Joshua Card here. I hope you’ve been enjoying this happy season. I’ve had a very merry Christmas eve and day with my daughter and some friends, but I promise you it wasn’t so merry that it interfered in any way with my light keeping duties. There was a little light snow to heighten the holiday mood, but not enough to effect visibility and there was no need to wind the fog bell mechanism.
My thoughts drift to Amos Baker, keeper of Butler Flats Light down New Bedford way. Like me, Amos was widowed, and also like me, he took comfort from visits from his daughter, Amy. Captain Baker wrote the following entry in the keeper’s log on Christmas Day in 1907:
A pleasant Christmas Day. . . . Squally in the evening, but we had some music from the phonograph so we had sunshine inside.
Like my station here at Portsmouth Harbor, Butler Flats had a fog bell with a striking mechanism that had to be wound periodically to produce a double blow every 15 seconds.
The bell could also be sounded manually by pulling a rope, and Amy Baker enjoyed saluting passing vessels with the bell. The renowned Captain Joshua Slocum—the first man to sail single-handedly around the world—once gave Amy a copy of a booklet about his sloop Spray with the inscription, “To the little girl who rang the bell each time I passed the light.”
Amy Baker wrote of the fog bell:
To one not used to it, it would seem almost unbearable when going for any length of time, but I have often been told in the morning that it had been running during the night, when I knew nothing of it, sleeping soundly all the while. Vessels are saluted by this bell.
The Baker family found Butler Flats Light a pleasant place to live in summer, but winters were a different story. Amy Baker wrote:
In the winter ice shakes the light a good deal at times and it is scarcely pleasant to have the chair in which you sit shake and realize what might happen if the ice proved stronger than the iron plates of the caisson.
When Amos Baker Jr. died in 1911, his obituary stated, “For 13 years he lived in Butler Flats Lighthouse. Visitors occasionally came alongside, and Captain Baker’s cheery, ‘Come aboard!’ always made them glad to obey and see the old seaman’s comfortable house.” Visitors’ signatures in the register included that of President Grover Cleveland.
Ahoy mateys, Captain Joshua Card here. Been getting the Portsmouth Harbor station ready for winter, and we have plenty of coal to heat the house and kerosene on hand for the light. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell you about a lighthouse keeper from down Rhode Island way, Horace Weeden Arnold.
Horace was born on May 17, 1839, into a family of lighthouse keepers on Prudence Island, a large island in Narragansett Bay. He served in the Civil War as a member of Company G, Fourth Rhode Island Infantry. After surviving three years in the war, Arnold nearly lost his life in a shipwreck on the Potomac River on his way home. After the Civil War, Arnold enlisted in the U.S. Navy. For some time he was pilot of the tug Nina, while Admiral George Dewey, then a lieutenant, was in command of the vessel. After his military service Arnold entered the coastal trade, but he decided he’d had enough after his schooner sank in Long Island Sound. He entered the Lighthouse Service in the early 1870s, first as an assistant at Beavertail Light in Jamestown.
A new stone lighthouse was erected offshore from Conimicut Point in Warwick, Rhode Island, on November 1, 1868. The point extends out into the mouth of the Providence River in the form of a dangerous sand bar that was a menace to shipping. The lighthouse was described as a “staunch-looking round tower, built of large blocks of granite.” A fog bell with automatic striking machinery was attached to the tower, and a five-room keeper’s house was added on a pier adjacent to the lighthouse in 1873. On February 27, 1874, Horace Arnold was appointed keeper of this light.
A little over a year later, in early March 1875, Arnold was at the dwelling at Conimicut Light with his young son when drifting ice, driven by strong northeast winds, abruptly smashed into the structure. The Arnolds were lucky to escape with their lives as the house broke apart. They were rescued several hours later by the tug Reliance, captained by Nat Sutton. Sutton spotted Arnold on a mattress on a drifting ice floe, later describing him as “sitting like a man on a magic carpet.” The keeper’s hands and feet were frozen and it was some months before he could fully resume his duties.
According to the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1875, Arnold lost all his furniture, which was valued at $319. It took a congressional appropriation for him to be reimbursed – a full four years later!
After 11 more years at the new, rebuilt Conimicut Lighthouse, Arnold became keeper of the Conanicut Light at the northern tip of Jamestown in 1886. He once made a risky walk out onto the ice from the lighthouse to assist the passengers of a stranded vessel. The boat’s skipper presented the keeper with a captain’s chair for his considerable efforts, and the chair remained a treasured possession of the Arnold family for many years.
Arnold would start up the station’s foghorn on occasion for the entertainment of his young nephew, Archie. The sound thrilled and delighted Archie, who later said, “I shrank into my shoes.”
