|Cape Neddick (Nubble), ME|
Description: Cape Neddick Light, also known as Nubble Light and Cape Neck to locals, has always drawn hordes of tourists, and the light’s early keepers were quick to cash in on the interest. Today an estimated ½ million people visit Sohier Park every year to gaze across the channel at the lighthouse. A digitized image of the lighthouse was even sent into space aboard Voyager II as part of the collection of materials designed to teach extraterrestrials about Earth.
The light’s first keeper, Nathaniel H. Otterson, blatantly courted the tourist trade with the help of his family. The Portsmouth Journal announced, “Visitors are not allowed to visit the lighthouse at York Nubble between the hours of 6 P.M. and 10 A.M.; but at other times the son of the keeper will row you over and back in his boat for ten cents.” Despite inflation and the dismissal of more than one keeper, the practice of ferrying sightseers continued for many years at the same 10-cent rate.
Brackett Lewis (Sept. 26, 1885 to Dec. 1, 1904) was able to tune out the station’s fog bell so well that he sometimes forgot to deactivate it—even though the 3,000-pound bell was so loud it could be heard six miles away by the keepers at Boon Island. His superiors ordered him to stop transporting tourists because they thought it interfered with his duties. William M. Brooks (Dec. 12, 1904 to Oct. 1912), the next keeper, added the offer of fishing tackle and bait and a 5-cent tour of the station conducted by his wife. Success proved his undoing when his superiors wrote that there were “200 to 300 people at certain times to roam about the reservation with only the keeper’s wife to care for the government property.”
In 1912, James Burke, with twenty-five years of lighthouse keeping experience, transferred to Cape Neddick. The Burke family kept a cow and chickens and supplemented their diet with local mussels, crab, lobster, fish, and duck. Appreciative of the keepers who kept them safe, lobstermen were known to toss a sack with lobsters onto the island while heading home. Burke’s daughter Lucy later wrote that their six-room, gingerbread-trimmed home had a large parlor stove for heat, a living room, dining room, kitchen with pantry, and three bedrooms upstairs, but no bathroom. Sometimes flocks of birds would fly into the tower at night, and hundreds of dead ones would need to be raked up in the morning. After Burke retired in 1919, William Richardson took over and was subsequently fired for ferrying sightseers to the island.
Local mariners requested a lighthouse on the Nubble as early as 1807. Thirty years later, on March 3, 1837, Congress appropriated $5,000 for one, but Captain Joseph Smith, a former U.S. revenue cutter captain, knew the coast intimately and recommended against it, suggesting instead that an unlighted beacon be placed just offshore on York Ledge.
Although the November 1842 wreck of the bark Isidore, north of the Nubble near Bald Head Cliff, pointed to the need for a lighthouse on the Nubble, it wasn’t until forty years later that the lighthouse was built.
One of Cape Neddick’s legends involves the Isidore. Before it sailed on what would be its last voyage, a sailor dreamt of seven coffins lined up on shore and heard a voice saying that one would be his. Another crewmember, Thomas King, dreamt of its wreck and hid in the brush until after she set sail. Seven bodies (including that of the prophetic seaman), washed ashore, followed by the captain’s leg. Some say the phantom ship with its crew can be seen sailing past the light.
Despite the number of wrecks around Goat Island, an 1875 inspection report recommended that the light there be transferred to Cape Neddick, but instead, between 1876 and 1880, a total of $12,119.45 from a $15,000 appropriation was spent to purchase the Nubble and build a new lighthouse on it. The light was built “for the benefit of the coasting trade,” prompted in part by a request from the president of the Portland Steam Packet Company. Plans for building a hotel on or near the island compounded the difficulties in buying the Nubble from its multiple owners, delayed its purchase (for $1,500) until 1879.
A boathouse and boat-slip were built on in the island in 1888, and ten years later, the station was connected to the village of York Beach by telephone using an appropriation for national defense. The station’s bright red oil house was added in 1902. In 1928, after an explosion damaged its fourth-order Fresnel lens, a duplicate was brought from another station. The original kerosene oil vapor lamp was used until the station was electrified in 1938.
