Wednesday, April 13, 2011

THE KEEPERS’COMPANIONS The Untold Side Of Lighthouse Life

Visitors to the picturesque Owls Head light station who do not know the whole story, are often mystified by this simple granite marker placed on the green hillside beneath the stubby light tower. It was added by admirers many years after the death of the dog who was actually buried some distance away, but close to the bell with which his life was associated.

By the birth of the 20th century, more than 1800 lighthouses ringed the approaches to North America; vital guides to navigation and outposts of maritime safety. Before the days of electricity and automation, these lights were manned by employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, often families living in or near the light they maintained and operated, almost always remote from the “outside world” and dependent upon their own skills of self-reliance. It was a lonely and dangerous life, especially for those families who endured the isolation of an offshore island existence. Not only were they required to haul taxing quantities of whale oil, (or coal oil) from storage shed to lantern room, where the lenses had to be cleaned and maintained in all kinds of weather, but they were largely responsible for their own food and well-being. In some cases, the supply ships from the Lighthouse Service called to drop off supplies only three or four times a year.
Babies were born, raised and schooled at such remote stations, and so it was not unusual to have a milking cow as a “family member”. John Grant, the tenth keeper of distant Matinicus Rock off Maine’s mid-coast, brought a cow named “Daisy” on a six-mile boat ride from Matinicus Island to “the rock”, where only a few blades of grass dared to survive. “Daisy” made friends with a rabbit, and the two played together until the rabbit died. Left alone, the cow would often be seen gazing wistfully toward the distant shore, bellowing sadly. In other cases, a cow would be required to swim on her own to an offshore island, towed by a small boat.
Next to chickens in fact, a family cow was most often the companion of a lighthouse family, and in the case of the Mobile Middle Bay Light in 1916, the cow needed for a newborn baby’s welfare had no pasture at all: This was an octagonal “screw-pole” lighthouse built on steel posts driven into the bay, and the cow was confined to a wooden platform deck fastened just beneath the light and living quarters!
In 1900, a severe winter gale drove the schooner Clara Bella onto the rocks of Maine’s “Two Bush Island”, near the lighthouse where keeper Norton was unaware of the event due to the noises of the storm. His barking dog “Smut” however, led him to the rocky site, bringing about the rescue of the boat’s crew, who embraced the dog in overflowing gratitude.
Even more widespread was the fame of a Springer Spaniel named “Spot” who lived with the Augustus Hamor family manning the light station at Owl’s Head, an important light overlooking the entrance to Penobscot Bay. “Spot” had learned to ring the fog bell by pulling on its rope – especially when he knew his special friend Captain Stuart Ames piloting the Matinicus mail boat was leaving or entering port. An exchange of greetings took the form of Ames sounding his horn and “Spot” barking a welcome. A particularly bad storm struck that part of Maine’s coast around 1939, when high winds had drifted snow in such a way as to silence the fog bell, then draping the region in deep fog. By late evening, the mail boat had not returned, and Spot napped fitfully indoors. Suddenly, amid the storm’s fury he rushed outside and down to the shore where he began barking. Then, the distant sound of a ship’s horn penetrated the deep fog, and Spot continued his barking until a phone call advised the Hamors that Capt. Ames was safe at home.
Other stories of “lighthouse companions” abound, from keeper Ted Pedersen’s swashbuckling cats who made friends with a pair of wild red foxes who then learned to feed from the keeper’s hand at his Cape Sarichef, Alaska station, to a cat who learned to dig clams for a lighthouse crew.
At a time when communications from remote light station to shore was problematical at best, many keepers bred “homing pigeons”, many of which became close pets sharing space in the lamp room of a light tower, but who had been born and introduced to a “home” location ashore.
In our newly-wed days we shared a residence with the Coast Guard couple who manned the lighthouse in Mukilteo, Washington. There we were entertained by the generous nature of a Retriever who regularly launched himself on an early-morning swim toward distant Whidby Island, returning later in the day to present a good size salmon at the feet of his owner; with much wagging of tail!
Perhaps this whole reflection on the companionship of people and animals was summed up best by Lighthouse Keeper Zebediah Strout, Keeper of Maine’s Portland Head Light in his diary for Christmas, 1910:
Dear Lord, on this Christmas Day, we are far from the mainstream of life, down here at a lonely lighthouse on the coast of Maine, but we are happy here, and happy that you are around us. . . We haven’t a stable of animals, such as He was born in, but we have a good dog, Bosun, that helps me light up and put out; a parrot, Bill, that was given us by our good friends; Mother Cat who keeps us free of mice; and Bess, our good mare who lives in the barn with Mother Cat. We thank you for all that we have this day. Amen

Operated by the U.S. Coast Guard since WW II, Owls Head Light stands on a point of land 80 feet above the sea and overlooking the vast expanse of Penobscot Bay and the Port of Rockland, Maine. In the late 1930s, it was home to Keeper Augustus Hamor and his family and a famous dog named “Spot”. (I have made it a point to revisit this favorite place on each and every visit to coastal Maine).

One of the few surviving “Phillips striking bells” similar to the one often tolled by “Spot” the fog-bell dog. Owls Head today boasts an air horn which is triggered automatically when fog forms. (It is best not to be standing near when that happens)!

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