Arnold remained at Conanicut Light Station until his death from pneumonia in February 1914. He left his widow, Amy (Rathbun), a daughter, and three sons. His funeral was held during a raging blizzard at the Central Baptist Church in Jamestown. Horace Arnold, a lighthouse keeper for 42 years, was buried at the town’s Cedar Cemetery.
Captain Joshua Card here. Been busy lately, scraping and painting the tower and showing the summer people around my station. Been meaning to check in with you folks for a while. I thought I’d tell you about a colorful old acquaintance, a contemporary of mine from down Connecticut way.
Stratford native Theodore Judson became keeper at Stratford Point Lighthouse in 1880. “Theed” Judson remained keeper at Stratford Point for over 40 years, and the Judsons were mostly well respected. But there were the occasional odd stories from Stratford Point that earned the keeper the nickname “Crazy” Judson. It was a name not given lightly.
A headline in the Bridgeport Union in late July 1886 read, “A Big Sea Serpent.” The paper went on to report the following:
A sea serpent with pea green whiskers passed down Long Island Sound in a big hurry Wednesday morning. He was plowing through the water at a 25 knot clip when he passed the Stratford lighthouse and left a wake of foam behind him a mile in length. He was easily 200 feet in length, and his head was reared 20 feet above the brine. That afforded a good look at his whiskers, which were the rich deep green color of bog hay.
The big reptile was plainly seen from the lighthouse by Keeper Theodore Judson, his wife, his son Henry and his daughter Agnes, and by H. W. Curtis of Stratford, as well as by a number of people at Captain John Bond’s place up the river. These latter saw only the loftily reared head, which at a distance looked like the tail funnel of a sound flier. Keeper Judson seriously declared to a reporter that he could not be mistaken.
“I saw it plainly,” he said, “and so did my wife and children and Mr. Curtis. All of us are familiar with the appearance of a school of porpoises, and this sight was entirely different. . . . It could be plainly seen without a glass.”
The other witnesses all corroborate Keeper Judson’s statement, which bears the imprint of truth. Incumbency in the lighthouse service is prima facie evidence of sobriety, an element not always closely connected with stories of sea monsters.
Still the pea green whiskers are inexplicable.
There were other reported sea serpent sightings in Long Island Sound around that time, some possibly sparked by P. T. Barnum’s offer in 1873 of $50,000 to anyone who could produce a sea serpent carcass.
But it was a July 1915 interview that earned Judson the “crazy” label for eternity. Barnum had also once offered $20,000 for a captured mermaid, but that was many years earlier and doesn’t appear to have had any bearing on Judson’s next strange sighting. Here’s what Judson told a reporter in 1915:
Three days ago, I saw a shoal of mermaids off Lighthouse point. I’ve seen them again and again, but it’s only once I laid hands on one. She scratched me well, but I got her brush away from her and I’ve got it yet. It’s generally in the early morning or late afternoon that they gather around the rocks off the point. Sometimes I’ve counted as many as 12 or 15 of them, their yellow hair glistening and their scaly tails flashing. They’re a grand sight.
It was late afternoon when I happened to be out there alone. The sky was thickening for a storm and a fog was creeping up and I had just set the foghorn going. It seems to have an attraction for mermaids, just as the light has for moths. But all of a sudden I noticed this one sitting here all by herself, combing her long golden hair. I took a long look at her before I crept up to her and it’s just as well I did, else I wouldn’t be able to give you much of a description, everything happened so quick once I touched her. . . . She had lovely gazelle eyes and a fair skin. She was just like a woman to her waist and below that all silver-spangled scales. I should say her tail was about three feet long. The upper part of her body was a little smaller than the average woman. I should say she weighed, all told, about 75 pounds. . . . To tell you the truth, I was hesitating in my own mind when I went out for her whether I would keep her for myself and let the $20,000 go—she was so beautiful!
The mermaid didn’t scream or squeak but she had a tongue and beautiful white teeth. The only sound she made was a hissing noise and it matched well to her temper.
The mermaid regrettably escaped when the keeper tried to grab her. Asked if he had ever tried to lasso a mermaid, Judson answered, “Might as well try to lasso an eel.” But for anyone who was interested, the keeper was happy to produce the mermaid’s hairbrush. He explained that mermaids took brushes and combs from the staterooms of wrecked steamers, accounting for the ordinary, cheap look of the brush. The entire fishy tale was supported by his wife, Kate, and Assistant Keeper Will Petzolt.
Keeper Judson retired in 1921. At the time, he claimed that he hadn’t had a vacation in thirty-nine years. When he died at eighty-seven in 1935, the New York Times called Judson a “picturesque character” and, in an understatement, “a raconteur of salty tales.” It was said that friends never got him to retract his mermaid story.
Captain Joshua K. Card here. Like many of my contemporary lighthouse keepers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was sometimes accused of being a pirate. I can assure you I was nothing of the sort, in spite of my salty appearance. But there was a keeper before me down in Massachusetts who couldn’t shake the reputation of being a pirate.
