|Wood Island, ME|
Description: Thirty-five-acre Wood Island is situated two miles east of the mouth of the Saco River and just north of the town and anchorage known as Biddeford Pool. Just a few miles upstream from its mouth, the Saco River divides into two streams that flow around an island and plummet forty feet. These falls were seen early on as a potential power source, and Roger Spencer was granted the right to build a sawmill on the river in 1653. Later, grain and textile mills were also established along the river helping to support the town of Biddeford on the south bank and Saco on the northern bank.
An act of March 8, 1806 authorized the Secretary of the Treasury “to cause a good and sufficient light-house to be erected on Wood Island, or on Fletcher’s Neck, in the district of Maine, and to appoint a keeper, and otherwise provide for such light-house, at the expense of the United States.” Eight acres of land on Wood Island were purchased from a group of individuals including Pendleton Fletcher for $140 in 1806, and the following year housewrights Benjamin Beal and Duncan Thaxter were awarded a contract to build a wooden, octagonal lighthouse and an accompanying one-story dwelling, measuring seventeen by twenty-six feet. The structures were completed in 1807, but the lighthouse, which was sheathed in shingles, was not activated until 1808 when Benjamin Cole of Saco began his service as the first keeper.
Keeper Cole only served one year on the island before being replaced by Phillip Golthwaite. Keeper Golthwaite lived on the island with his family for twenty-three years until his passing in 1832. His son Tristram then assumed care for the light until weather permitted the family to relocate their cattle and effects off the island in 1833, when Abraham Norwood became keeper.
In the early days of the Lighthouse Service, local collectors of customs were charged with selecting and purchasing sites for lighthouses and overseeing their construction and upkeep. John Chandler, Collector of Customs for the Port of Portland, petitioned for a new lighthouse on Wood Island in 1835 observing that the present tower was rotten and that it “rocks so that it is impossible to keep it shored up.” $5,000 was appropriated for rebuilding the lighthouse in 1838, and a new rubble stone tower replaced the old wooden tower the next year. A new dwelling, also built of rubble stone, was constructed at the same time, but so poor was the work that by 1841 plaster was dropping off the walls and the windows were leaking. The new lighthouse exhibited the light from ten lamps set in 13-inch reflectors. The lamps were arranged in two levels on an apparatus that was revolved by a rope attached to a clockwork mechanism and weight located beneath the lantern room.
A pyramidal fog-bell tower was placed near the tower in 1873 to house a Steven’s striking-apparatus and support a 1315-pound, cast steel bell. Although an automated mechanism was provided for tolling the bell, the station is famous for its four-legged bell striker – a dog named Sailor. Sailor belonged to Keeper Thomas Orcutt who served at Wood Island from 1886 to 1905. Though the dog, being a mongrel, didn’t have an impressive pedigree, it certainly had a talent for ringing the bell. Vessels passing the Wood Island Lighthouse would sound their whistle or bell, and Sailor learned to return a salute by grasping the cord attached to the bell’s clapper with its teeth and giving a lusty tug. The story of the dog’s friendly salutes was carried in several newspapers throughout the country. Sailor passed away in the arms of his master just a few months before the keeper himself died.
Not all was idyllic on Wood Island during Keeper Orcutt’s tenure. Late in the afternoon of June 1, 1896, Howard Hobbs, a fisherman living in a shack on the opposite end of the island, arrived at the lighthouse and told Keeper Orcutt that he has just shot his landlord and neighbor, Frederick Milliken. Hobbs was delinquent in his rent, and when Milliken requested to speak with him, he showed up at Milliken’s place with a gun. Milliken attempted to ascertain whether the weapon was loaded, but Hobbs, who had been on the mainland drinking earlier that day, promptly fired a round into Milliken’s abdomen. Hobbs was immediately remorseful and tried to help Mrs. Milliken attend to her husband, but shortly after returning to the scene of the shooting with Keeper Orcutt, Mr. Milliken passed away. Hobbs retired to his shack, where he quickly penned a letter and then took his own life with a shot to his head. Due primarily to this event, Wood Island is considered by some to be haunted, and in 2005 the New England Ghost Project investigated the island for paranormal activity.
Yielding to requests by locals to restore the lighthouse to its proper form, a three-person team fabricated a new 1500-pound lantern room out of aluminum at the Coast Guard’s Industrial Support Detachment in South Portland in 1986. The finished lantern room was then transported to the island and installed by helicopter. That same year the light was automated and the last keeper left the island, literally leaving the island to the birds as most of the acreage had earlier been deeded to the Maine Audubon Society.
Sealed up and only occasionally visited by the Coast Guard, the dwelling and tower slowly fell into disrepair, leading the Lighthouse Digest to place the lighthouse on its doomsday list. Coming to the rescue, the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, was formed in 2003 to restore, maintain, and interpret the station. The group purchased a vessel christened “Light Runner” in 2004 and began offering tours to the island. To date, the group has painted the dwelling, installed a handrail in the tower, and compiled a detailed history of the station. A major renovation of the tower will be the next undertaking.
Head Keepers: Stephen D. Bachelder (1849 - 1853), Nathaniel Varrell (1853 - 1855), L.F. Varrell (1855), Joseph R. Bryant (1855 - 1860), Ebenezer Emerson (1861 - 1865), Edwin Tarbox (1865 - 1872), Albert Norwood (1872 - 1886), Thomas H. Orcutt (1886 - 1905), Charles A. Burke (1905 - at least 1912), Clifford B. Staples (at least 1915), Wilburt F. Lurvey (at least 1917), Albert Staples (1923 - 1926), George E. Woodward (1926 - 1934), Earle E. Benson (1934 - at least 1954).
Located on Wood Island, just offshore from Biddeford Pool.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.