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Saddleback Ledge, ME  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.   

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Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse

As opposed to more desirable locales onshore, most of Maine’s light stations were set apart on rocks or islands to warn ship captains of offshore hazards, such as rocky ledges and shoals. Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse was one such light and was known as one of the loneliest, “most miserable” lights of all. Offshore lights were always among the last to receive indoor plumbing, electricity, and telephones, and foul weather could isolate keepers and their families, cutting them off from supplies of food and water, medical attention, and other necessities for weeks at a time.

Early view of lighthouse with old lantern room
Photograph courtesy Library of Congress
Saddleback Ledge is a granite rock rising about twenty feet above the high water mark and being about a quarter acre in size. So named because it is shaped like a saddle, this stone ledge is situated at the entrance to Isle au Haut Bay, between Vinalhaven Island and Isle au Haut. The ledge is so barren that there wasn’t a spot of soil on it; and if periodically a keeper would haul over some earth, come the next storm nothing would remain of the tiny “garden.” Severe storms would even wash over the top of the tower and break the panes of glass. The keeper’s account of the Great Gale of January 27-28, 1933, was recorded in Rockland, Maine’s, The Courier-Gazette:
The seas smashed in the boathouse doors which had a 4” x 4” bar across them, then a brace from the center of the bar to the wench, broke both of them, threw the doors and a 130 gallon kerosene tank up to the wench, where they became wedged between the boats, tore off about eight square feet of clapboard from the northeast side of the house, ripped up some of the shingles on the roof and the water came in over the keeper’s and first assistant’s room; also ripped shingles from our coal bunker, took about 80 feet or more of our boat slip, and we cannot use the liberty boat until the slip is repaired. It parted our telephone cable close to the Ledge, and broke the wire rope stay to the masthead. Seas striking the side and roof shook the building so the stove rattled.

A lighthouse was being considered for either Saddleback Ledge or Spoon Island in 1837, when Joseph Smith, Captain in the U.S. Navy strongly recommended that the ledge be selected as the site. After an initial $5,000 was allocated for the project in March 1837, Saddleback Ledge was purchased the following August for $10, and construction began in 1838. In January 1840, architect Alexander Parris wrote on the left corner of the original plans and drawings for Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, now held by the National Archives, that he had personally overseen the construction on Saddleback Ledge and that everything was in complete conformance with the contract. The actual construction was carried out by Gridley J.F. Bryant, who worked with Parris on several buildings in the 1840s. Parris would later be responsible for five more stone lighthouses in Maine and one in New York.

The simple conical tower on Saddleback Ledge, formed of hammered granite and topped by a black, octagonal cast-iron lantern room, contained rooms for the keeper and his family and was built for $15,000, which, while expensive, was considered “economical” by I.W.P Lewis in 1842, given the quality of construction. The lantern room of the 40.6-foot-tall tower originally exhibited the light from ten oil lamps, set in fourteen-inch reflectors, at a focal plane of fifty-two feet above the sea.

Watson Hopkins was hired as the first keeper, and he and his family resided in the tower, which had a living room with a stove, two chambers, and a cellar. Life for the Hopkins family— which included the keeper, his wife and their seven (later eight) children — was miserable, according to a report Watson made in 1842. His annual salary of $450 was the highest in the district but hardly made up for the conditions he had to endure. While the tower was in good shape, with only one leak, there was no vent for their wood-burning stove. The cellar contained two wooden water tanks for water, but one of them leaked, and the copper trough placed around the top of the tower to collect water had been swept away, requiring fresh water to be hauled from Vinalhaven, seven miles away. While Hopkins had been given a small dory, he had to pay freight on all his supplies as his boat was entirely unfit for his exposed location. When wood and provisions did arrive, there was precious little space to store them. The station’s outhouse had been swept away in the first storm after it was built, and the iron railing around the base of the tower didn’t last much longer. All the windows leaked in storms, and the iron shutter fastenings had corroded away.

View of ledge with lighthouse and bell tower
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
I.W.P. Lewis backed the keeper’s complaints, insisting, “Iron tanks for the water and a substantial life-boat are required at this place, if only out of regard to common humanity.” Lewis had high praise for the tower, noting that during his 1842 survey of northeast lighthouses, Saddleback Ledge was “the most economical and durable structure that came under observation,” and “what is worthy of special remark,” he wrote, “the only one ever erected in New England by an architect and engineer.”

Getting on and off the ledge was treacherous. In September 1843, one week after Keeper Hopkin’s wife, Abigail, gave birth at the station, she and their new baby, Margaret, attempted to board a boat back to the mainland. Somehow the baby slipped into the surf but was rescued immediately with no lasting problems. To make accessing the ledge safer, a great boom, fitted with a bosun’s chair, was installed on the island in 1885 to swing people over the rocks, hoisting them onshore or onto the deck of a boat. This apparatus did turn the experience into a sort of amusement ride for some, but most greeted it with more apprehension than exhilaration.

