|Mount Desert Rock, ME|
Description: Mount Desert Rock is one of the most isolated and desolate places ever used for a lighthouse. Located off the shore of Maine, twenty-six miles from the nearest harbor, the rocky islet is only 600 yards long and 200 yards wide, and its highest point is only twenty feet above the sea at low tide. During storms, the entire island can be submerged by waves. Being a keeper at this remote station was a true test of endurance.
Congress allocated $5,000 in 1829 for a lighthouse “on the most eligible” spot on Mount Desert Rock. Gamaliel E. Smith made a low-ball bid, and by the time the lighthouse was to be completed in mid-October, his crewmen, who were forced to work without proper tools, had only excavated part of the cellar. Smith was accordingly dismissed, and Joseph Berry, another contractor who made a bid of $2,770 on the project and who had recently completed the lighthouse at Hendricks Head, was hired to complete the work. Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse, consisting of a stone dwelling surmounted by a wooden tower and “bird cage” lantern was completed by Berry in the summer of 1830.
Almost a century and a half later, just before Christmas in 1977, a helicopter landed on the rock and took away the last two keepers as the lighthouse was automated. Twenty-year old Coast Guardsman Douglas Nute, from St. Louis, was one of those last two people. Nute said that after his first 24 hours on duty at the rock, he was ready to scream. He had previously been on duty for 18 months at Great Duck Island Light, about halfway between Mount Desert Rock and the mainland, so he was familiar with duty on isolated islands.
Mount Desert Rock had almost no vegetation, and could be walked completely in a few minutes. “At least on Great Duck,” he said, “you had a mile and a half circumference you could walk, and trees, and grass, and birds and people over on the other side you could talk to. But on this Rock, there was nothing but the noise of the foghorn day and night.” The Coast Guard tried to make life more bearable on the Rock by supplying the keepers with books, radios, television sets, video games, and even a pool table. Even so, after every twenty-two days or so of duty, each guardsman went ashore for eight days of leave.
The original 1830 optic consisted of a chandelier of ten Argand lamps backed by 14-inch reflectors displayed from a focal plane of 56 feet above sea level. This was not good enough to be an effective aid to navigation, and in 1847 Congress authorized $15,000 for the “rebuilding” of a lighthouse on Mount Desert Rock. The new lighthouse, which was separate from the dwelling, was described in an 1850 report as “a beautiful tower, built of heavy granite stone, and just such a building as the locality needed, to stand the furry of the elements.” In 1857, the newly formed Lighthouse Board supplied a new lantern room and third-order Fresnel lens for the tower.
In 1876, a one-and-a-half story frame dwelling was built on the rock just south of the old stone dwelling that was still being used by the keepers. Later, a larger, 1,000-pound bell replaced the original fog bell, but no matter how hard the bell was struck, it wasn’t loud enough to be heard too far over the noise of the crashing waves. Finally, in 1888 a fog horn was installed, sounding for three seconds followed by twelve seconds of silence. A prefabricated wooden duplex replaced the old stone dwelling on the island in 1893 and was linked to the tower by a covered walkway. That same year, the tower was raised an additional twenty feet, to 75 feet above sea level.
“…one could hardly see ten feet ahead. It was inky dark and blowing one of the worst gales I have ever seen. It was high tide and we could make out some kind of steamer ashore on the northeast point, but the big seas were running so mountain-high that it would have been suicide for us to try to get out to her. We got down ropes and life preservers as near the wreck as we could, but we were compelled to wait until the tide went down and we could cross the point and get a line to the craft. We succeeded in rescuing seventeen men.”
Mount Desert Rock was a desolate place, and nothing grew there. Fishermen would show their thanks for the light by bringing baskets of dirt to the rock. The keepers would throw the dirt into protected crevasses in the rock and try to plant a few flowers or vegetables. Unfortunately, the next storm to appear usually tore the plants out and washed the dirt away.
Few keepers lasted very long at this inhospitable station. One Rufus King lasted almost six years, from 1853 to 1859, when he was terminated for an unknown reason. His replacement, George Booth, resigned after 17 months, and his replacement lasted less than eight months. As an incentive, keepers at Mount Desert Rock were paid a salary of $840 a year, compared to around $600 for most other lighthouses. One keeper, Thomas Milau, did manage to last almost twenty years, from 1882 to 1902.
Since the late 1970s, the light station has been used as a whale watching station by the College of the Atlantic. The lighthouse was transferred to the college under the Maine Lights Program in 1998 and remains an active aid to navigation. The lighthouse is automated and the beacon is solar-powered. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Sometimes whale watch cruises leaving from Bar Harbor may pass Mount Desert Rock, but only if the whales happen to be passing that way, too.
Located on Mount Desert Rock, roughly 24 miles south of Bar Harbor. The structures on the island are owned by the
College of the Atlantic, which uses them for visiting researchers. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
The structures on the island are owned by the College of the Atlantic, which uses them for visiting researchers. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
On May 13, 1973, the Coast Guard sent a patrol boat to Mount Desert Rock after the station failed to make a routine radio check. The two men assigned to the station, Ronald Paquette and Neil Pichette, were found floating in a fifteen-foot rowboat not far from the lighthouse. A local medical examiner ruled that the men "drowned as a result of exposure." The men had served ten days of their fourteen-day tour on the island when radio contact was lost. The station's radio was found to be in working condition.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, John Williams, used by permission.