By Jennifer Helman
Surviving for 150 years is a major accomplishment, but surviving for 150 years on the edge of an island off the coast of Maine deserves accolades and a party. The last century and a half has presented the world with significant technological and medical advancements, countless military engagements, exploration of the unknown, and political and civil unrest. Through it all, the Swan’s Island Lighthouse has lit the way.
The 1870s were a time of rebirth, upheaval, and expansion across the United States and the rest of the world. In the aftermath of the Civil War, the Amnesty Act was put in place and states were being readmitted to the Union. Railways had become the transportation of choice for goods and people in the interior of the country, but water remained a primary mode in coastal areas.
A movement to ensure safe entry to sailing ports led to the construction of hundreds of light towers all along the coast of Maine and the rest of the eastern seaboard. In 1872, the light at Hockamock Head was put into service to guide ships through the narrow, rocky entrance to Burnt Coat Harbor on Swan’s Island.
Acadia National Park wouldn’t come into existence for nearly another 50 years, but the same year this lighthouse was built, Yellowstone was designated as the first national park. At the same time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the first Bloomingdale’s store both open in New York City. Susan B. Anthony, one of the leaders of the suffrage movement, voted illegally in the presidential election where Ulysses S. Grant was re-elected. Some other big news for an isolated community like Swan’s Island was the first mail-order catalog from Montgomery Ward.
Like many lights of the day, Burnt Coat was initially powered by lard. In 1895, the light was converted to utilize kerosene, a fuel that was known to burn cleaner and brighter. A small oil house was built to hold the flammable liquid. Another fuel that was making history during this time was gasoline. In this same year, the first patent for a gasoline-powered automobile was filed. Coincidentally, the first organized auto race in the United States occurred this year with average speeds of seven miles per hour.
Other innovations that year include a patent for a lead pencil, the first publication of a comic strip in a newspaper, the discovery of X-rays, and the establishment of the Nobel prizes. President Grover Cleveland was in office to witness the Sino-Japanese treaty where Taiwan was ceded from China to Japan. Some notables from the registrars of the time: deaths – Frederick Douglass and Louis Pasteur; marriages – Marie Curie, Mata Hari, Harvey Firestone, and Robert Frost; births – Babe Ruth, J. Edgar Hoover, and Rudolph Valentino.
1911 also brought discovery and growth. From the groundbreaking of Fenway Park to the completion of the Titanic, great things were undertaken this year. IBM (then known as Tabulating Computing Recording Corp.) was incorporated, as was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The lost city of the Incas, Machu Pichu, was discovered, and the first team of explorers reached the South Pole.
It was also the year of several firsts in flight. Planes were still in their infancy, but gaining popularity and efficiency. They were also testing their viability for delivering bombs which would soon prove invaluable. But on the coast of Maine, travel by sea was still king. The lighthouse on Swan’s Island saw the construction of a new bell tower to aid sailors when foggy conditions limited the usefulness of the light itself.
Through the first half of the 20th century, the Burnt Coat Harbor Lighthouse held steadfast to its perch above the rocks and sea. By the 1960s, she had housed six keepers and their families who had worked diligently to keep her lit. The light and bell guided countless merchant and private vessels in and out of the rocky harbor, but also witnessed several wrecks. Perhaps the most notable of these unfortunate incidents was the Governor Bodwell. In 1924, she missed the channel in a blinding snowstorm and wrecked on Spindle Ledge. While all crew were brought to land safely, it is said one islander died later of pneumonia after helping with rescue efforts.
While the rest of the country was embattled with race riots, faced nuclear attack in the Cold War, watched the competition to explore space, and reluctantly entered the Vietnam war, one of the biggest challenges of the lighthouse keepers on Swan’s Island was simply reaching the lighthouse. Until 1964, when the first access road was built, the only way to access the lighthouse was via water. That meant loading in supplies on a small dory and climbing the steep cliff in all types of weather.
There were still countless hardships living and working in such an isolated location, even in a modern era. Would these folks have heard the U.S. Surgeon General make his first report of smoking being hazardous to your health? Would they know that Nelson Mandela had been sentenced to life or that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize? Would they care that the Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan Show, Disney’s Mary Poppins premiered, or Muhammed Ali won his first National Heavyweight title by beating Sonny Liston?
By the 70s, the Coast Guard had been automating lights across the country for many years. After more than 100 years of manual operation, automation came to Swan’s Island in 1975 bringing an end to an era. Philip Felch, the last keeper, would have left his position at the same time Margaret Thatcher took office as Prime Minister of Great Britain, several players in the Watergate scandal were convicted, and our country’s involvement in Vietnam officially ended.
Back in mainstream America, Felch likely would have joined millions of other citizens in watching the TV debuts of Wheel of Fortune, Saturday Night Live, and The Jeffersons. He may have gone to the theater to watch the newly released Jaws, bought one of the new Rubik’s Cubes, or listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run album.
Once the light had been fully automated, the Coast Guard shuttered the keeper’s house and did little to maintain the structure and grounds. By 1982, the property was in dire straits and a small group of dedicated volunteers protested the conditions. This action convinced the Coast Guard to make some cosmetic improvements. While islanders were fighting their battles to save this important landmark, there was a battle of a different kind in the Falklands, the Middle East was in upheaval, and the war on drugs was declared; the HIV/AIDS crisis was just emerging across the globe, the first successful artificial heart transplant was undertaken, and the population in China topped 1 billion for the first time. Between committee meetings and letter writing, islanders would have seen the debut of Late Night with Dave Letterman and Cheers as well as the final episode of The Lawrence Welk Show.
The story of the Burnt Coat Harbor Lighthouse does not end with deterioration, but continues with restoration. In true island spirit, many volunteers and town officials stepped up to take over the management of the light. In 1994, ownership was transferred from the Coast Guard to the Town of Swan’s Island. In the 2000s, the Friends of the Swan’s Island Lighthouse (FOSIL) incorporated as a non-profit to ensure the future of this iconic landmark.
FOSIL members worked tirelessly to coordinate fundraising efforts and work through complicated grant applications. They hired and oversaw tradesmen proficient in historic preservation techniques such as re-pointing masonry and replacing ironworks with period materials. After decades of work and millions of dollars in grants and donations, a comprehensive restoration project is now complete, or, to quote one FOSIL member, “the Golden Spike” has been placed. The light tower and keeper’s house are in better-than-new condition and host a vibrant tourist season with historical exhibits, guided tours, and even overnight stays.
A milestone like a sesquicentennial deserves a memorable celebration and that’s just what the lighthouse committee is planning. Details are still being confirmed, but August 20 is the day they have set aside for the festivities. Check their website for updates: www.burntcoatharborlight.com.
The lighthouse has stood the test of time, elements, and technology. Her 150 years have seen war and peace, epidemics and innovations, deaths and births, tragedies and triumphs. Regardless of the trials and tribulations yet to come, we can rest assured she will stand guardian of vessels and crew for as long as she is needed.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2022 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.