An inspector in 1850 found the lantern rusty with broken and cracked panes, and the tower’s foundation undermined, making it “a dangerous placed to live in, in its present condition.” In 1855, the tower received a new lantern, and a fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed the following year. Also in 1855, W. B. Franklin, Inspector for the First District, requested that the salary of all his keepers be raised $100 per year. “I believe that such an increase would cause a better class of men to seek after these places,” wrote Franklin. “They are now too often filled by men who are fit for no business, and who apply for these positions because, even with the small salaries now given, they get more money in a year than they could get in the same time by doing anything else.”

By 1867, a wooden addition had been added to the tower, as in a report that year, it was noted that this structure needed to be repainted. This addition contained a boathouse on the first floor and two rooms for an assistant keeper on the upper floor. The wooden building lasted until about 1960, when the Green Berets blew it up as part of a training exercise. In 1887, a pyramidal skeletal fog bell tower was bolted to the ledge and from it was suspended a 1,000-pound bell, which required hourly hand winding in periods of low visibility.

Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse with landing derrick
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
In 1895, the boat slip was extended forty feet seaward, and a thirty-five-foot-long branch slip was made to facilitate launching a boat with the landing derrick. An iron ladder was also put in the tower at this time.

In the late 1800s, several publications printed a story about a keeper who left his fifteen-year-old son at the light while he made a day trip to the mainland. A horrible storm blew in, preventing the keeper from returning for three entire weeks. Although his son had little food, the lad somehow managed to keep the lights lit every night, which told the keeper that his son was still alive. Finally, the keeper returned with supplies, and his weakened boy was nursed back to full health.

First Assistant Keeper Vurney King was on ten-day shore leave in January 1908 when he received a phone call summoning him back to the station as Marnal Newman, the second assistant, had drowned, and Keeper Jerome Brawn was stranded on the ledge by himself. Twenty-year-old Marnal, who had been in the service for three years, set out from Vinalhaven on January 11 in a small boat to return to the lighthouse and was not heard from again. His boat washed up on Robert Head near Vinalhaven but no trace of Marnal was found.

In 1914, the illuminant was changed from oil to incandescent oil vapor, increasing the power of the light, and at the same time, a fourth-order Fresnel was installed in the lantern room in place of the fifth-order lens.

On January 9, 1919, Keeper Leo Allen responded to a young school girl who wanted to learn about his service as a lighthouse keeper, including his time as an assistant at Saddleback Ledge. Allen wrote in part: the “light was 5th order fixed white light and fog bell [that sounded] every ten seconds. The keepers were three in number and had a furlough every ten days. Their families living on the Maine. I went to this station because the salary is the largest in the District. Stayed here three years.”

One night in 1927 at Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, the keepers were sitting in the kitchen discussing wars and rumors of wars, “when bang, bang, bang, something came against the window panes.” The keepers “thought another war had started….,” but it turned out this “war’s” casualties were 124 ducks, mostly dead, that had slammed into the lantern windows in the night. Over thirty stunned, but living, ducks were placed inside the boathouse overnight, and the next morning the rejuvenated birds took flight, honking as they went. A ten-pound drake burst through a pane of glass in the lantern room, damaged the lens, and put out the light. The two assistant keepers “worked feverishly, disregarding their own safety, until the beacon was again sending its welcome message across the water.”

Aerial view of station in 1951
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
By 1946, coastguardsmen were assigned to Saddleback Ledge for five weeks on followed by one week off, with two men always on watch. Jerry Lawrence, a lonely nineteen-year-old guardsman would carry on long conversations with a sympathetic telephone operator he never met just to hear a female voice. Another reported that even watching the snow fall provided a break to the boredom. And in an event that sounds eerily familiar to the late 1800s account of the fifteen-year-old boy stranded on the island, on November 25, 1950, squalls kept three keepers trapped on the ledge with food and water running low. They were cut off from land and communication (the telephone line was severed), until a plane dropped a walkie-talkie for them. Finally, supplies were able to get through by the Coast Guard icebreaker Snohomish three weeks later on December 14. At that time, the men were down to just a two-day supply of water and enough oil to keep the light burning for another forty-eight hours.

Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse was automated in 1954 and is still managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2009, the lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, but given its remote, inhospitable location, it’s doubtful that any group or individual will take it on as a preservation project. The lighthouse remains an active guide to navigation with a 300-mm light flashing white every six seconds and an automated foghorn that blasts once every ten seconds, when needed.

