|Bear Island, ME|
Description: Bear Island Lighthouse sits on, as one might expect, Bear Island, at the entrance to Mount Desert Harbor, Maine. However, Bear Island might have originally been named “Bare,” due to the lack of trees, and probably was never home to any bears. The area was included in a French-Canadian land grant dating to 1688, which was upheld by the General Court of Massachusetts in 1787. Later the area, (including Bear Island), which would become the Cranberry Isles (named for the cranberries that indeed grew there), passed from Massachusetts to Maine.
In 1837, Captain Joseph Smith of the U.S. Navy sailed along the coast of Maine examining sites for proposed lighthouses. After visiting Mount Desert Island and conversing with experience sea captains, he concluded, “there is no place where there is a light so much required, on or about the island of Mount Desert, as on a small island, called Bear isle, at the entrance of Northeast and Southwest harbors; these harbors are much frequented by vessels employed in foreign and domestic trade; I have frequently seen from three to four hundred sail of vessels at a time in these harbors.”
Captain Smith learned that the owner of the island, William Moore, demanded $500 for the eleven-acre island or $50 for two acres on its western side, even though he had purchased the island for $101.17 just a few months earlier.
Following President Martin Van Buren’s approval, the light was built in 1839, using a $3,000 appropriation granted on July 7, 1838. Spurling Point on Great Cranberry Island had originally been examined and rejected for the light.
Bear Island was from the beginning a family station with a single keeper. The original lighthouse consisted of a wooden tower set atop the southern gable of a granite rubblestone keeper’s house. The dwelling had three rooms on the first floor, two chambers in an attic, and a cellar beneath it that held two wooden rainwater cisterns. The tower’s octagonal lantern room housed seven lamps and thirteen-inch reflectors, which produced a fixed white light at a focal plane of ninety-eight feet above the surrounding water.
One of the areas early settlers was William Moore, who, according to The Island of Mount Desert Register with the Cranberry Isles 1909-10, went from keeping sheep on Bear Island to being the first lighthouse keeper there. Other sources list John G. Bowen or Bowan (1838-1842) as the first to tend the light. Whether or not Bowen was the first, he definitely served as keeper, because when Secretary of Treasury Walker Forward dismissed him in 1842, he sent a letter to a Maine congressman about it. “Interference in elections, both under the late and present administrations, and absence from the lighthouse for days in succession are the principal charges against Mr. Bowen,” wrote Forward. The election interference allegation was almost as serious as leaving the light untended, given that lighthouse positions were political appointments.
After I. W. P. Lewis, a civil engineer assigned in 1842 to examine the lighthouses in the northeast, visited Bear Island, he wrote, “The necessity of erecting this light upon a small inlet in a close harbor has been questioned by many. That such a light is useful cannot be doubted, but that it should have been established in advance of other and much more important and dangerous points of this neighborhood will always surprise every one visiting this coast. This location requires but one lamp, of a suitable form, instead of seven now used.” Solomon L. Howes (keeper 1842-1844) added his complaints to Lewis’ report, stating that the previous keeper had put up a barn obstructing the only road to the house, the cisterns were in poor shape, the lantern’s ventilation was bad, and the lantern’s copper roof leaked.
Bear Island Lighthouse was severely damaged by fire in 1852 and rebuilt in 1853, probably reusing many of the original materials. Experience proved that the original design put too much stress on the dwelling, thus, the new construction featured a thirty-one-foot-tall, cylindrical brick tower painted white, placed at the southern end of the dwelling. A few years later, in 1856, the station’s old lighting apparatus was replaced with a fifth-order Fresnel lens.
Despite previous criticism about John Bowen, he wangled his return to Bear Island (1844-1850). Local politician Charles Peters was but one who cried for his second removal. Peters wrote to a justice of the peace, “Washington needs to know what kind of a critter Bowan has been….if he has been known to attend political conventions…if he has been an active and brawling Partizan….I want to sluice Bowan before he knows it.” After enough prominent Whigs signed a petition, Bowen was given the boot for the second time, but the resilient Bowen was appointed keeper again in 1853 and served for two more years.
