the Portland Press Herald, August 19, 1958. Information about the Johnson rescue came from correspondence between Johnson and Jeremy D’Entremont that was published in D’Entremont’ s book The Lighthouses of Maine. The accounts of these rescues contain supplemental descriptive information provided by this author based on his personal knowledge of the locations of these rescues.
This story appeared in the
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