|Winter Harbor, ME|
Description: Information about lighthouses primarily comes from lighthouse keeper logs, Lighthouse Board reports, and personal accounts in various forms. Thus, it is a tragedy that the keeper logbooks, dating from 1856, went missing from Winter Harbor Lighthouse on Mark Island around 1983. Hopefully, the logs will be returned and not only because “a substantial reward” has been offered.
The bulk of personal information about Winter Harbor Lighthouse, also known as Mark Island Lighthouse, now comes from those who purchased the station after its 1933 “retirement,” which is unsurprising given that most of its private owners have been writers.
Congress appropriated $4,500 to build the light near the entrance to Frenchman Bay, across from Bar Harbor, to guide ships to safe harbor and to keep them off nearby treacherous ledges. From the nineteen-foot-tall, white, cylindrical, brick tower, a fixed white light beamed forth from a fifth-order Fresnel lens at a focal plane of thirty-seven feet above high water. For some years, the station also had a fog bell with an automatic striking mechanism.
Lighthouse Board records state that following various repairs made in 1867 through 1869, the station was considered to be “in good condition,” but in 1876, it was noted that the old one-and-a-half-story frame dwelling, which was “decayed past repair,” had been replaced by a new one-and-a-half-story frame just north of the old site. Two years later, a twelve by twenty foot wooden boathouse was built.
In 1880, the exterior walls of the dwelling were painted with two coats of white paint, and in 1882 “the dwelling was underpinned with stone and brick.” A lightning rod was installed in 1889, and in 1905 the station saw the construction of an oil house. By August 1933, its official history as a navigational guide was over, having been replaced by a lighted bell buoy (total cost $5,986) set to the southeast of the lighthouse.
The last keeper of Winter Harbor Lighthouse was Captain Lester “Cap” Leighton. His grandson, Chan Noyes was christened on the way to the island. When Chan was one year old his mother stepped out of the station’s boat at the island, slipped, and “dunked” them both in the water. “That was my christening,” Chan said.
Although Leighton lived in nearby Prospect Harbor until 1970 (when he passed away at the age of 94), he never returned to Mark Island again after leaving in 1933.
Winter Island Lighthouse was auctioned off in 1934 to George Harmon of Bar Harbor for $552. In 1939, Haromon sold Mark Island for $2,000 to writer and musician Bernice “Bunny” Richmond and her husband Reginald Robinson, a sociologist.
As a girl, Richmond had visited the keepers at Halfway Rock in Casco Bay. “That is why I wanted a lighthouse of my own,” she explained. Richmond wrote two books about the years she and her husband spent on Mark Island: Winter Harbor and Our Island Lighthouse. In Winter Harbor, she described her first glimpse of the lighthouse: “In each life there are but a handful of great moments and I knew this was one of mine.” She learned how to be self-sufficient, perform repairs, raise vegetables, and row to town for supplies and mail.
Richmond also continued the tradition of keeping a log, recording storms and other occurrences, such as a visit by disembodied spirits: “They seemed to be a mixed group of people who came down the walk under my window chatting casually, their feet audibly scraping the cement. They knocked at the back door in a moderate way and talked among themselves as they waited for me to come and open it. My callers weren’t discouraged because I wouldn’t open the door and repeated the knocks several times before going away. I don’t know yet where my unreal callers came from or why they gave up knocking.” Her brother heard voices in the lighthouse and couldn’t understand why his sister would want to be there alone.
After reading Richmond’s books, children’s book authors Pat and René Prud'hommeaux decided to rent the island, despite never having seen it. Following Richmond and Robinson’s divorce, the Prud'hommeaux’s bought Mark Island for $2,000 in 1956. For the next eighteen years they lived there full time. In 1957, under the nom de plume Joan Howard, Pat and René wrote, The Light in the Tower, a children’s book about the Christmas tree they set in the tower each year for the fishermen. After Pat passed away on the island in 1974, René moved ashore, but refused to sell the island. Alone and abandoned, it deteriorated. Duck hunters in their boats would shoot out the tower windows for fun. Then in 1983, producer, director, and playwright Gerald Kean bought the island for $87,500, though the asking price had been $125,000.
Although Kean attempted some repairs to the best of his ability, on August 7, 1995, when “the deed was conveyed” to security analyst turned writer and artist William C. Holden, III, Holden found the lighthouse had been practically abandoned for more than ten years. All the tower panes were gone, allowing water to pour in and cover the spiral staircase in rust. Windows in the attached keeper’s house were broken, and birds had taken up residence. “When I say the deed was conveyed to me, it is because I have never felt that anyone ever ‘owns’ Mark Island,” Holden says. “I became in my mind nothing more than a caretaker, entrusted with a gift ….”
Holden spent about $650,000 to purchase and repair the property, working diligently for more than a decade. He even returned the light to the tower in 1996. An orange light had to be used to denote that it was a private light, not an official U.S. Coast Guard light. Using six, small Fresnel lens panels, a “car top flashing orange light,” and a twelve-volt battery, Holden rigged up a beacon in the lantern room. Although the light could only be viewed up to about two miles away, it did restore some of Winter Island’s dignity.
While lying in bed at night, Holden could see the light in the tower without lifting his head and, at times, could hear the voices of ghosts coming from the kitchen below.
In 2004, the island was available again, this time for $1.25 million. For sale was the island, a dock, and the three-bedroom keeper’s house attached to the brick lighthouse tower that included a large kitchen with a cookstove, dining room with a wood stove, large living room with a kerosene stove, one-and-a-half bathrooms, and a music room with and antique organ. The priceless views of Schoodic Point, Cadillac Mountain, and the islands of Frenchman’s Bay came, along with the ghosts, at no extra charge. The lighthouse sold in October 2004 to an interior designer from New York City.
Head Keepers: Frederick P. Gerrish (1857 - 1860), W.N. Wasgatt (1860 - 1866), Richard Higgins (1866 - 1868), A. Southard (1868 - 1870), Allen H. Cole (1870 - 1875), James B. Wright (1875 - 1888), Benjamin Maddox (1888 - 1896), Adelbert C. Leighton (1896 - at least 1912).
Located on Mark Island in Winter Harbor and visible from the eastern section
of Acadia National Park. A closer view of the lighthouse can be had on a Lighthouse and Park Tour offered by Bar Harbor Whale Watch or on a cruise offered by Acadian Boat Tours. For an aerial view, you can take a flight with Maine Coastal Flight Center out of the Bar Harbor airport.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
A closer view of the lighthouse can be had on a Lighthouse and Park Tour offered by Bar Harbor Whale Watch or on a cruise offered by Acadian Boat Tours. For an aerial view, you can take a flight with Maine Coastal Flight Center out of the Bar Harbor airport.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
For those who have always dreamed of owning a lighthouse but realize the dream isn't likely to come true, reading Our Island Lighthouse is a good way to capture the experience vicariously. Bernice Richmond (Robinson) and her husband, Reg, were living in Manhattan in 1939, when they read in a newspaper clipping of a chance to purchase an island lighthouse in their home state of Maine. The couple jumped at the opportunity and spent the next several summers at their new home in Winter Harbor.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.