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Deer Island Thorofare (Mark Island), ME  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.   

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Deer Island Thorofare (Mark Island) Lighthouse

Deer Island Thorofare is a narrow passage that runs between the southern end of Deer Isle and numerous offshore islands and ledges. This important waterway links East Penobscot Bay to the west with Jericho Bay to the east and is one of many popular inland passages along the coast of Maine. Tiny Mark Island is located at the western entrance to the passage, and in 1855, W.B. Franklin, Lighthouse Inspector for the First District, recommend that $5,000 be requested for establishing a light on the island to “enable vessels to cross Isle au Haute bay, and get into Deer Island thoroughfare.”

Station before dwelling was painted white in 1878
Photograph courtesy National Archives
Congress appropriated the requested amount in August, 1856, and six-acre Mark Island was purchased from David and Mercy Thurlow that December for $175. Work on the lighthouse, which consisted of a square, brick tower connected to a seven-room, frame dwelling by a brick workroom, commenced during the summer of 1857, and the fixed white light from the tower’s fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in service at sunset on March 1, 1858. The light has a focal plane of twenty-five feet above the ground and fifty-two feet above high water and could be seen from up to twelve miles away.

Thomas Colby Small, a second cousin of David Thurlow, was appointed first keeper of the lighthouse. Small had been a seafaring man, but a fall from a ship’s rigging ended that career. Keeper Small and his wife, Eliza Fifield, were the parents of fourteen children.

Samuel Holden, a Civil War veteran, was appointed the fourth keeper of Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse in 1868. Upon his death in 1874, Melissa, his wife, took over the role of keeper, but running the station and caring for five children under the age of thirteen proved to be too much for one person to handle. An inspector filed the following report for Deer Island Thorofare in 1875: “The Station is in a neglected state. Cleanliness and neatness are strangers to it. If no improvement, the Keeper should be removed. Her husband died March ‘74 of sore throat.” Melissa’s term as keeper of the light ended in 1876.

In 1878, the keeper’s dwelling, originally painted brown, was clapboarded and painted white.

A frame boathouse was added to the station in 1877, and in 1881, 175 trees on the island were cut down to make the light visible from all points of approach. On October 15, 1884, a bell, struck a double blow by machinery every fifteen seconds, commenced operation in a frame tower, seventy-five feet northwest of the lighthouse. An oil house and a fuel house were added to the station in 1895. A new beam for hanging the bell was installed in 1902, and the bell’s striker was moved from inside the bell to outside the bell.

John Purington served as keeper from 1912 until 1916, when he swapped positions with Allen C. Holt, who was keeper at Nash Island. This move allowed the Holt children, who had been being home schooled by their mother, to attend Stonington High School. The children would board in Stonington during the winter but would often travel to and from school in the station’s motorized dory in the fall and spring.

Keeper Holt was always quick to render assistance to any boat that encountered difficulties near Mark Island. In 1917, he was recognized for helping float the schooner Sarah and Lucy, which had run ashore on rocks off Andrews Island, for towing the disabled steamer Minnehaha to a place of safety, and for towing a stranded motorboat owned by Everett Gross to Stonington. In 1921, Keeper Holt towed a disabled powerboat to Sand Beach, and on his return trip, he towed a disabled lobster boat to Stonington.

View of bell tower and lighthouse from sea
Photograph courtesy National Archives
In 1905, Angus and Alexander MacDonald, brothers and pastors, founded the Maine Sea Coast Mission, whose purpose was to minister to the needs of residents of isolated communities and islands. Edwin Mitchell accompanied the crew of the mission’s steamer Sunbeam as it visited several offshore light stations and wrote about his experience in the book Anchor to Windward. Mitchell gave the following account of a stop at Mark Island:
I could see the light keeper, Alva Robinson... as he came down from the lighthouse in his rubber boots onto the rocks at the best landing place... A small black-and-tan dog nearly went mad with excitement as we neared the shore. Without any passing motor cars to bark at, he barks at passing boats, running along the rocks in vain pursuit of them...The keeper caught the bow of the skiff and there was a scramble to get out. I was a fraction of a second late. With the bow in the air, a wave which must have come all the way from Baffin’s Land broke over the stern, drenching me and the magazines...

The dog cut circles around us as we trudged up to the kitchen door of the lighthouse, where we were cordially welcomed by Mrs. Robinson and Miss Rachel Robinson, who seemed pleased with the magazines despite their damp condition. The pots and pans in the kitchen shone, and the floors in the house were like mirrors. I had the feeling that here was a perfectly kept light station.

