Very bad indeed—built of worse materials than [Mount] Desert Light—the lantern in good order as regarded the Lamps & Reflectors, but otherwise positively dirty—dwelling house much out of repair & leaking badly—the man has gone off, being tired of his state of independence. His wife had charge of the whole concern. This Light house I discover was built in 1817 by Frederick and William Pope, under Mr. Dearborn’s superintendence. You will cause the necessary repairs to be made here, before the season be too far advanced; and if the keeper has actually left the establishment to his wife, you will report the fact and another appointment will be recommended.
The keeper, Robert Leighton, did return (it’s possible that he had been sick), and the lighthouse was repaired. Keeper Leighton died soon after, and his wife, Jane, having cared for the light for many years, applied for the keepership. Some say she was paid for her duties, making her one of the first official woman lighthouse keepers in the nation, but Mrs. Leighton’s petition was eventually denied, and Patrick Campbell was appointed keeper instead.
After an 1842 inspection of the station, I.W.P. Lewis wrote that the walls of the twenty-six-foot tall conical rubblestone tower were badly cracked and its wood so rotten that one of the assistants broke through the lantern’s platform while measuring the tower. At the time, the lighthouse showed a fixed light from its lantern room, using eight lamps and nine-inch reflectors, but the lantern glass was so thin that it blew out in storms. Lewis found thirty-three of the window panes in the lantern were cracked.
The keeper’s original rubblestone dwelling contained a full cellar and had a wood-shingled roof. On the first floor were two rooms, with a projecting kitchen in the back and two chambers in the attic. I.W.P. Lewis noted, “north wall of house badly cracked; chimneys smoky; interior plastering scaled off in patches.” For water, the station had a rain-water cistern, and the present keeper, Moses Thompson, had dug a well to avoid having to row six miles to the mainland to procure fresh water.
As Petit Island Light was very important due to dangerous offshore ledges and its location on Maine’s east-west trade route, Lewis recommended a fog-bell and eighteen of the best lamps for the station. Keeper Thompson, who had been appointed on April 1, 1838 at an annual salary of $350, confirmed the lack of repairs to the station’s buildings: “There have been no repairs done upon the light-house and dwelling-house since my appointment, except what I have done at my own expense.”
By 1850, when Richard C. Ray was keeper, the tower held twelve lamps and was “considered in good order, as some repairs have been made the year past.” However, a scant three years later, a report of the recently formed Lighthouse Board recorded: “This is the most eastern first class light on the coast of the United States. It is at present one of the worst of all the lights, and the tower is so badly built, and so old, and the lantern is so small, that little can be done to improve it….” The sum of $45,000 was requested to construct a new tower, equipped with a second-order Fresnel lens, and a keeper’s dwelling.
In 1875, a separate residence was constructed for the principal keeper, and the 1855 dwelling was used for the two assistants and their families.
Although the new ashlar tower, measuring twenty feet in diameter at its base and twelve feet at the lantern, more effectively projected its light, it was also more susceptible to winds. Some blocks were dislodged from the tower during an 1856 storm. Then in an 1869 gale, the swaying of the tower knocked loose the heavy weights of the lens’ clockwork revolving mechanism, and they plummeted down the tower, breaking eighteen cast-iron steps in the staircase.
In 1881, an inspector wrote that the tower was “very shaky” and “it vibrates so much during heavy weather that the plate glass of the lantern is cracked. In a recent gale three panes were thus broken.” Despite having the lantern braced and strengthened and the tower walls repointed in 1882, the problem remained.
According to the 1888 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board the vibrations in the upper portion of the tower were alarming in high winds and had loosened the entire horizontal joint, two courses below the lantern room deck. “In September last,” the report noted “the watch-room and lantern were firmly secured to the tower with six sets of 1 1/8 inch tie-rods, passing each from an iron collar inclosing the lantern to an iron strut set in the masonry and thence to a bolt set in the granite 34 feet below the deck. Fortunately, the lantern was thus secured before the severe gale of December, 1887, which might have otherwise proved disastrous at this station.” This unique method for bracing the tower is still in place today.
In 1842, seven navigators, twelve ship owners or merchants, and thirteen citizens “acquainted with the circumstances” signed a petition requesting a fog alarm on Petit Manan to protect the “property and lives of seamen.” A fog bell was finally erected on the island in 1853, more than a decade after I.W.P. Lewis had requested one, and in 1869, a ten-inch steam whistle was added to the station. A well was dug to supply the necessary water, but as the greater portion of this water percolated in from a nearby swamp rich in rotting vegetable matter, the whistle’s boiler was soon damaged. This problem was addressed by re-roofing the original stone keeper’s dwelling, fitting it with gutters and water-conductors, and placing two wooden storage tanks in its cellar. Two watersheds, each measuring fifty by thirty feet, were built near the dwelling and also fitted with conductors leading to the cisterns in the cellar of the old dwelling. A one-story brick engine-house, measuring thirty-two by fourteen feet, was built in 1876 to shelter the duplicate fog signals along with a wooden tank that held a four-day supply of water. Then in 1887, a larger, thirty-two-foot-square brick boiler house was built to house the fog signal equipment.
