|Monhegan Island, ME|
Description: Monhegan Island is located off the Maine coast, about ten miles southwest of Port Clyde, and has long served as an important local landmark. The name “Monhegan” means “faraway island” in the tongue of the Penobscot Indians, who for centuries rowed the long distance out to the island to fish and hunt for whales.
Shortly after Maine became a state in 1820, demands were made for the establishment of a navigational beacon on Monhegan Island. Congress appropriated $3,000 for such a lighthouse on May 7, 1822, and later that year, Josiah and Mary Starling sold a parcel of land at the summit of Lookout Hill (now Lighthouse Hill), the highest point on the island, to the U.S. government for $100. The deed to the property also granted landing privileges at the harbor, along with a right-of-way to the parcel and the right to take from any lands on the island such stones as might be necessary to build a lighthouse and dwelling. Construction began in the spring of 1824, and the light was illuminated for the first time on July 2 of that year. Perched atop the 140-foot hill, the 38-foot stone tower had the highest focal plane of any lighthouse in Maine at the time. A one-story, stone dwelling, measuring thirty-four by twenty feet, was built over a seven-foot-deep cellar and located a short distance from the lighthouse.
The Monhegan Lighthouse displayed alternating red and white flashes and was the first colored light in Maine. This was accomplished by placing five lamps on one side of a revolving chandelier, and an additional five lamps, displayed behind sheets of red glass, on the opposite side. The only problem, however, was that the chandelier was off-balance due to the weight of the red glass, making it hard to rotate. To rectify the situation, a 24-pound cannon ball was hung on the side opposite the red panes, and the chandelier revolved just fine.
By 1842, the lighthouse had developed some serious problems. The lantern was leaky and often iced over on the inside during the winter. In the summer, the humidity caused the interior of the lantern to fog up. Furthermore, frost heaves under the foundation caused the tower to lean to the point where the light no longer rotated properly. These issues prompted the government to issue a $6,000 contract in 1850 for removing the old stone tower and replacing it with a 30-foot-tall, circular tower built of stout granite blocks.
On March 29, 1861, Joseph F. Humphrey took over as head keeper of the Monhegan Island Lighthouse. Joining him on the island were his wife, Betsy, and eleven children. Just weeks after the family’s arrival, the Civil War broke out, and two of Humphrey’s sons, Albert and Edward, joined eleven other island residents in volunteering for service in the Union Army. Keeper Humphrey became gravelly ill later that year and passed away on December 5. Betsy Humphrey, with the help of a son and Assistant Keeper Elisha B. Davis, took charge of the light and was formally appointed keeper of the light the following April.
In 1864, Betsy received word that her son Albert had been killed in battle. Edward was wounded in the war and returned home to help her mother at the lighthouse. The family did receive some good news in 1874, when the government provided $5,000 for the construction of a two-story, frame addition to the stone keeper’s dwelling. At the same time, the covered walkway linking the head keeper’s dwelling to the tower was rebuilt. Betsy Humphrey resigned as keeper in 1880, but the Humphrey association with the Monhegan Lighthouse was to continue as the new head keeper, Sidney G. Studley, was Betsy’s son-in-law, and the new assistant keeper was Betsy’s son Fred.
The original stone portion of the head keeper’s dwelling was razed in 1892 and replaced with a frame ell, measuring seventeen by twenty feet, that attached to the frame addition built in 1875. The brick service room adjoining the tower was also erected in 1892. The position of assistant keeper was eliminated in 1922, and the assistant keeper’s dwelling was pulled down, even though the owner of the adjacent land had offered to buy the structure.
A fog signal station was established on small Manana Island, just west of Monhegan, in 1855. The station’s original 2,500-pound fog bell was replaced in 1870 by a ten-inch Daboll trumpet. Two years later, the trumpet was removed to Portland Head and a steam fog-whistle was installed. Finally, in 1877 a first-class Daboll trumpet was installed on Manana Island, and a telegraph wire was extended from the fog signal keeper’s dwelling to the lighthouse on Monhegan. This allowed the lighthouse keepers, who were required to always have someone on watch, to ring an electric gong to wake the keeper on Manana when fog rolled in during the night.
The Monhegan Associates, founded in 1954 by Theodore Edison (the youngest son of Thomas Alva Edison) to help preserve wildlands on the island, led a campaign to establish a museum in the vacant keeper’s house and other structures. In 1962 the Associates purchased the buildings, and six years later opened a museum that has continued to expand in size and popularity ever since. The Associates created a new, separate organization in 1984 called the Monhegan Historical and Cultural Museum Association for the sole purpose of owning and administering the museum. The lighthouse tower itself was deeded to the Museum Association in 1998, though the Coast Guard still maintains a light in the lantern room. This move allowed the chain-link fence surrounding the tower to be taken down and the tower opened to the public.
In the 1990s, the museum was in need of additional display space, so it decided to rebuild the assistant keeper’s dwelling. Using old photographs and drawings, the dwelling was reconstructed on its original site and now houses a different art exhibit each season. Now, the lighthouse and associated buildings, which themselves are historic, help visitors understand and experience the unique history of to Monhegan Island.
Located on Monhegan Island, roughly eleven miles south, southwest of Port
Clyde. The lighthouse is owned by
The Monhegan Historical & Cultural Museum Assocation. Grounds/dwelling open, tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by The Monhegan Historical & Cultural Museum Assocation. Grounds/dwelling open, tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.