Burnt Coat Harbor Light’s history lives on
Swan’s Island resident Wes Staples and his brother Bud both served in World War II. But the siblings belonged to different U.S. Army battalions.
So when their paths miraculously crossed in Europe, it was a “wildly improbable coincidence,” summer island resident Fran Chetwynd said.
“Wes told me that they met this other battalion, and he asked the guys, ‘Hey, I’m from Maine, do you know a guy from Maine?’” Chetwynd said. “[They said] ‘Yeah, we’ve got someone from Swan’s Island,’ and it turned out to be his brother.”
This is just one of many personal stories featured in the new exhibit at the Burnt Coat Harbor Light. “Keep Calm and Carry On: Island Life During World War II” documents the experiences of islanders who either served in the war or held down the fort at home.
About six miles from Mount Desert Island, Swan’s Island can be reached via the Maine State Ferry Service. The Burnt Coat Harbor Light is perched on Hockamock Head, about 3.5 miles from the island’s ferry terminal.
Chetwynd, who spends winters in Pittsboro, N.C., is the secretary of the Friends of the Swans Island Lighthouse. Year-round island resident Bev McAloon is secretary of the Swan’s Island Historical Society.
The two women have worked side by side researching and designing the exhibit, drawing information from oral histories, U.S. Coast Guard records in the national archives in Washington, D.C., and other sources.
Besides honoring the approximately 50 Swan’s Island men who served in WWII, the exhibit also highlights some of the many changes to daily life on the island during the war.
“The loss of the steamship during the war was a big deal. That was the connection that everybody used for supplies and for getting back and forth (to the mainland).” Chetwynd said.
The exhibit consists of a series of 11-by-14-inch panels hanging from the ceiling in the two rooms of the lightkeeper’s house. In chronological order, visitors can return to the 1940s and follow island life over a seven-year period. They can immerse themselves in local history from the beginning of WWII to the return to peace.
Visitors also can peruse notebooks filled with the stories that couldn’t fit in the suspended displays.
The exhibit opened June 18 and runs through mid-September, when it will move to the Swan’s Island Library for the winter.
The Burnt Coat Harbor Light has a rich history of its own. Since opening in 1872, the lighthouse has served as a beacon guiding boats into Burnt Coat Harbor.
“Electronics [in the WWII era] weren’t as portable as they are nowadays. They relied on that light at night, especially the fishermen coming in from the south and southwest of Swan’s Island,” island fisherman Sonny Sprague related. “I’m sure they looked for that light at night, coming back.”
The light also signaled to mariners that they were approaching the island and needed to watch out for the many ledges jutting out along the shore.
“You use the light to prevent from going aground,” Sprague explained.
The light station once had a foghorn that it would blast mainly in times of low visibility, and after that, a bell, but neither is used anymore.
The lighthouse’s beacon has been automated since 1975, and continues to be maintained as a navigational aid by the U.S. Coast Guard.
The Friends of the Swans Island Lighthouse group is working with the town to raise the necessary funding to restore the keeper’s house, the light tower, the oil house, the bell house and the surrounding grounds.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have generous contributors,” Chetwynd said.
As of this spring, about $300,000 more is needed to restore the light tower.
Restoration began in 2006. So far, a good deal of work on the outside of the keeper’s house, as well as the restoration of the main floor — including a brand new kitchen and bathroom — has been completed.
The next phase will include work on the upstairs rooms of the keeper’s house — beginning with removal of lead paint and asbestos tile — and renovations to the interior and exterior of the light tower.
Touring the lighthouse: Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tours are from noon to 3 p.m. For more info, call 526-4025.
Hiking at Hockamock Head: Stretch your legs and follow the 1.8-mile trail system on the lighthouse grounds.
Bite to eat: Prepared food and beverages can be found at Island Market and Supply at 40 North Road.
Learn more: www.burntcoatharborlight.com, Friends of the Swans Island Lighthouse’s Facebook page.