Keepers:

  • Head: Watson Hopkins (1840 – 1849), Lemuel Green (1849), Jonathan Burgen (1849 – at least 1851), James S. Williams (at least 1853), Reuben Freeman (at least 1855), William C. Higgins (1857 – 1858), Benjamin C. Higgins (1858 – 1859), Daniel Leland (1859 – 1861), Jeremiah Douglas (1861 – 1871), James H. Orcutt (1871 – 1886), George W. Blodgett (1886 – 1898), Fred J. Rich (1898 – 1902), Henry C. Neal (1902 – 1906), Jerome C. Brawn (1906 – 1909), Vurney L. King (1909 – 1914), Leonard B. Dudley (1914 – 1923), Andrew W. Bennett (1925 – 1930), William W. Wells (1930 – at least 1940), Alamander Alley (1941 – 1948), Albert F. Osgood (1948 – 1951).
  • First Assistant: David Crowley (at least 1855 – 1856), Nelson Herrick (1856 – 1858), Charles T. Norton (1858 – 1861), John Hopkins (1861 – 1862), George Smith (1862 – 1864), Charles F. Norton (1864 – 1865), E.L. Douglass (1865 – 1871), Charles E. Snow (1871 – 1872), Albion K.P. Blodget (1872), William Blodgett (1872 – 1874), Charles A. Gott (1874 – 1881), Nathaniel Bowden (1881 – 1884), Thomas H. Orcutt (1884 – 1886), George W. Blodgett (1886), Edward K. Tapley (1886 – 1890), Will C. Tapley (1890 – 1893), Levi L. Farnham (1893 – 1895), Roscoe G. Lopans (1895 – 1896), Fred J. Rich (1896 – 1898), Charles E.B. Stanley (1898 – 1902), Charles A. Burke (1902 – 1905), Vurney L. King (1905 – 1909), Leo Allen (1909 – 1912), Willie W. Corbett (1912 – 1914), Leonard B. Dudley (1914), Lester Leighton (1914 – at least 1917), Fred C. Batty (1919), Frank Faulkingham (1919 – 1921), Andrew W. Bennett (1923 – 1925), William W. Wells (1925 – 1930), Alamander Alley (1930 – 1941).
  • Second Assistant: Nathaniel Bowden (1880 – 1881), Jacob J. Lord (1881 – 1882), Eben Hale (1882 – 1883), Thomas H. Orcutt (1883 – 1884), George W. Blodgett (1884 – 1886), Edward K. Tapley (1886), Will C. Tapley (1886 – 1890), Levi L. Farnham (1890 – 1893), Edward L. Horn (1893), Irvin Young (1893 – 1895), Fred J. Rich (1895 – 1896), Charles E.B. Stanley (1896 – 1898), Herbert P. Richardson (1898 – 1900), Charles W. Thurston (1900 – 1901), Fred W. Morong, Jr. (1902), William H. Thompson (1902 – 1903), Roscoe L. Dobbin (1903), Vurney L. King (1903 – 1905), Marnal R. Newman (1905 – 1906), Thomas L. Godfrey (1906), Edward E. Dyer (1906), Raymond D. Randall (1906 – 1907), Marnal R. Newman (1907 – 1908), James V. Calderwood (1908), Willie W. Corbett (1908 – 1912), Fred T. Robinson (1912 – ), Leonard B. Dudley (1913 – 1914), William F. Reed (1915 – 1916), E.A. Howe (at least 1917), Fred C. Batty (1918 – 1919), Frank Faulkingham (1919), Clarence W. Cribby (1919 – 1920), Andrew W. Bennett (1920 – 1923), Alamander Alley (1925 – 1930), Ernest H. Mathie (1930 – 1937), Benjamin E. Stewart (1937 – 1942).
  • Coast Guard: Harold Jones (1943 – 1945), Jerry Lawrence (1946 – at least 1947), Edward Giffin (at least 1949 – 1951), Gordon P. Eaton (1952), Thomas Maddock ( – 1954), Thomas Sampson ( – 1954), Donald Plain ( – 1954).

Photo Gallery: 1

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past, J. Candace Clifford and Mary Louise Clifford, 2005.
  3. The Lighthouses of Maine, Jeremy D’Entremont, 2009.
  4. Lighthouses & Keepers: The U.S. Lighthouse Service and Its Legacy, Dennis L. Noble, 2004.
  5. Lighthouses and Life Saving along the Maine and New Hampshire Coast, James Clafin and James W. Clafin.
  6. “Keeper’s Miserable Life at Saddleback Ledge Light”, Jeremy D’Entremont, Lighthouse Digest, December 2001,
  7. Building Victorian Boston: the architecture of Gridley J.F. Bryant, Roger G. Reed and Gridley James Fox Bryant, Roger Reed, 2007.
  8. “Life of a 1919 Maine Lighthouse Keeper Revealed,” Terry Hussey ,Lighthouse Digest, May 2005.
  9. “Beacons of the Bay”, Orange Coast Magazine, August 1982.

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