Description: The bleached, granite headland on Whitehead Island had served as a daymark for the southern entrance of Muscle Ridge Channel long before sea captains signed the following petition in 1798 for a lighthouse on the island to help mariners sailing to and from ports in Penobscot Bay:
That the entrance to this Bay, which is now extremely hazardous, might be made safe and free from danger by the erection of a Light House on a place called White Head, twenty leagues eastward of Seguin, and about two leagues and a half S. West from Thomaston Harbour. That there are about two hundred vessels, from fifty to one hundred and twenty tons, which are employed in the coasting business and which pass through said Bay as often as once a week during nine months in the year, and that not one of these vessels can enter the Bay in safety without the Light which is here prayed for.
A $6,000 contract was awarded to Jeremiah Berry in 1831 to replace the station’s worn-out, wooden structures with ones built of split, undressed stone. The new tower stood twenty-nine feet high and tapered from a diameter of eighteen feet at its base to ten feet at the lantern room, while the new residence measured thirty-four by forty feet and had three rooms on its main floor with three chambers in its attic.
Penobscot Bay is notorious for dense fogs, especially in the summer, which make navigation extremely perilous. In 1830, Luther Whitman was paid $200 for “erecting a building, making machinery, and hanging a fog bell” at the lighthouse. The machinery, which had to be wound every six hours, could be taxing on the keeper when fog persisted for several days. In an attempt to alleviate this burden, a “perpetual fog bell,” powered by the sea and designed by Andrew Morse, Jr., was installed at Whitehead Island in 1838. John Ruggles and Sullivan Dwight provided the following description of the invention after having carefully examined it at the behest of the Treasury Department:
The power which rings the bell is obtained by the rise and fall of the tide and the “swells” which at that place are constant and unceasing. One end of a large stick of timber, near 30 feet in length, projects out upon the water, the other end being confined by braces and chains to the middle of another stout timber, some 20 feet long, which lies along the shore, hinged at each end to a projecting rock; both together forming a T. From their point of junction a small timber rises vertically, to the height of 18 or 20 feet, being well braced to its position; to the upper part of this mast is attached a chain, which, with a continuous rod of iron, extends up to the bell-house, a distance of about 140 feet. This chain receives from the vibrations of the outer end of the long timber, and a “take up weight” in the bell-house, a constant reciprocating motion, which, acting upon the machinery in the bell-house, winds up the heavy weight of about 2,000 pounds, that drives both the regulating and striking part of the apparatus. …The bell is struck four times a minute by hammers weighing about 15 pounds, and the blow appears to be as heavy as the bell will bear with safety…
In December 1840, three captains of vessels that regularly passed Whitehead Island provided letters praising the novel method for powering the fog bell. S.H. Howers, captain of the steamer Bangor, wrote, “I consider this bell as the only completely successful attempt which has ever been made to navigate our waters in dense fog.” William Perry, Jr., who had been keeper at the station since June 1, 1840, also thought highly of the invention. “This arrangement, since I have had the charge of it, has been perfectly successful. The float from which the power is obtained, has stood several extraordinary times uninjured; the machinery that operates the bell hammer is well adapted, and has worked finely.”
During three months in 1842, Keeper Bartlett counted 2,397 vessels passing the lighthouse. As the station had no cistern or well, Bartlett had to collect his freshwater from hollows in the rocks after a rain, and when that source was insufficient, he had to travel to the mainland and procure a supply.
Soon after the Lighthouse Board was formed in 1852, the current tower was constructed on Whitehead Island using granite blocks. Noted architect Alexander Parris designed the lighthouse along with the fine granite towers at Saddleback Ledge, Mount Desert Rock, Matinicus Rock, and Monhegan Island. A third-order Fresnel lens replaced the lamps and reflectors used in the lantern room of the new tower in 1855.
A fog bell struck by an automatic Jones striking machine was installed atop a two-story tower adjacent to the lighthouse in 1853. This bell also had its problems as the keeper reported that the striking machinery would stop after five or six strokes making it less laborious to toll the bell by hand than to keep winding up the machinery.
A reliable and powerful fog signal was finally placed on the island in 1869 in the form of a ten-inch, steam fog whistle. A well was dug to supply water for the fog signal, and a rain shed, measuring twenty-five by one hundred feet, was added in 1877 along with a brick tank house to enhance the station’s water supply. The existing thirty-two-foot-square, brick building was built for the fog signal in 1888 along with a brick cistern with a capacity of 5,000 gallons. After saltwater had to be used in the boilers when the supply of freshwater ran out during two consecutive summers, a reservoir, measuring thirty-six by twenty-eight feet and with a depth of six feet, was excavated and connected to the cistern in the fog signal building in 1890.
