|Libby Island, ME|
Description: Long ago, the Libby Islands, consisting of Little Libby Island and Big Libby which are joined by a sandbar, were blanketed with trees. Today, there isn’t a single one; only stumps hidden by scrubby grass serve as reminders of the long-lost forests. And by 1980, all the buildings that made up Libby Island Light Station, other than the tower and fog signal building, had disappeared as well. Upkeep is expensive on remote islands, and the final keeper’s dwelling was reputedly destroyed as a training exercise by an amphibious army unit.
A beach-stone tower and a small brick house were built directly on a rocky ledge near the southern end of Little Libby Island in the summer and fall of 1822 by contractors Benjamin Beal and Quincy Bicknell, who submitted the low bid of $2,850. The light, which marks the entrance to Machias Bay and also serves as a coastal light, was first lit by Keeper John McKellar in November 1822. Over the ensuing winter, the tower developed a crack, which McKellar attempted to secure with braces until the return of warm weather permitted proper repairs. However, in April 1823, mere months after being constructed, the tower collapsed “with a dreadful crash to the ground.” Collector and Superintendent of Lighthouses Isaac Isley opined that a combination of poor workmanship and lime mortar that had not completely hardened before the frost set in caused the structure to crumble. The tower was rebuilt by Noah Humphrey for $1,449, and its lantern displayed a light made up of ten lamps, until a fourth-order Fresnel lens took their place in 1855.
Matthew Kellar took charge of the station in 1846, and an 1850 report deemed him a “good” keeper. The rebuilt stone tower was in good repair, but not the house. It was badly repaired and very leaky, causing the “keeper’s family [to] suffer very much in consequence of it, in rainy weather.” A new dwelling was built in 1854, and three years later, the station finally received a boat slip.
Libby Island is one of the foggiest spots on Maine’s coast. In 1867, the stations bell tower was blown down and had to be rebuilt. The fog bell machinery was broken in the incident but was soon repaired. The bell was replaced by a third-class Daboll fog trumpet, installed in August 1884 inside a new, thirty-two-foot-square, brick building. The additional work required to operate the fog signal necessitated an assistant keeper. In 1890, the signal sounded 2,233 ½ hours and consumed about eight tons of coal.
A more powerful steam whistle was installed on Libby Island in 1891, along with a 40 by 140-foot rain shed to provide the necessary water. Up to this time, the assistant keeper had been related to the head keeper – either a brother-in-law or a son-in-law – so the keepers could live together under one roof. This changed with the resignation of Head Keeper A. M. Drisko in 1891, and to make matters worse, the steam whistle required the appointment of a second assistant. While the Lighthouse Board unsuccessfully petitioned for funds for a new double-dwelling, the old dwelling was enlarged in 1896, and then in 1898 part of the rain shed was converted into a dwelling for the head keeper. The dwelling shared by the assistants was finally “remodeled, enlarged, and renovated,” in 1902, and the dwellings and fog signal building were linked by telephone.
Every year, the barn, whistle house, and tower were whitewashed and the lantern painted black. There was fence and slip mending, brass polishing, and home repairs to be attended to as well. Annually, eighty tons of soft coal were delivered for the fog signal and unloaded by the tender’s crew. Each family was allotted twenty-one tons of hard cold, and several cords of firewood. In 1923, a diesel-powered fog signal using fifty-gallon drums of diesel replaced the dirty coal-fed system. The light also required vast quantities of fuel. “Kerosene for the light had to be carried from a storage building about a hundred feet away,” wrote Phil Wass, son of Hervey Wass. “The hard part was carrying it up the spiral staircase to the top of the tower. Another time-consuming job was pumping air into the pressure tank. The kerosene was sprayed, under pressure, through a jet. The vaporized fuel, when burned, heated the mantle, which glowed with an intense white light.... When the light was burning satisfactorily, it gave out a loud roar and an extremely bright light. Somewhat blinded, we would carefully make our way down the stairs, hanging onto a rope attached to rings in the wall.” The light had to be monitored, because although the kerosene was strained, impurities could clog the jets causing clouds of smoke and tall flames, which could fill the entire lantern room.
