Mount Desert Rock is a desolate place – a remote chunk of granite, 23 miles off the coast of Maine, where the waves pound and winds roar. Its nearly 200-year-old lighthouse has weathered many a storm and seen several shipwrecks and deadly accidents, as well as notable rescues. Of all of its lightkeepers, Captain Thomas R. Milan was unequaled in withstanding its bleak solitude the longest – a remarkable 20 years from 1882 to 1902. But he and the Rock had had an acquaintance that started long before that.
How the Captain Almost Drowned
Thomas R. Milan, born on July 5, 1839, had gone to sea at an early age and was a Captain on several ships before deciding to join the U.S. Lighthouse Service at age 43. He had been born in Tremont on Mount Desert Island and spent many years sailing past Mount Desert Rock while coming and going on various voyages.
On one such trip, while near the Rock, Thomas fell overboard and surely would have drown had not the ship’s brave cook jumped in and rescued him. The cook’s name was Lindsey, and in gratitude for his courageous effort in saving the captain’s life, Thomas bestowed the middle name of Lindsey upon his only son, Orrin Lindsey Milan, who was born in 1873. Orrin, in turn, passed that middle name on to his son, and in fact, all of Thomas’ children and their descendants continued the tradition of giving the middle name of Lindsey to every son in the family, a tradition that exists down into the sixth generation, even today.
Perhaps that is why, when it came time for Thomas to transition from his seafaring life to a more stationary one, he chose to accept duty at Mount Desert Rock within view of his place of rescue, acting as a constant reminder that he was so lucky and blessed to be alive.
How the Captain Almost
Grew a Garden
But, nonetheless, life at Mount Desert Rock was a difficult existence for Thomas and any of his family or the assistant keepers confined with him there over the years. There wasn’t much daily diversion while living on a rock out in the ocean, and most hobbies were understandably performed indoors.
However, in 1898, Thomas Milan and his wife, Ellen, decided they would make an attempt at growing some of their own food, in addition to the flowers they cultivated in small boxes kept outside near the tower during the short summers. The Sun-Journal reported on the experiment at its conclusion:
“Capt. Milan’s story of his attempts at farming last summer is interesting. He had carefully saved a little soil and distributed it in a protected place. He put in a few hills of potatoes and the topic of interest each day was the prospect of the potato crop. In a month the green tops of the potato plants began to show and tender hands daily watered and watched them.
“They grew and throve wonderfully and Capt. Milan had aroused much interest in his garden, when one morning, on going out to tend it, he found only the bare rocks where the day before his cherished potato blossoms were bobbing in the breezes. They had been blown out to sea during the night in a small cyclone which swept over the place. That was the last attempt to induce vegetation in this sea realm in the track of ocean vessels.”
The Monmouth Inquirer added: “The Government provides potatoes along with other things to eat, but Capt. Milan and his two companions feel sorry over the loss of their own crop, upon which they had expended so much care. Now the only living plants on the rock are the morning glories and hollyhocks set in boxes of earth on the south side of the tower, and these are guarded from the gales as a farmer would shelter pet lambs.”
How the Captain Threatened
the Spanish Fleet
In that same year, Captain Thomas R. Milan made the papers again in reportedly commenting on the Spanish-American crisis in Cuba. He had not known about the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, nor the impending war with Spain. Thomas had been performing his duties out on Mount Desert Rock at the time and it was only when he came ashore in April that he found out about it, two months after the fact.
The Portland Daily Press recounted how Thomas “bought all the papers he could find detailing the story of the Maine and remarked that there would be little sleep in his little republic when he got back with the news. ‘We don’t have much excitement out our way,’ remarked the captain, ‘and it don’t make much difference to us whether business is good or bad; we get our pay from Uncle Sam just the same.
‘The last time I was ashore I heard of this Cuban affair and of the starvation there, but as we don’t get the papers very often, we didn’t think much of it. But this blowing up of the Maine; it’s terrible. We ain’t got any cannon or dynamite guns out on Mt. Desert Rock, but if we see a Spanish ship coming along this way, there won’t be any light shining that night and possibly we might induce her to run on our rocks which would crush her like the explosion of a submarine mine.’”
This sentiment, albeit likely expressed in the patriotic fervor of the moment, of any lighthouse keeper deliberately putting the light out to wreck any vessel, whether friend or foe, probably did not sit well with the lighthouse district office and a week later, The Bar Harbor Herald stated:
“Captain Milan is a sensible man and would hardly be guilty of making any such statement that if he saw a Spanish ship coming that way, there wouldn’t be any light shining that night. The captain doubtless is a very patriotic man, but it would scarcely be left to his discretion to monkey with the light in the event of a Spanish cruiser coming along; and besides, he might have some difficulty in distinguishing a Spanish vessel from any other vessel after sundown.”
How the Captain Rescued Thurston
In fact, quite to the contrary, Captain Thomas R. Milan performed rescues while stationed on the Rock, the most notable of which, was to save his assistant, Charles W. Thurston, who had come to Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse in 1895.
Thomas’ son, Orrin, had accepted an official appointment three years earlier as an assistant keeper under his father. Orrin had married by then and brought his wife, Nettie, out to join the Milans at the lighthouse. Nettie was interviewed when she was in her 90s and The Portland Press Herald recounted her story as an eye-witness to what happened sometime shortly after their arrival:
“As she recalled the days on Mt. Desert Rock, a faint shudder trembled through Nettie’s frail body. One day, for instance, she stood on the shore and watched Captain Milan struggle with death in the boiling water. C.W. Thurston, an assistant light-keeper, attempted to leave Mt. Desert rock in a small boat that capsized, throwing him into the breakers.
“Not able to swim, the strong undertow threw him against the rocks until he became unconscious. Captain Milan rowed into the breakers but was unable to reach the helpless man. The captain went ashore and tried to catch the body as the sea hurled it onto the shore. The second attempt succeeded. With the help of the women at the station, he dragged the man to safety. Thurston had been in the water fifteen minutes but it took him two hours to bring him back to life.”
Charles W. Thurston left the Rock after five years there and would continue to serve for another 10 years at three more lighthouses in Maine. Orrin Lindsey Milan transferred to Burnt Coat Harbor Light after his five years with his father, and stayed there for the next 35 years as keeper.
How the Captain’s Dog
Saved a Life
But one more memorable misadventure should be noted when considering Captain Thomas R. Milan’s years on Mount Desert Rock. It was reported in The Mount Desert Herald in 1889 that the “gale of three weeks ago was the heaviest at Mount Desert Rock that has been noticed for some time. The water reached the sills of the windows on the first floor of the dwelling house.
“A pet cat, belonging to Captain Milan, the keeper, was washed from the Rock by a big wave, bought back by another and rescued by Captain Milan’s dog.” So, even the family’s station dog was able to assist in the saving of lives while living on Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse, no doubt through witnessing Captain Milan’s meritorious example of rescues over the years.
How the Captain Quitted His Rocky Residence
By 1899, Thomas R. Milan was struggling with arthritis that gradually increased to the point of rendering him unable to perform his duties. He officially retired in 1902 and went back to Southwest Harbor where he died four years later from the effects of a stroke at the age of 66.
His obituary stated that he was “greatly respected by all who knew him, kind and genial in disposition.” But in lighthouse circles, it could be said that Captain Thomas R. Milan deserved the highest commendation for enduring the dreary existence of living on a barren ocean rock for twenty years while diligently performing his duties. Hopefully, a U.S. Lighthouse Service Memorial Marker can be placed on his grave soon to honor his exceptional service as keeper at Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2023 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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