|Matinicus Rock, ME|
Description: “Life [at Matinicus Rock Light] is, as it has been for many years, a constant struggle of human nature against the elements which seek to wear it out,” wrote author Gustav Kobbe in 1874. Matinicus Rock is thirty-three acres of barren rock, blasted by harsh winds and unforgiving seas that sweep the length of the island and have even rolled two-ton boulders. Keepers would haul soil over every spring to fashion makeshift gardens in the crevices around the house, but not a speck would last the winter. Gales would flood the dwelling that stood forty-eight feet above high water and toss waves over the tops of the lighthouses, smashing windows and ruining possessions. It is one of the most dangerous spots on the Atlantic Coast. And it was against that desolate backdrop that a serious seventeen-year-old girl, Abbie Burgess, daughter of Keeper Samuel Burgess, would become a hero known far and wide not once, but twice over.
While Matinicus Rock is not a hospitable place, it was a necessary place for a lighthouse, situated as it was in a busy shipping lane roughly twenty miles off Maine’s shore. Congress appropriated $4,000 on May 18, 1826 for the project, and the island was purchased for $20 from George W. Coffin and George Irish. On January 17, 1827, Collector Isaac Ilsley wrote to the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Stephen Pleasanton advising that two light towers would make it easier to distinguish the station, despite the added $500 expense. After Jeremiah Berry fulfilled his building contract for $3,700, Winslow Lewis fit both lantern rooms with seven of his lamps with sixteen-inch reflectors for $800. However, given their quality, it was impossible that they could have been seen eighteen miles away as stated in the 1839 Light List. The two-story house was designed for strength with two-foot-thick rubblestone walls, assumed quarried from the island itself.
By the 1840s, it was obvious that the towers had been damaged beyond repair by the pounding surf. On one occasion, vibrations from gale winds and leaky lanterns caused thirty glass chimneys to break in a single night! And the “rainwater cisterns [were] useless,” Inspector I.W.P. Lewis wrote, the “keeper obtains fresh water after rains by scooping it out of the hollows of the rocks—a scene of misery.” Regarding the towers, Lewis wrote: “Each tower with its lantern presents a superficial area of about one hundred and fifty square feet to the force of storms, estimated to move often at the rate of eighty-five miles an hour. The only support to these towers is, as before stated, the floor beams of the attic, their span being eighteen feet. The effect of such construction is the complete dislocation of the framing of the roof, and incessant leakage with every rain.” There wasn’t even a place to land a boat, which had resulted in “serious losses several times in being capsized by the surf and undertow.”
Lewis noted that the whole structure required rebuilding, and in 1846 it was, using a design by Alexander Parris and $11,000 provided by Congress on August 10, 1846. Gridley Bryant built a new rectangular granite dwelling with stone towers at each end. Although mariners complained that the two original lights were so close together that they often appeared to be one, the new towers were only two feet farther apart than in the original lighthouse.
Samuel Burgess moved his invalid wife and several of their ten children to the rock in 1853 and began serving as head keeper. Every month, Samuel would take a small boat and head twenty-five miles to shore for medicine and provisions.
In January 1856, when Samuel set off for supplies, he left his willowy, but strong seventeen-year-old daughter Abbie in charge. The wind soon began to pick up, rapidly turning into a gale that raged for a full month while Abbie and the rest of the family faced the very real possibility of death. Abbie described the ordeal in a letter to a friend:
The new dwelling was flooded.... As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the light-towers. If they stood, we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain...During this time we were without assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted by my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.
On August 18, 1856 Congress appropriated $35,500 for building a new tower equipped with an improved illuminating apparatus and a new dwelling. The Lighthouse Board had originally planned to erect a single tower with a revolving light, but instead two new granite towers, spaced 180 feet apart, were constructed in 1857 and outfitted with fixed, third-order Fresnel lenses.
Lighthouse keeper jobs were coveted and political. Positions were often lost as one party’s president replaced another. This happened in 1860 to Samuel Burgess when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. However, Abbie remained to show the light to the new keeper, Captain John Grant, and his first assistant son, William. Captain Grant’s younger son, Isaac, fell in love with and married twenty-two-year-old Abbie before the year was out.
In September 1864, Isaac became assistant keeper. Despite her greater experience, Abbie became second assistant keeper with a salary of $440 per annum. Abbie and Isaac remained on the rock until they and their four children transferred to Whitehead Island Lighthouse in 1875.
As it was shrouded in fog about twenty percent of the time, Matinicus Rock was outfitted with a fog bell in 1856 and then a steam fog signal in 1869. A third assistant was assigned to the station in 1869 to help with the added work. A double dwelling was built on the island in 1877 for two of the assistants.
On July 1, 1883, the light in the north tower was discontinued, and the south light was changed from fixed white to fixed red. On July 1, 1888, this change was reversed, and the north tower was reactivated. On August 15, 1923 the north light was permanently discontinued, and a revolving third-order lens was installed in the south tower.
In 1943, Mrs. Roscoe L. Fletcher, wife of the keeper, described the working arrangement at that time to a reporter. “The keepers are granted four days leave each month. They are on duty Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. The watches are in 4-hour shifts, each keeper having the same watch for one week at a time.”
Newspapers and magazine subscriptions brought by irregular mail delivery, a Victrola, and eventually radios and a telephone all served to ease the isolation felt at the station. But a gale could take out the phone line in an instant and months could pass before it was repaired. Edwina Davis (nee Anderson), the daughter of an assistant keeper who moved there in 1915, said, “Even though we were 25 miles out to sea, we weren’t lonesome. We didn’t have to come ashore to be entertained because we could entertain ourselves.” They read, played card games, played outside on the rocks, and roller skated in the enclosed wooden corridor linking the head keeper's house to the stone house.
Without large gardens and no refrigerators, their diet was low on fresh foods and high on canned goods. Rainwater was collected in cisterns, but when the island was swamped with waves, they would need to clean out the tank and a fresh supply would have to be brought by boat.
Birds (many gulls, terns, and even puffins), waves, wind, and especially the fog signal made life on the island very noisy, noted head keeper Coast Guardsman David Brackett in the late 1970s. Although Brackett said that eventually he didn’t even hear it anymore, once after the horn had sounded for 400 hours straight, he took shore leave. A few minutes after reuniting with his wife, she asked if he was okay. He had been talking for twenty seconds, pausing, and then talking again for twenty seconds, unconsciously repeating the pattern of waiting while the fog horn sounded three great blasts.
In 1983, coastguardsmen removed the Fresnel lens from the south tower and installed a modern beacon. The third-order lens is now part of the collection at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland.
And as for Abbie Burgess Grant, in 1892, not long before her death, she wrote, “These old lamps...on Matinicus Rock...I often dream of them.... I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn out body. If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or a beacon.” Fifty-seven years after her death, she got her wish. Famed lighthouse author Edward Rowe Snow commissioned a small lighthouse statue that was placed on her grave in a small ceremony. The Coast Guard also memorialized Abbie’s heroism by naming a keeper-class buoy tender for her, and several children’s books tell the tale of lighthouse keeping’s youngest hero.
Located on Matinicus Rock, 17.4 miles south of Vinalhaven Island and 27 miles
from Rockland. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Matinicus Rock is part of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Matinicus Rock is part of Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.