In 1899, the abandoned original stone dwelling was demolished, and the rain shed was extended about thirty feet. Also that year, cellars for both the double and single dwellings were excavated in the rock, and the dwellings were placed above them. The fog signal was changed in 1917 from a steam whistle to an air whistle, reducing the station’s need for fresh water.
In the late 1800s, it became clear that some species of birds were becoming extinct through the sale of their eggs for food and the use of their plumage for hats. Laws were enacted to protect the birds, and then a warden system was established by the American Ornithologist Union (AOU) to see the laws were enforced. The AOU turned to a sympathetic U.S. Lighthouse Service for wardens, some of whom were paid while others served as volunteers. In 1901, Keeper William D. Upton at Petit Manan Lighthouse joined the program.
A small school operated for some years on the island to educate the children of the keepers. When a new teacher, Lilla Severance Cole, arrived at that station in 1915, one of the keepers informed her that his wife was about to give birth. Despite her lack of medical training, Lilla was forced to deliver the couple’s eighth child. When the doctor finally reached the island, he congratulated Lilla, thinking she was a nurse.
In December 1916, thirty-four-year-old Keeper Eugene C. Ingalls set out in a boat for Moose Peak Lighthouse to visit his wife, whose father was a keeper there. However, a storm blew in, and he never arrived. His disappearance was noted several days later, but his body was never recovered. He left behind a wife and two little girls.
In response to a young girl’s school assignment in 1918, Head Keeper Leo Allen wrote a detailed letter about his experiences on the island, beginning in 1917, during WWI.
The winter of 1917 was a terrible experience for the three keepers. The nearest village is twelve miles away, making it bad to get supplies. With 5 naval persons and 20 men, women and children and the government only allowing a small amount of supplies at a time. We had to leave quite often for the main. For three months the island was surrounded with fields of ice for miles and three times the keepers were very near losing their lives. If it had not been for the Patrol boats, someone would have gone hungry a lot of times. The 2nd keeper on watch sighted a German submarine 1 1/6 miles east of Tower making it quite a bit of excitement. News came over the telephone the German sub was coming east at a speed of 12 miles an hour. It was sun down. The keeper on watch saw a boat four miles south of station. Took launch and went to warn them they had better make harbor. Arrived back at eleven p.m.
We have a nice house. Hot water, heat, electric lights and telephone, a new launch, a 88 note player piano with one hundred dollars worth music, a good library and four daily papers.
There is three of us in my family, my wife and a little girl five years old. Our Keepers all have large families. The Salaries have been raised this year. Principle Keeper receives $109, 2nd keeper $88, third keeper $73. Our trouble now is a school teacher for the twelve children here. The Government teacher has been here three weeks this year. We want a teacher one month at a time, not one week. When we get the educational part for these children under control everything will be fine.
Maizie, daughter of Keeper James H. Freeman, said that despite the deafening fog signal, keepers would placidly sit nearby reading. The island was barren of trees, but there were wildflowers and a cranberry bog. They abandoned attempts to grow a vegetable garden and once brought over a cow for the luxury of fresh milk. “I shall never forget getting her there,” said Maizie. “You’ve never lived until you’ve shared a rowboat with a cow! But she ate oil-soaked grass one day and passed on to greener pastures.” One time high tide covered the whole island with twelve inches of water. The Freemans moved all they could to the second story of their dwelling, as the chicken coops floated over the cranberry bog.
Petit Manan became the second brightest light in Maine, following its electrification in 1938. The Coast Guard took over the station in 1939, turning it into a “stag” station (for men only). Indoor plumbing, complete with a bathtub to replace an enameled fifty-gallon oil drum, arrived in 1950. When the light was automated in 1972, its Fresnel lens was moved to the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. The station’s 1868 fog bell is now located at the elementary school in Milbridge.
The island’s seabird population has fluctuated over the years, but since the Coast Guard ceded the island to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, several types of terns, Atlantic puffins, Leach’s storm-petrels, and more, have made the island home. The sole surviving keeper’s dwelling on the island was rented to a lobster fisherman for a few years after automation. The dwelling then sat empty until the fall of 1984, when a successful gull-eradication project made the island attractive to nesting terns, and a team from the College of the Atlantic fixed up the structure so it could be used for seabird research. The Fish and Wildlife Service now maintains the 1875 dwelling, the 1876 engine house, the 1887 fog signal building, and a boathouse.
Petit Manan Lighthouse was listed for transfer in 2004 under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. Four nonprofits and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service applied for the lighthouse, and in late 2006 ownership was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. At Petit Manan, the roles have been reversed—lighthouse keepers are no longer watching out for the birds, it is the keepers of the birds who are now watching over Petit Manan Lighthouse.