Sunday, October 4, 2009


Twin lighthouses on Matinicus Rock with newer buildings as they would have appeared
prior to 1924 when the north light was dismantled. Double lights gave mariners an
unquestionable navigational reference point.

In the days before iron hulls and steam power, great sailing ships with acres of billowing sails and creaming wakes plied the busy sea lanes between the northeast coast of America and the ports of Europe along with countless smaller inter-coastal vessels in even greater numbers. Theirs’ was a dangerous calling. They had to deal not only with the stormy Atlantic and its unpredictable winds and currents, but a coastline studded with uncounted islands, ragged and invisible reefs and shoals, and bays and estuaries which were thought to be the very birthplace of nature’s densest fogs. By the 1850s, more than 320 lighthouses dotted the approaches to eastern seaports as aids to navigation, and by the end of that century more than 1200 would circle the nation.
It has been estimated that if the jagged coastlines of Maine and its 4000 islands were turned into a straight line, it would be equal to the entire circumference of the continental United States. Taking into the equation the busy seaports of Portland, Camden, Rockland and Boston, it is not surprising that 80 of those lighthouses were Maine structures, many of them situated on lonely, often remote offshore islands. Long before President Franklin Roosevelt gave the job to the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1930s, the construction, staffing and management of all those flashing beacons was the responsibility of the highly politicized, underfunded and somewhat unwieldy U.S. Lighthouse Service. The lights themselves were tended 24 hours a day by “keepers” who generally had their family to assist them. In fact these “lighthouse families” were expected not only to tend the finicky coal-oil-fueled lamps, keep the wicks trimmed, the crystal lenses polished, and the premises ship shape, but to be basically food self-sufficient in their “spare time”. They had to gather scarce firewood for cooking and heat, raise gardens if possible, and keep their storm-lashed buildings in good repair. And for island families, birthing, doctoring and home-schooling children went with the other jobs.
The most distant, remote, and stormy of all those postings was the station on Matinicus Rock, a 32-acre piece of wave-washed granite 25 miles out in the Atlantic from the port of Rockland, Maine. Its twin lights marked the approaches to the wide expanse of Penobscot Bay and for many, their first glimpse of America. Nary a blade of grass had a chance to grow on a wind-whipped landscape whose high point was only forty feet above high tide level on a good day. And on “The Rock”, there weren’t many “good” days. In fact landing a boat there was a tricky business any time, and meant riding a carefully-timed wave top onto a ramp
Abbie Burgess, herself an “island girl” born on Matinicus Island (five miles away from Matinicus Rock), was 14 when her father, Samuel Burgess became keeper on the Rock in 1853. Abbie, two younger siblings, and her invalid mother Thankful moved into the small dwelling perched between the two stone light towers and set up house keeping. Abbie quickly learned all the chores associated with the lights, and became her father’s assistant. Each light was powered by twelve lamps, whose hunger was fueled by the poorly-refined and dirty-burning oil which had to be carried up the narrow circling stairs from the oil house each day. Abbie’s one outside interest was her small clutch of chickens, which kept the family
in eggs and brought her much pleasure.
In January, 1856, Abbie was left alone to take care of the duties when her father had to launch his small boat and sail off to Rockland for medical supplies for his wife. On January 19th, a great storm struck leaving Samuel stuck ashore and 17-year old Abbie facing monster waves which covered almost the entire island. Anticipating worse, she moved her invalid mother and younger sisters, and all but one of her beloved chickens into one of the stone light towers before the keeper’s house was washed off its foundations and into the sea. It would be four storm-lashed weeks before her father could return, during which time Abbie kept both lights burning and her family intact. The 60 yards of separation between the two light towers must have seemed like a mile for the seventeen-year-old girl timing each trip to those moments when the action of an overwhelming sea permitted a sprint over the wet and slippery rocks.
In 1857, there was a repeat performance: Samuel had been forced ashore when the Lighthouse Service supply ship failed to come on schedule leaving the family without food. This time the storm and rough seas prevented a landing for three weeks, by which time Abbie was rationing her family to one egg and one cup of cornmeal mush each per day, while making the dangerous trip between oil house and lantern rooms to keep the lights burning once again.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became president and – as was his prerogative – he named Captain John Grant, a good friend, to be the new keeper at Matinicus Rock Light. (One has to wonder just how much of a “favor” such a posting really was !) Grant, together with his son and assistant Isaac knew nothing about their new trade, so Samuel and Abbie stayed on a while to teach them. Soon a romance blossomed between Abbie and Isaac, and a year later they were married. (A lighthouse keeper had the same marriage authority as a ship’s captain, so it can be assumed the couple never even had to leave The Rock, even then.) Together, Isaac and Abbie served that light until 1875, before being assigned to another island light. Four of their children were born on The Rock, and an infant named Bessie is buried there.
Altogether, Abbie spent 40 years of her life serving Maine’s lights and is still celebrated today as the “heroin of the lighthouse service”. For a home-schooled island girl who had seldom spent any meaningful time on the mainland, Abbie Burgess Grant reflected her commitment to personal education in the journals she kept over all the years of her all-too-brief life. In 1891 she penned these words: “Some times I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more. It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of my life. When we had care of the old lard-oil lamps on Matinicus Rock, they were more difficult to tend than these at Whitehead.
Many nights I have watched the lights my part of the night, then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail.
In all these years I always put the lamps in order in the morning, and I lit them at sunset. These old lamps. . . on Matinicus Rock . . . I often dream of them. When I dream of them it always seems to me that I have been away a long while, and I am hurrying toward the Rock to light the lamps there before sunset. . . I feel a great deal more worried in my dreams than when I am awake.
I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn-out body ! If ever I have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon.”
Abbie died in 1892 at the age of 53., still keeping the faith.
In October, 1996, my nearly- lifelong interest in her story led me to a small woodland cemetery at Spruce Head, Maine, and to a small cast aluminum monument in the shape of a lighthouse. It was also my pleasure to correspond with her granddaughter, then living in Florida.
Matinicus Rock lights were 1st built of wood in 1827 on the orders of President John Quincy Adams. It was rebuilt from stone as twin lights in 1857. The north light was decommissioned in 1924, and the south light was automated in 1983. Today, The Rock is owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and protected as one of the last nesting grounds of puffins in the U.S. A small marble tablet marks the rocky burial site of Bessie Grant, age 2 years.

A self-confessed lighthouse aficionado, Al Cooper managed to visit Cape Blanco light at the westernmost tip of the continental U.S. and West Quoddy Head light at the easternmost tip within a matter of weeks one year. His favorite is Pemaquid Point light at New Harbor, Maine pictured above.

Photo by Al Cooper

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story; such faithfulness is rarely found today. Dean