|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 cause two-ton boulders on the island to shift positions. Keepers would haul soil out every spring to fashion makeshift gardens in the crevices around the lighthouse, 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.
Downstairs, the dwelling had three rooms, a fireplace, and an entry hall, while two bedrooms were located upstairs. Attached to the house was a kitchen with eighteen-inch-thick walls. The ten-foot-diameter octagonal towers were made of wood and held twenty-one, eleven by twelve-inch panes of glass. Cisterns were installed for water. John Alden Shaw, the first keeper, was selected by Pleasanton from seven applicants and paid $450 per year. Keeper Shaw first lit the lights on July 15, 1827, making Matinicus Rock the first of two twin tower lights constructed in Maine, and one of at least ten in the United States. Within weeks, the towers were already suffering storm damage.
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! In 1842, Inspector I.W.P. Lewis noted, “Rain-water cisterns useless; no well; 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 the keeper experiencing “serious losses several times in being capsized by the surf and undertow.”
Keeper Samuel S. Abbot, whose family consisted of nine persons in 1842, described the damage caused by two storms: “Although the base of the house stands forty-eight feet above high-water mark, yet, during those storms, the sea broke in on the southeast angle, destroying the kitchen, shattering the south end of the house, and filling the lower rooms waist high with water. Had not a sudden shift of wind ensued, I believe such another shock would have entirely destroyed the building. No repairs of any kind have been made by the superintendent since this accident.”
Samuel Burgess moved his invalid wife and several of their ten children to the rock in 1853 and began serving as 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.
The following spring, it happened again. Keeper Burgess was onshore fetching provisions when another storm hit and prevented his return. With the family perilously low on food, Benjamin, who had been appointed his father’s assistant in August 1856, set off in a skiff for supplies. For the next twenty-one days not knowing if her father and brother were dead or alive, Abbie kept the lights lit, as the family’s daily rations fell to only one egg and a cup of cornmeal.
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, as suggested by W.B. Franklin, Inspector of the First District, but instead two new granite towers, spaced 180 feet apart, were constructed in 1857 and outfitted with fixed, third-order Fresnel lenses.
In September 1864, Isaac became first assistant keeper. Despite her greater experience, Abbie would later serve as the station’s third 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 1,500-pound fog bell in 1856 and then a steam fog signal in 1870. A third assistant was assigned to the station in 1870 to help with the added work. A duplicate steam whistle was installed in a new brick building, built fifty feet south of the southern lighthouse in 1876, and the following year, a double dwelling was erected on the island for two of the assistants. In 1878, the brick fog signal building had to be rebuilt after having been swept away by the sea.
On July 1, 1883, the light in the north tower was discontinued, and the south light was changed from fixed white to fixed red. This change was reversed on July 1, 1888, when the north tower was reactivated, making the station’s characteristic once again two fixed white lights. On August 15, 1923 the north light was permanently discontinued, and a revolving third-order lens was installed in the south tower. Also in 1923, a fog signal with oil-engine-driven compressors replaced the steam fog-signal apparatus.
During the twenty years John Grant was in charge of Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, one of his sons was always serving as the first assistant and lived with his father in a frame dwelling, while two assistants shared a frame, double dwelling. This arrangement ended with the resignation of Keeper Grant in 1890, prompting the Lighthouse Board to request $3,200 so a third dwelling, whose most important feature was “strength rather than the graces of architecture,” could be built on the rock. In its report for 1891, the Board also provided the following information on Matinicus Rock:
This bare, rocky islet is about half a mile long and of irregular width, nowhere exceeding an eighth of a mile, and the highest part is not more than 50 feet above the sea level. There is a little cove where material can be hauled up in pleasant weather, but it has no harbor. The lighthouse keeper effects [sic] a landing by steering his boat through the breakers on the top of a wave, so that it will land on the boatways, where his assistants stand ready to receive him and draw his boat so far up on the ways that a receding wave can not carry it back to the sea. There is neither tree nor shrub and hardly a blade of grass on the rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles in a large way a confused pile of loose stone.
In 1943, Dorothy Fletcher, wife of Head Keeper Roscoe Fletcher, 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 Assistant Keeper James Anderson, who moved there in 1914, 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, enjoyed 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. Christmas was a bit different than on the mainland. “The only Santa Claus we knew was Sears & Roebuck,” said Davis. “All four families ordered at the same time. It was big doings.”
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.
A storm in November 1950 knocked out the machinery that powered the station’s fog signal and electric light, and the lighthouse went dark for the first time in many years. The station’s keepers sought refuge in the stone lighthouse, where sheets of water, blown off the tops of waves, smashed some of the glass panes in the lantern room. A helicopter was dispatched to the station to drop needed supplies until the sea was calm enough to send a 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 coastguardsman 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 onshore, 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 foghorn sounded three great blasts.
In 1983, coastguardsmen removed the Fresnel lens from the south tower and installed a modern beacon as part of the station’s automation. The third-order lens is now part of the collection at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. No longer needed, the Coast Guard facilities on Matinicus Rock were licensed to the Audubon Society in 1984 for use in the study and protection of seabirds.
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 metal lighthouse that was placed on her grave. 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.