Bowen’s successor in 1855 was Caleb S. Gould. It is not known for certain how many children Gould had, but together with one other family, Bear Island was designated a separate school district under Gould’s direction. The school district lasted until 1971, when William Fennelly was keeper, and was reestablished in 1880 when Keeper Stephen Smallidge’s family had five children.
Additions to the station include a 170-foot crib wharf in 1885, and, in 1887, a bell tower and a thirty by sixty-foot coal-shed, with a capacity of 390 tons, which served as a coal supply depot for the area’s buoy tenders. The coal depot remained until it was relocated from Bear Island in 1934. A 1,000-pound bell, struck by machinery, was housed in the bell tower. Terry Stanley, a Coast Guard keeper from the 1950s, said the apparatus “worked like a Swiss clock. You cranked weights up to the top of the tower and it would ring the bell every so many minutes.”
By 1888, the keeper’s stone dwelling was in such a poor state that it was determined erecting a new one-and-a-half-story wooden dwelling would be less expensive than repairs. Everything at the station—other than the new fog bell tower, coal-shed, and wharf—was torn down and rebuilt. On September 1, 1889, a light with the same characteristics as the old one, was exhibited from a temporary skeleton tower placed about twenty feet south-southeasterly from old tower. This light served until the current brick tower and attached frame dwelling were completed later that year at a cost of $3,750. In 1899, telephone service linking Bear Island to Northeast Harbor must have been a welcome addition to the station.
In the 1930s, Keeper Elmo J. Turner transferred to Bear Island from Great Duck Island Light. His granddaughter, Joyce MacIlroy, would visit her grandparents at Bear Island station where they kept chickens and a cow. “There was no power on the island,” said Joyce, “so my great grandmother would keep the fresh cream in the cellar. One day, the cow had to be taken to the mainland, so Elmo loaded her into the dory and rowed her across to Northeast Harbor, then rowed her back over to the island. The cow got seasick on the way back — that must have been quite the sight!”
In the early 1980s, Bear Island Light slowly began to deteriorate after it was replaced by a lighted bell buoy offshore. The lighthouse was resurrected by the Friends of Acadia and relit in 1989 as a private aid to navigation, exhibiting a white flash every five seconds. The light station is owned by the National Park Service, which leases it to a private individual as a residence.
Martin Morad, a professor of pharmacology and medicine at Georgetown University who first saw Bear Island Lighthouse in 1971 and had subsequently tried to purchase or lease the property, was the first lucky private citizen to call the lighthouse home. Morad and his wife Fabiola Martens, a lawyer turned interior designer, spent a few years and a lot of money restoring the lighthouse before using it as a summer vacation cottage.
”The house had been boarded up for so many years that the humidity from the water in the cisterns permeated the entire place,” Martens recalls. “At every inspection the lighthouse keepers added another layer of paint, without ever removing any of the old paint. Over the years the dampness caused the eleven layers to crumble and form stalactites and stalagmites. It was as if one was entering a grotto!” The station’s water problem was solved by running an underwater pipeline to Northeast Harbor. Later, electricity was brought in, and a sewer system was installed.
The couple found little need to hang paintings in the house, as the views from each window offered an ever-changing picture. “Our primary goal,” Martens remembers, “was to respect the essential simplicity of the lighthouse.”
Bear Island Lighthouse is not open to the public. It is best seen from the water, with cruises past the island being offered most days during the summer.
Located on Bear Island, about a half mile offshore from Northeast Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service but leased to a university professor. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service but leased to a university professor. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
A great aerial shot of Bear Island Lighthouse can be seen in the movie "A Man Without a Face" when Mr. McLeod rewards Charles with a flight in a seaplane after he scored 84% on a practice test.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.