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 Little River, ME    
Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Overnight lodging available.
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.

Little River Lighthouse in 1847
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
“Little River Lighthouse was once listed as one of Maine’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Properties by Maine Preservation and many said it could never be saved, but it was saved, thanks to the generosity and help of a whole lot of people,” said Kathleen Finnegan, Secretary of Friends of Little River Lighthouse, a Chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation.

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 Elijah Shiverick. Each lamp burned about forty-two gallons of oil annually. Although Shiverick 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.

Iron tower with old dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
The Lighthouse Board concluded, “this wreck would not have occurred had the fog-signal now recommended for Little River light-station then been in operation. It is estimated that the establishment of such a signal would cost $10,500, and the appropriation of that amount is therefore recommended.” The Board’s recommendation was repeated every year for over fifteen years, but a powerful fog signal was never built at the station.

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 Frederic 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.

Iron tower with new dwelling
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
After joining the Lighthouse Service in 1930, Gleason Colbeth was transferred to Little River in 1945. When the Lighthouse Service was dissolved in 1939 he decided to go into the Coast Guard rather than remain a civilian lighthouse keeper, a decision that he would regret. During an inspection visit in early in 1950, the officer encouraged Colbeth to take early retirement for health reasons. Colbeth had heard that old lighthouse keepers were being squeezed out in favor of younger Coast Guardsmen. Colbeth enjoyed his job and couldn’t afford to retire with two boys at home. Despite the officer’s assurances that he was performing his job well, Colbeth was ordered to take a physical. After that he wrote that he was “informed very bluntly and coldly, ‘to go find another job.’” He was put on disability at $109.35 per month in July 1950, thus ending his career as a keeper.

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.

Little River Light made history on July 27, 2002, when it became Maine and New England’s first light transferred from federal ownership to a non-profit—the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF). Operating under an agreement with the Coast Guard, ALF had previously restored the structures, and relit the lighthouse on October 2, 2001.

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, Friends of the Little River Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF formed in 2007, hired Bill Kitchen, a licensed teacher and former volunteer at the light, to live on the island full-time and chronicle his life. The group aims to connect the light with classrooms around the world through internet sessions. While his presence is also expected to deter vandalism, education is the primary goal.

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!

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7

References

  1. The Lighthouses of Massachusetts, Jeremy D'Entremont, 2007.
  2. Annual Report of the Light House Board, various years.
  3. “Little River Lighthouse launches effort for full-time caretaker, educator,” Bangor Daily News, Sharon Kiley Mack, October 19, 2011.
  4. “Little River Lighthouse Seeks Help for ‘The Lighthouse Endeavor’,”Lighthouse Digest, Timothy Harrison, November/December 2011.
  5. “Memories from Yesteryear,”Lighthouse Digest, May 2001.
  6. “When Naval Personnel Manned Lighthouses, Lightships and Lighthouse Tenders,” Lighthouse Digest, Theodore J. Panayotoff, November/December2011.
  7. “Little River Shines Again,”,Lighthouse Digest, Kathleen Finnegan, November 2001.
  8. “Memories of Little River Light Station,” Lighthouse Digest, David P. Bartholomay, August 2002.
  9. “From The Memoirs Of A Veteran Lighthouse Keeper,” Lighthouse Digest, Timothy Harrison, July 2008.
  10. “Mr. Hal: Beacon of Light,” Lighthouse Digest, September 2005.
  11. “Little River Light Makes History,” Lighthouse Digest, September 2002.
  12. “Memories of Little River Light,”,Lighthouse Digest, Albert C. Vachon, December 2004.
  13. “First Hand Little River Memories,” Lighthouse Digest, May 2006.
  14. “Coal,” Lighthouse Digest, Myron L. Corbett, January/February 2007.

Location: Located on Little River Island at the mouth of the Cutler Harbor.
Latitude: 44.65087
Longitude: -67.19232

For a larger map of Little River Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: To reach Cutler, take Highway 191 from either West Lubec or East Machias. As the lighthouse is on the ocean side of the wooded Little River Island, a boat is needed to get a good view. Bold Coast Charters of Cutler offers puffin trips to Machias Seal Island and sightseeing trips along the Bold Coast that pass by this light. Starting in 2008, you can now spend the night at Little River Lighthouse.

The lighthouse is owned by the American Lighthouse Foundation. Grounds open only after July 15 each year due to nesting. Dwelling/tower closed.

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