The three members of the Robinson family are the only persons on the island, and I think we were the first visitors in five or six months. Mr. Robinson said that he managed to get ashore for mail and supplies about once a week, but I gathered that Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, a girl of perhaps seventeen, had not been to the mainland for several months. Mrs. Robinson said that she and Rachel crocheted and made quilts and went to bed early. They had been at the lighthouse four years. Before that they were at Matinicus Rock for six years. “Don’t you like it better here?” I asked Mrs. Robinson. “Well, we’re nearer to things,” she said, “but still it’s an island.” There was no note of complaint as she said this, but that phrase, “still is an island,” has recurred to me many times. I gained the impression that while Matinicus Rock is an offshore light it was less lonely for the Robinsons because of the other families stationed there.

The square white tower of the thoroughfare light, which is over eighty years old, is attached to the dwelling. The connecting room between the two was unheated, and the Robinsons were using it as a cold-storage place for their provisions. Here were their meats, butter, and other supplies; it looked to me as if they had enough to hold out for weeks should they be cut off. In this room were also kept the sacred vessels of the light the polished brass oil measures, the brass box containing cleaning cloths for the lens, and a spare lamp for the light. There was even a brass dustpan, which was so bright it might have been used for a handmirror.

Ralph Stanley Andrews, Sr., who was a keeper at Mark Island from 1945 to 1948, slipped while boarding a dinghy from a motorboat in the summer of 1946, and as a result, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. His wife and stepmother cared for the light until a relief keeper arrived at the station three days later. Andrews was able to return to lighthouse duties on crutches, eleven days after the incident. Things were still rather primitive on the island during Andrews’ service as he recalls using a kerosene refrigerator, an outhouse, and a cistern to collect rainwater.

Postcard showing dwelling with porch and dormers
On September 10, 1958, a battery charger in the basement of the dwelling exploded, causing a fire that quickly spread to other areas of the house. Firefighters from Stonington were summoned along with the Coast Guard cutter Laurel, and together, they managed to save the brick light tower, but the dwelling was a total loss. As marine traffic in the area had decreased, the Coast Guard decided to automate the station rather than rebuild the dwelling. A modern optic replaced the Fresnel lens; a continuously sounded horn took the place of the fog bell; and all of the station’s outbuildings were torn down.

Nearby residents were not pleased with the constant blaring of the “bull moose call,” a nickname they gave the new fog signal. “Many nights I have to turn my radio on loud to drown out the horn in order to sleep,” complained one person, and another wrote, “When we get a good southwest breeze, the thing might just as well be in the living room.” A reduction in power and relocation of the foghorn in July 1959 placated the neighbors.

Late in 1997, the Maine Lighthouse Selection Committee, which oversaw the transfer of thirty-five lighthouses under the Maine Lights Program, announced that Island Heritage Trust would be the new owners of Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse. As members of the trust, Dr. Ken Crowell, and his wife, Marnie Reed Crowell have done much to preserve and document the lighthouse. Dr. Crowell, an emeritus professor of Biology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, first became acquainted with Mark Island when he studied its mice populations in the 1980s. Marnie Reed Crowell has authored Mark Island Light, an informative volume on the history of the lighthouse and whose proceeds are donated to the trust’s Lighthouse Fund.

To celebrate the deed passing to Island Heritage Trust, a Mark Island Light celebration was held on March 14, 1998. Besides local residents, those in attendance included descendants of keepers and former keeper Ralph Andrews. Local schoolchildren put on a skit about a circus ship sinking off Mark Island, and items were auctioned off to help maintain the lighthouse.

Head Keepers: Thomas C. Small (1857 – 1861), Paul Thurlow (1861 – 1864), Levi Babbidge (1864 – 1868), Samuel E. Holden (1868 – 1874), Melissa Holden (1874 – 1876), James A. Morris (1876 – 1881), Charles A. Gott (1881 – 1887), Howard M. Gilley (1887 – 1896), Will C. Tapley (1896 – 1905), Charles E.B. Stanley (1905 – 1914), John E. Purington (1914 – 1916), Allen C. Holt (1916 – at least 1921), Henry Smith, Stanley Kimball, Elmer E. Conary (1923 – 1935), Joseph Muise (1935 – 1936), Alvah Robinson (1936 – 1945), Ralph Stanley Andrews, Sr. (1945 – 1948), Irving Hines (1948 – ), Benjamin Stockbridge ( – 1950), Morton M. Dyer (1950 – ), Joe Friend (1953 – ), James McPherson (1953), Richard Kwapiszewski (at least 1954 – 1958)

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  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouses of Maine, Jeremy D’Entremont, 2009.
  3. “Maine Seacoast Mission,” Jim Claflin, Lighthouse Digest, March, 2007.
  4. Maine Lighthouses, Documentation of Their Past, J., Candace Clifford, Marry Louise Clifford, 2005.

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