|Burnt Coat Harbor (Hockamock Head), ME|
Description: First lit on August 15, 1872, Burnt Coat Lighthouse on Hockamock Head was transferred to the Town of Swan’s Island from the Coast Guard in 1993, after Congress approved the necessary legislation. Without a resident caretaker, the boarded-up station, which included a keeper’s house, light tower, and bell house, had quickly fallen into disrepair after automation in 1975, but a restoration of the property began in 2006, with funding provided by the town and grants. The town is diligently working to restore the station to its 1930s appearance, but more than that, they are striving to assemble its oral history, replete with stories and photos from the keepers and their descendants. It is worth a visit to their website to see the maps, photos, and personal information they have collected.
The winter of 1874-1875 was so cold that Allen repeatedly had to heat the lard oil for the lights on his stove before carrying it to the top of the towers to power the lights. The tendency of lard oil to congeal in cold weather led to the adoption of kerosene in 1877.
On February 10, 1875, Keeper Allen recorded that the area was frozen solid, and it was possible to walk five miles to the town of Brooklin – a typical wintertime occurrence. Luckily, the one-and-a-half-story, wood-frame keeper’s house was spacious and comfortable, and the nearby coal shed was loaded with an ample six to seven tons of coal brought up from the shore by the keeper. And spacious it needed to be, for Keeper Allen had nine children. The house was connected to the rear, thirty-two-foot-tall tower that shone its light seventy-five feet above sea level. In 1881, a covered walkway, eighty feet long and four feet wide, was erected between the rear tower and the smaller front tower, which beamed its light at a focal plane of forty-two feet. Both of the square brick towers shone white lights through Fresnel lenses — a fourth-order lens in the rear and a fifth-order in the front.
During the summer months, the cistern frequently ran dry, forcing the keeper to row across the harbor to fetch water for his family’s needs.
Following Allen’s death on December 11, 1875, William N. Wasgatt was appointed keeper. Wasgatt nearly lost his wife and two daughters in July 1876 when the station’s dory capsized during a boating excursion, drowning the visiting Mrs. Cutler from Boston.
Instead of guiding mariners into the harbor, the range lights confused seagoers, who sometimes ran aground while trying to make the harbor with their aid. Thus, on August 1, 1883, the rear side of the front tower was jacked up and the tower tipped into the ocean. That same year a new, 3,500-gallon rainwater cistern was provided, which saved the keeper many hours of rowing across the harbor for water. In 1885, a fourteen by twenty-foot boat house was added, complete with boat hoisting gear. Another much appreciated addition must have been the sewer pipe, installed in 1900.
The next keeper was James H. Orcutt, who served from November 1886 to late 1897, when he passed away at the age of sixty-four. On October 23, 1897, Orin Milan was promoted to keeper at Burnt Coat at a salary of $540, after a five-year stint as assistant keeper at Mount Desert Rock. Milan’s salary was set at $552 on June 28, 1912, and raised to $780, on November 4, 1918. When Milan’s wife Nettie was asked in a newspaper interview if she were ever lonely at Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, she replied, “Nonsense! I was never lonely in my life. Too much going on!”
The British schooner Prohibition ran aground near the station on the evening of New Years Day, 1902. Nettie remembered that the night was pleasant, but cold and windy. The schooner attempted to weather the gale off Harbor Island, but its anchor parted. Her husband Orin and two seamen found six crew members safe on Scrag Island and bought them to the light. Nettie said, “They’d have had to stay there all night at two below zero if the dory hadn’t brought them home to warm beds. My, but they were grateful!”
Frank Milan, son of Nettie and Orin, would proudly announce that he was the only person conceived in one lighthouse and born in another – he was born seven months after his parents arrived at Burnt Coat Lighthouse. In 1974, he wrote about life on Swan’s Island and hoped others would do the same. One task he often helped with was winding the bell tower’s striking mechanism. “This tower had to be quite high so that they would have room to hoist the weights that would cause the bell to ring,” he recalled. “As the weights would come down they would cause the striker to hit the bell, which would continue for over five hours. I have wound them up a good many times, and you can take my word that it wasn’t easy.”
