Oh, the stories they could tell, the 57 lighthouses strung along Maine’s rocky coast and on its outer islands: Stories of epic storms and daring rescues; stories of men and women who endured hardship and isolation to keep the life-saving beacons burning.
The most remote of the Maine lighthouses has stood since 1847 on Mount Desert Rock, a small island of solid granite 21 miles off Mount Desert Island.
The keeper and his family lived in a sturdy frame house next to the granite light tower.
“In the winter, spray from the waves would hit the house and freeze the doors shut, and they would have to wait for the sun to come out before they could get out to tend the lights,” said Zack Klyver, lead guide for Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., which offers several lighthouse tours.
Lighthouse historian Jeremy D’Entremont, author of numerous books including “The Lighthouses of Maine” series, tells of a tugboat pulling a barge that ran aground at Mount Desert Rock in December 1902 with 18 men on board.
“The situation looked hopeless, but with the arrival of low tide, Keeper Fred Robbins and an assistant…managed to get close enough to the vessel to get a line aboard. All the men except one who had already frozen to death were pulled to safety.”
In 1836, a ship carrying circus performers and animals sank just off Saddleback Ledge, a tiny granite outcropping at the entrance to Penobscot Bay. That prompted Congress to approve construction of a lighthouse on the ledge.
When it was completed in 1839, its first keeper, Watson Hopkins, moved into the four-room living quarters inside the light tower with his pregnant wife and seven children.
The Hopkins family and their successors did not enjoy an easy life. There is no soil on Saddleback Ledge, so some of the keepers brought soil from the mainland to plant gardens in the spring.
“The soil would inevitably be swept away by winter storms,” according to D’Entremont.
Klyver said Saddleback Ledge is so small that “it’s hard to believe they put a lighthouse there.”
“But it’s really a stunning sight, with the beautiful little light and the waves breaking against the rocks.”
The light on Egg Rock, four miles from Bar Harbor at the mouth of Frenchman Bay, has perhaps suffered more damage from violent storms than any other lighthouse in Maine. Barely four months after it went into service in November 1875, wind-whipped waves flooded the keeper’s house, demolished the fuel shed and moved the fog bell tower about 30 feet, according to D’Entremont.
He noted that Ambrose Wasgatt was the first of several Egg Rock light keepers to write in his log after a storm that “everything moveable has been washed away.”
The most destructive force that most keepers and their families ever faced was Mother Nature. For William Gilley, the first keeper of the Baker Island light, it was politics.
After Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig Party, was elected president in 1848, government officials strongly suggested that federal employees, including lighthouse keepers, should become Whigs. Gilley refused and lost the job he had held for 20 years.
Klyver said the U.S. Coast Guard and its predecessor, the U.S. Lighthouse Board, often hired keepers who were married and had children. The idea was that there would be more hands to help with the work and that, if the keepers had their families with them, it would be easier to maintain their sanity.
To help relieve the boredom and sense of isolation for those families, supply ships would bring not only food and fuel, but chests filled with books.
The Coast Guard began replacing lighthouse keepers with automated lights in the 1960s. The last lighthouse in Maine to be automated was the Portland Head Light, in 1989.
See the light
Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. offers a several different lighthouse tours from May through October.
On one of the tours offered several days a week, passengers see the lights on Great Duck Island, Egg Rock, Baker Island, Bear Island and at Winter Harbor. The Somes Sound tour passes four of those lights. The rates for these tours, which last three to four hours, are $45 for adults, $27 for children 6-14 and $9 for those 5 and under.
Specialty lighthouse cruises, offered once or twice each season, include the 18-lighthouse Maine & Canada Grand Slam photo tour, the 16-lighthouse Mid-coast tour and lobster bake, the 10-light Penobscot River photo tour and the eight-light Downeast photo tour. Prices for adults range from $59 to $179.
Tour guides include Zack Klyver, a local guide for 26 years; Gene Torbeck, a retired naval officer; Jeremy D’Entremont, a lighthouse historian and author of numerous books on lighthouses; and former Canadian lighthouse keeper Chris Mills. Tickets may be purchased online at barharborwhales.com. For more info, call 288-2386 and visit www.barharborwhales.com.