|Little River, ME|
Description: Lighthouse history is marked by sacrifice. From the daily sacrifices of keepers and their families both under the Lighthouse Service and U.S. Coast Guard, to present day volunteers that preserve the properties and their histories for future generations. Little River Lighthouse is a case in point.
The history of Little River Light at Cutler, Maine began in 1842 when I.W. P. Lewis noted, “There is no place on the coast of Maine where a light would be so truly serviceable as upon the island at the entrance of this harbor, a small beacon light being alone required.” No usable harbor exists between Little River and West Quoddy, but there are two considerable indents, known as Moose Cove and Baylie's Mistake, both of which are lined with reefs, and most unsafe to enter. Lewis believed a light at Little River would prevent any additional fatal disasters caused my mariners mistaking these false harbors for Little River, which Lewis described as being “easy of access, sufficiently capacious for a large fleet, and …secure from all winds.”
Congress appropriated $5,000 in March 1847 to build a conical, twenty-three-and-half-foot stone tower with an attached keeper’s house on the sixteen-acre island at the entrance to the harbor. The light’s seven lamps and reflectors first shone in the spring of 1848 under the care of Zebediah Tucker. Each lamp burned about forty-two gallons of oil annually. Although the keeper performed his duties well, a mere two years later the facility was in a terrible state, “Dwelling house is built of stone, and the tower is connected with the east end of it. The whole establishment is very leaky, the building being considerably cracked; in heavy rains the floors are overflowed, and the rain drives through the walls. Lighting apparatus is clean and good, and the keeper is a good one.”
In 1855, when Keeper John McGuire was in charge, earning an annual salary of $250, a revolving fifth-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors. A fog-bell tower was constructed in 1872 to house a fog-bell operated by a Stevens’s striking apparatus. The foundation for a forty-one-foot-tall iron tower was laid in 1876, as the stone tower was “unworthy of repairs.” The new tower was lined with brick and painted red on the outside. On May 20, 1900, the color of the tower was changed to white.
The old 1847-keeper’s dwelling continued to be used as a residence, and the attached stone tower remained intact until 1879, when its top portion was removed and the remaining portion was roofed over. In 1888, the stone dwelling was demolished, and the present Victorian, wood-frame house was built on its foundation.
Cutler became a popular summer resort, and International Line steamers wished to add Little River Harbor as a stopping place, but insisted that a steam fog signal be added to the station first, as despite the light and fog bell, ships continued to run aground in foggy periods. Keeper Lucius Davis (keeper 1870 to 1896) provided food and shelter for a schooner’s crew after it beached on November 21, 1875, and again for a badly frost-bitten crew on January 28, 1881, although their cargo of corn was lost. The crew of a fishing schooner barely survived in December 1884, after being caught in a gale. On July 21, 1889, the crew of the Spanish steamer Eduardo didn’t hear either Little River’s fog bell or a nearby whistling-buoy and “struck at low tide on July 21, 1889… at midnight and during a dense fog.” The vessel, valued at $285, 000 filled with water and was a total loss.
After the United States entered World War I in 1917, Little River Light Station came under the Navy Department’s purview, along with twenty other lighthouses following an executive order signed by the President. According to the station’s log, a telephone cable was laid to the island on July 10, 1917, a telephone was installed on August 16, 1917, and the station became an official Navy Signal Station in early October 1917. At the end of the war, the light station reverted to the Lighthouse Establishment.
Keeper Willie W. Corbett worked at Little River Lighthouse from 1921 to 1945. The backbreaking process of getting coal to the coalhouse was written about by Willie’s son Myron. Launches were loaded with 200-pound bags of coal, which were placed onto the backs and shoulders of men “who would scramble, slip and slide up the beach with it.” The men would empty the bags on the ground near the boathouse and repeat the process until eight or nine tons of coal had been offloaded.
Though a keeper was happy to receive the coal, it was up to him to get it across the island to the coalhouse. “Little River Island is something like an inverted ‘U’ in that there is a hump right in the middle of the island and no way to negotiate it except over the top and a planked wheeling trestle up the north side from the boathouse was maintained,” Myron wrote. “Every bone wearying step of the way across this humpbacked bit of detached terra firma found one’s mind filled with the desire for an easier way out.”
Both the light and fog bell used clockwork mechanisms that required hand winding every few hours, and there could be over 500 hours of fog a month. “Golly that was a lot of work!” remembers Willie’s son Neil.