The station’s bronze bell was cast by the Meneely Bell Foundry of West Troy, New York, and the bell tower with automatic striking machinery was added to the station in 1911. When it was learned that there were “blind” spots at sea where the bell couldn’t be heard, a siren whistle foghorn was installed following the electrification of the station in 1935. The top part of the bell tower that had contained the weights for the striking mechanism was then removed, leaving a rather strange looking base. The fog bell was donated to the local historical society and is on display near the island’s ferry landing.
When Frank was three-and-a-half years old, he saw the doctor going upstairs carrying his black bag in hand. When a short time later he heard the cries of his new sister, Urla, Frank was convinced that the “the doctor produced Urla from that little black bag.”
Once when Frank was five or six years old, his parents were frantic when they discovered that both he and his little sister were nowhere to be found. Suddenly someone noticed Frank out at the harbor’s entrance rowing the dory home with Urla sitting in the bow. Somehow he’d managed to take the boat from where it was moored and row a half mile to Harbor Island to visit “Aunt” Sue Hardy.
Frank also discovered that it was a great adventure to grease the ways of the long, steep boat slip, remove the dory’s hook, and quickly slide into the water with a great splash. He would repeat the process anytime his father was away, despite the hard work of pulling the dory back up with the hand winch. When the tide was low, the dory would bounce off a few rocks on its slide into the water. Every time the men on the lighthouse tender would bring a new dory, they would wonder out loud how his father could go through so many dories. “Of course, I never volunteered any information on the subject,” said Frank.
“In this particular instance,” Kelley related, “a dozen or more of the family were visiting, creating some disorder, when a ship that looked like the tender was spotted coming into the bay. The cry went up and the cleanup started. Roland, the oldest son, had just come in from fishing and removed a pair of hip boots. Anything questionable was quickly tossed into one of the boots. At that point a rat, disturbed by the ‘to do,’ ran out and was spotted by the Irish setter, Jack. The rat ran into the boot for refuge, closely pursued by Jack, who wedged his head and neck into the boot. Jack ran around the house, wreaking havoc with the boot flopping ahead of him as he continued to try to catch the rat. Fortunately, it was a false alarm and no inspector arrived to survey the shambles.”
Due to the war, the Coast Guard asked Roscoe’s wife, Mary, to vacate the station, making way for four or five young coastguardsmen, who were supposed to assist the keeper and serve as lookouts. “Without Mary to cook for him, and with four or five unruly teenagers to supervise,” Kelley said, “Roscoe’s ulcers forced him into retirement.”
The Coast Guard remained at the station until the light was automated in 1975. In 1977, the fourth-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced by an automatic light on a nearby skeleton tower. The Coast Guard intended to tear down the station, but letters, phone calls, and personal visits to the Coast Guard station in Southwest Harbor saved the buildings. The new light wasn’t as bright as the old one, and after a public meeting, an automatic 250-mm optic light was placed back in the lighthouse on December 18, 1978.
In 1982, the Coast Guard tried to save some money by stripping the tower of its peeling paint and sealing it instead of having to regularly paint the tower. Unfortunately, the redbrick tower in its natural state was difficult to distinguish from a dark background of pine trees, and resultant complaints led the Coast Guard to paint it white again.
The town has placed a new roof on the keeper’s dwelling, renovated the exterior and restored the three main downstairs rooms, which now contain historical displays and are available for such events as weddings, meetings, performances, and family gatherings. The upstairs retains its historic floor plan and is used an apartment for an on-site caretaker and docent.
Keepers: Frederick A. Allen (1872 – 1875), William N. Wasgatt (1875 – 1883), Thomas E. Dodge (1883 – 1886), James H. Orcutt (1886 – 1897), Orrin L. Milan (1897 – 1932), Roscoe Chandler (1932 – 1943), Don Constantino (1970 – 1972), Richard Braman (1968 – 1973), Philip Felch ( – 1975).
Located atop Hockamock Head on the southern side of Swan's Island, marking
the entrance to Burnt Coat Harbor. The lighthouse is owned by the Town of Swan’s Island. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during the summer.
The lighthouse is owned by the Town of Swan’s Island. Grounds open, dwelling/tower open during the summer.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Swan’s Island is blessed with one of the prettiest harbors and some of the friendliest people you will find anywhere. In the short drive to the lighthouse, it was soon apparent that waving at every passing car is an island custom. We quickly embraced the habit and a time or two even initiated the exchange of a pair of raised fingers from the steering wheel.
See our List of Lighthouses in Maine
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.