During the year ending June 30, 1892, the fog signal was in operation 2,324 hours and consumed 69 tons of coal. A lighthouse tender and its crew would deliver the coal to a shed near the station’s dock, but it was up to the keeper to transport across the island. The keeper received an extra five dollars each month for this work and was provided with a wheelbarrow and a pair of coal shovels. This task was not easy for Keeper Hezekiah Long, a disabled veteran of the Civil War who was assisted by his daughter Abbie, but fortunately, Horace Norton, who had a farm on the island, was willing to help. Norton would use his horse and wagon to haul numerous loads of coal across the islands over the years.
Isaac and Abbie Grant and their four children were transferred from Matinicus Rock to Whitehead Island in 1875. Before marrying Isaac Grant, Abbie Burgess became famous for keeping the light on Matinicus Rock when a storm delayed her father’s return to the station for many days. Abbie’s father lost his position to John Grant, a Republican appointee, in 1860, but Abbie remained at the station and fell in love with and married Grant’s son Isaac.
The Grants lived on Whitehead Island for fifteen years, during which time Keeper Grant served as a teacher for the children on the island besides performing his lightkeeping duties. Clara Norton, the daughter of the keeper of the lifesaving station, which had been established on the island in 1874, later wrote about the island school.
In the winter months we had school for about six or eight weeks, taught by Captain Isaac Grant at the lighthouse. He was a wonderful man. He used the very finest language and taught us so many things that aren’t usually taught in school. It was understood that we were never to show up for school on inspection days, as Captain Grant was supposed to always be busy with his work and was not supposed to teach school.
Keeper Grant received a silver lifesaving medal and some notoriety, though not as much as his wife has received, when he rescued two men on the morning of August 7, 1881. Violent waves repeatedly tore the men from the bottom of their overturned yawl, as the pair was slowly being swept out to sea. A dense fog concealed this pitiful scene from the inhabitants of Whitehead Island, and the surf drowned out the men’s cries for help. Fortunately, the fog lifted, allowing Isaac Grant to spot their predicament. The following account of Grant’s rescue was recorded in the annual report of the life-saving service.
Keeper Grant acted at once with admiral forethought and energy. He dispatched his daughter with the alarm to the keeper of the life-saving station, about a mile away, and while the girl sped on her errand launched his own boat, with the aid of his son Frank, and put out to the rescue. So stormy was the sea after getting past the lee of the light-house that he was forced to throw over sail and ballast to keep the boat form swamping. He soon found that the nearest way to the perishing men was across a dangerous shoal, and time being precious, he risked this peril and after a hazardous pull came up with the sufferers, who by this time were so helpless that they had to be lifted into the boat. They were in a frightful condition, exhausted, benumbed with cold, their trouser-legs chafed off at the knees by the abrasions of their struggles in keeping their hold of the boat’s bottom, and the skin and flesh excoriated for spaces each as large as a man’s hand, forming ghastly wounds.
Visitors at White Head never fail to be interested in the cunning little beast of burden attached to the Light House Establishment -- a sturdy donkey about three or four feet high, fat as butter and gentle as a child. Jack is a picturesque feature of the landscape, as he wanders about over the island. And he is a very useful animal. He hauls all the coal from the landing to the station, taking a ton at about three loads, and lots of other stuff…
The stone keeper’s dwelling was demolished in 1891 and the present frame, double-dwelling was built on the same foundation, with an L that measured twenty-seven by sixteen feet. A brick service building was annexed to the tower the same year, and a brick oil house was built for storing the volatile mineral oil that had replaced lard oil at the station in 1883. The position of second assistant keeper was added to the station in 1896, and the poor fellows that held this position had to live in a converted tank house until a new dwelling was built for the head keeper in 1899.
In 1933, oil-engine-driven air compressors that powered an air tyfon replaced the steam whistle. At the same time, two electric generators were installed in the fog signal building to supply electricity for the station.
Whitehead Island Lighthouse was automated in 1982, and the two dwellings were boarded up and left to the elements. The Fresnel lens used on the island is now on display at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. Ken D. Johnson related how the lens was damaged while he was serving as a Coast Guard keeper at the station from 1979 to 1981. During a visit to the station by a woman from New York, one of the coastguardsman questioned the authenticity of her diamond ring, prompting the woman to use her “fake” ring to put a nice gouge in the lens.
The beautiful 1899, gambrel-roofed keeper’s dwelling was torn down in the mid-1980s. Public outcry from the loss of such magnificent structures led to the creation of the Maine Lights Program, which facilitated the transfer of over twenty Maine lighthouses to responsible owners. Whitehead Light Station was transferred to Pine Island Camp in 1997 as part of the program. The Swan family, owners of Pine Island Camp, had purchased most of the island in 1956. The station buildings have been restored by Pine Island Camp, and since 2009, adult summer programs have been held at Whitehead Lighthouse, which is also available for week-long rentals.
Located on Whitehead Island, just over two miles south of Spruce Head. Since 2009, adult summer programs have been held at Whitehead Lighthouse, which is also available for week-long rentals.
The lighthouse is owned by Pine Island Camp. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Since 2009, adult summer programs have been held at Whitehead Lighthouse, which is also available for week-long rentals.
The lighthouse is owned by Pine Island Camp. Grounds/dwelling/tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.