Getting the keeper’s children to school was also a chore according to Gordon Corbett, Willie’s grandson. “At Little River… the only inhabitants on [the island were] the keeper and his family. Going to school meant a boat ride every morning and afternoon when ‘papa’ would ferry them over to the mainland and back. A lunch would be packed for each child consisting of a piece of fish, a cold potato and maybe a molasses cookie or Johnny bread. Water was dipped out of the well bucket to wash it all down. Weather, of course, was a factor. There were days when it was too rough to row the children to school or days when it was too rough to pick them up. Arrangements for the latter situation were already taken care of when the children would stay with assigned families on shore.”
Rough weather provided for some humor when Frederick Morong Sr. was keeper (1898-1910). Morong’s daughter, Myra, was being courted by a young man from Cutler, and when the weather turned bad, the family insisted he stay the night for his own safety. Later, they were concerned to discover him missing, but he soon reappeared carrying a bundle - He’d rowed back home to pick up his pajamas.
Coast Guard Keeper Albert C. Vachon (at Little River 1972 to January 1973), had a far more pleasant experience. Upon being brought to the island by Robert (Bob) Marston, Albert was greeted on the station’s boardwalk by Bob’s beagle. “After I was shown my room… there was scratching at the door,” wrote Vachon. “Bob opened the door and in walked a raccoon that started playing with the beagle and eventually went to the kitchen to eat some of the dog food. I knew then that I was in a pretty special place.”
The Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1975, and an automated light was mounted on a skeletal tower erected nearby. The Coast Guard’s plan to tear down the light and sell the island in 1981 was tabled following the intervention of a prominent local resident, but without a resident keeper the facilities steadily deteriorated.
In 2001, the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF), under the direction of Tim Harrison, restored the lantern room so that the Coast Guard could install a new beacon in the tower that had been dark for twenty-six years. The relighting ceremony on October 2, 2001 was attended by over 1,000 people and filmed by the History Channel for a documentary, and by Jeff Dobbs productions for a PBS-TV documentary on the lighthouses of Maine. Because of the terrorist attacks a few weeks earlier on 9/11, the lighthouse, draped in a large flag, was relit as a Beacon of Freedom to the World.
From an application submitted to the federal government that had been compiled solely by Timothy Harrison, who was president of ALF at that time, on July 27, 2002, the Little River Lighthouse became the first lighthouse in the New England states and the third lighthouse in the nation to have its ownership transferred from the federal government to a nonprofit under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
In the early 2000s, a notable volunteer working with ALF was Hal Biering, known as “Mr. Hal”. After visiting the station, this “jack of all trades” traveled from Alabama to Maine to help, bringing along all his own tools. Often he worked alone, carrying all materials from the boat to the station. Fog and foul weather trapped him on the island at times. When a local TV personality asked Hal how much he charged, he said, “I do this for free. I don’t play golf, I don’t play bridge, I just like to work. Someday, people will be able to say, ‘A man from Alabama helped save this lighthouse.’”
In 2011, the Friends of Little River Lighthouse, which had been organized in 2007 by Timothy Harrison as a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, agreed to let volunteer Bill Kitchen, live at the lighthouse for one full year and write a daily educational blog about the day-to-day life on the island with the hopes of raising money for the lighthouse. The program failed to produce the expected results and was discontinued. The Friends of Little River Lighthouse then returned to their program that had been originally started in 2009 with rotating volunteer seasonal caretakers to host overnight paying guests in the restored keeper’s house. Today, the Friends of Little River Lighthouse, consisting of its original members Timothy Harrison and Kathleen Finnegan, also includes Terry Rowden, a former Coast Guard keeper at Little River Lighthouse from 1968 to 1970, and Dave Corbett, whose grandfather Willie W. Corbett was the last U.S. Lighthouse Service keeper to serve at the lighthouse.
You can contact Friends of Little River Light to arrange your own stay at the light, and maybe you’ll decide that you want to stick around and volunteer, too!
Located on Little River Island at the mouth of the Cutler Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the American Lighthouse Foundation.
Grounds are open June - October (that's when the floating dock system is in). Dwelling open to overnight guests; tower open during open houses and special events.
The lighthouse is owned by the American Lighthouse Foundation. Grounds are open June - October (that's when the floating dock system is in). Dwelling open to overnight guests; tower open during open houses and special events.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.