The station was originally equipped with a fog bell suspended within a skeletal, A-frame tower. In 1890, the frame was strengthened, and a striking machine, removed from Pond Island, was rebuilt and set up at Cape Neddick. At that time, the bell was changed from an inside to an outside striker, and its characteristic was altered from one blow every thirty seconds to one blow every fifteen seconds. The frame tower was replaced in 1911 by an enclosed pyramidal tower, which remained on the island until 1961.
One of the island’s most famous residents was a brawny, twenty-pound tomcat called Sambo Tonkus or Mr. T. Seeing how attached the cat was to the light, his first keeper owner left him at the station. After the cat had eaten all the mice on the island, one day Eugene Coleman (keeper 1930 to 1946) was shocked to see the tom paddle to the mainland and return with a fat mouse. The ginger-striped cat was a favorite with visitors and was written up in local newspapers for his swimming ability.
Coast Guard Keeper Russ Ahlgren (February 1986-1987) said living at Neddick with camera-happy tourists 100 yards away was “like living in a fish bowl looking out at the rest of the world.” Everything his family needed had to be carried across the rocks on the mainland and put into a basket that was suspended from a line that ran to the island. The keeper would then row his family over to the island and reel in the basket carrying food, drink, and personal items. There was a catchment system for water, but bottled water was used for drinking. “The basket is our mainstay,” Russ said. “The local police or fire department will put food or whatever we need in the basket if we can’t get off.”
Back in 1967, Coast Guardsman David Winchester found a unique use for the basket that became well known through Madeline Downing’s painting entitled “Off to School.” In it, the Winchester’s seven-year-old son Ricky is shown in his knit hat being trundled off to school in the basket over the waves, with his father behind him working the pulleys. Coast Guard superiors were horrified and quickly set the rule that no families with school age children would ever be stationed there again.
The dangerous ledges at Cape Neddick Light posed a challenge for parents of young children. Some are known to have regularly tied their little ones to a post or the lighthouse ladder until they were old enough to safely roam the island on their own.
When the light was automated in 1987, Historian William O. Thomson said, “It’s the biggest issue in our little town. I can’t remember people getting so upset about anything since World War II broke out.” The townsfolk banded together and ultimately “adopted” the station in 1998 under the Maine Lights Program. The town was deluged with applications from people wanting to become live-in caretakers, but water and sewer issues have prevented anyone from moving in.
A big draw to Cape Neddick is the annual Lighting of the Nubble, where the buildings on the island are adorned with Christmas lights starting in late November. The festive display in 2010 was interrupted by a blizzard on December 26 that caused the lines carrying power to the island to arc. The lighthouse beacon automatically switched to a backup battery system, but it went out two days later due to an issue with its bulb-exchange mechanism. The Coast Guard and the Town of York worked together to address the island’s power delivery system so such an interruption to the cherished holiday lighting would be avoided in the future.
In March 2013, the power line to Cape Neddick broke. The light operated on battery power for a few days before going dark. On April 16, the Coast Guard visited the lighthouse to install a solar light. While this provided a more reliable power source for the lighthouse, York Parks and Recreation wanted to have the power line fixed so the annual lighting events could continue. New power lines were strung in early July, allowing the annual Christmas in July even to take place later that month.
Head Keepers: Nathaniel H. Otterson (1879 - 1885), Brackett Lewis (1885 - 1904), William M. Brooks (1904 - at least 1912).
Located on a small island just offshore from York Beach. Finestkind Scenic Cruises of Ogunquit offers cruises that pass by the lighthouse.
Cape Neddick Lighthouse is owned by the Town of York. Grounds open, dwelling/tower closed.
Finestkind Scenic Cruises of Ogunquit offers cruises that pass by the lighthouse.
Cape Neddick Lighthouse is owned by the Town of York. Grounds open, dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Cape Neddick Lighthouse can be seen in the 1949 movie "Lost Boundaries" and in the 2012 movie "Hope Springs."
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.