Nights were divided into three shifts, light-up to 10 p.m., 10 p.m. to 2 a.m., 2 a.m. to dawn. If someone was on leave, the shifts were six hours long. Some repairs required machinists and other workmen who would board with the families until their duties were completed. One man who stayed in the Wass’ house in the boys’ room was suspected of using the window instead of the chamber pot. While the boys found this funny, their father did not, as the water from the roof ran into their cistern for drinking water. To solve the matter, Keeper Wass nailed the window shut.
The head keeper assigned tasks, planned the work, and kept the log—recording all major events and tracking supplies. At Libby Island many of the records refer to fog-related issues—the specific types of fog equipment, amount of fuel consumed, the number of hours the signal sounded, and the blast characteristics.
Then there was farming and animal husbandry (with at least one milk cow and plenty of chickens), hunting and fishing, and gathering berries (cranberries, raspberries, and blueberries) to keep them occupied. Somehow, the keepers still managed to find time for family, religion, and games.
While at Libby there were few conflicts, as the Wass family wasn’t very close to the other families. There were no joint meals, socializing, picnics, or holidays, but they did play baseball after dinner. There was also a swimming hole that the men dynamited out of the rock. The sun would warm the captured seawater, making it a pleasant place for the children and adults alike.
In 1921, George Woodward, a widower with two children, Coleman and Charlotte, joined the station as an assistant. George Woodward and Hazel Wass fell in love, and they married when she returned to the island as a school teacher.
Assistant Keeper Gleason Colbeth spent thirteen-and-a-half years at Libby Island under Wass, who was sixty-seven when illness forced his retirement in 1940, leaving Colbeth in charge with assistant Jasper L. Cheney.
During World War II, six coastguardsmen were assigned to the station to look out for enemy ships and planes. They were young and inexperienced with the rough seas that made landing a boat a challenge at Libby Island. Colbeth remembered, “Getting these young boys on and off the island for liberty was a major inconvenience for the lighthouse keepers.”
Libby Island’s remote location was nearly fatal when one of Colbeth’s sons was duck hunting on the island. The boy leaned his gun on a rock, and his dog knocked it over, causing it to discharge and strike his right arm. Assistant Keeper Cheney was a decent medic, but it took the Coast Guard four hours to arrive to transport the lad to the hospital in Machias. He lost a lot of blood and never regained full use of the arm.
In the late 1940s, Libby Island Lighthouse was modernized. Keeper Gene Watts wrote to the Maine Coast Fisherman in October 1949, “Upon my arrival... kerosene lamps were used in the dwelling... [but] all that has been changed. We now have 110-volt electricity all over the place, light tower and all. We have a modern bathroom with tile walls, also an up-to-date kitchen with all the conveniences....” In 1974, the Coast Guard left when the light was automated and the Fresnel lens removed.
In the late 1800s, Libby Island’s keepers became wardens, helping the American Ornithologist Union save the lives of sea birds, whose numbers were being depleted for their eggs and feathers. Today, the roles have reversed. Libby Island Light was transferred to the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge in 1998, and now the keepers of the birds care for what remains of the station.
Located on Libby Island, marking the entrance to Machias Bay. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Libby Island is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds/tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Libby Island is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Grounds/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
“Lighthouse in my Life” by Philmore Wass is the best book I have read for understanding what it was like to grow up in a lighthouse family on a remote island. Philmore’s father, Hervey, served as head keeper of Libby Island Lighthouse for twenty-one years, after transferring from Whitehead Island in 1919. Philmore and his brother Irwin thrived on Libby Island, enjoying countless adventures through pulling lobster traps, hunting waterfowl, and exploring shipwrecks. One of Philmore’s sisters, Winona, did not relish life on Libby Island quite so much. In fact, when asked to make a tape about her life on Libby, she replied “I don’t want to talk about Libby Island. I hated the place.” The isolated island life, with few children for playmates, was clearly not meant for everyone.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.