William S. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812, was appointed as the first keeper of Bird Island Lighthouse down in Marion, a town in southeastern Massachusetts, when the light went into operation in 1819. The stark little island is less than two acres in size, and it was an ideal place for a lighthouse that would serve to guide mariners into Sippican Harbor and points north.
Persistent local legend claims that Moore was a pirate who was banished to Bird Island as punishment. Some versions of the story claim that he was left without a boat, with supplies delivered periodically. Since his boat is mentioned frequently in correspondence, this is clearly untrue. In any case, properly functioning lighthouses were vital to safe navigation, and the authorities strove to hire responsible and reliable men. They did not hire accused pirates.
Some accounts claim that Moore murdered his wife—described as a “Boston society girl”—at the lighthouse and disappeared soon after. A rifle was found, supposedly in a secret hiding place along with a bag of tobacco, when the original keeper’s house on Bird Island was torn down in 1889. The gun was believed by some to be the murder weapon. Others have claimed that Moore prevented his ailing wife from seeking medical attention on the mainland, and that she died as a result.
Although she is supposedly buried on the island, there is no sign of the grave of Moore’s wife today. With the gun, a note was found, signed by Moore. The note eventually came into the possession of Marion’s longtime town historian H. Edmund Tripp. It read:
This bag contains tobacco, found among the clothes of my wife after her decease. It [the tobacco] was furnished by certain individuals in and about Sippican. May the curses of the High Heaven rest upon the heads of those who destroyed the peace of my family and the health and happiness of a wife whom I Dearly Loved.
Letters from Moore to the local customs collector indicate that the keeper conducted experiments with the heating of whale oil to keep it from freezing in the winter months. He also worked on the development of “air boxes” to be stored on boats to help prevent sinking. Moore wrote that he wanted to remain at Bird Island so he could pursue his various experiments. He explained, “. . . as the keeping of a lighthouse is calculated to afford me more leisure than almost any other employment, I shall give it up with great regret.”
Another far-fetched part of the lore surrounding William Moore is that he disappeared, never to be seen again, shortly after his wife’s death was discovered. In reality, records clearly show that Moore was assigned to the new Billingsgate Lighthouse near Wellfleet in 1822. It isn’t clear if he was able to continue his experiments there.
The truth about Moore will probably never be completely separated from the fantastic legends concerning his life. But his wife really did die on the island, and there are those who say it has been haunted or cursed ever since. Legend has it that some later keepers were frightened by the ghost of a hunched-over old woman, rapping at the door during the night.
Captain Joshua K. Card here. I told you a while back about my early days as a keeper in 1860s and ’70s at Boon Island, one of the most isolated and desolate light stations imaginable. But I learned many years ago about a light keeper who had a much more miserable life on a little slab of rock in Maine’s Penobscot Bay known as Saddleback Ledge.
Saddleback Ledge is a wave-swept outcropping at the southern entrance to East Penobscot Bay, about four miles from the southeastern corner of the large island of Vinalhaven to the west, three miles from the southwestern coast of Isle au Haut to the east, and more than seven miles to the village of Stonington to the north. The 43-foot granite lighthouse that was built on the ledge in 1839 was designed by a famous architect, Alexander Parris. It was built to last, and it has survived through some of the most brutal storms and seas you can imagine.
The first keeper, Watson Y. Hopkins, a Maine native, moved to the lighthouse with his wife, Abigail, and seven children, ranging in age from infancy to the late teens. The large family crowded into living quarters inside the tower that consisted of a living room with a cooking stove, two bedrooms, and a cellar. Hopkins’ pay was $450 per year.
In September 1843, Abigail Hopkins gave birth to a baby girl, Margaret, at the lighthouse. A week later, a boat came to the ledge to take the mother and daughter to the mainland. During the transfer to the boat, the baby was dropped briefly into the cold waves. She was quickly plucked out of the water before any serious harm was done.
Hopkins painted a dismal picture of the living conditions at the lighthouse for the important report to Congress by the engineer I. W. P. Lewis in 1843:
I live with my family in the tower, which is the only building on the ledge. . . . I am obliged to bring my water from shore, a distance of seven miles. . . . We are badly off for room to stow wood and provisions. I have been allowed a boat, but she is entirely unfit for this place, being nothing more than a small dory. . . . The iron railing, which was secured to the rock around the tower, has been all swept away; also, the privy, which was carried away the first storm after its erection. The windows all leak in storms, the shutters having no rebates in the stone work. . . .
It would seem that there was not a multitude of candidates fighting over Hopkins’ position at Saddleback, because he amazingly stayed in the position for a full decade, living with his family in those three little rooms.
When Hopkins and his family left Saddleback Ledge in 1849, he bought land and built a home on Arey’s Neck on Vinalhaven, within sight of the lighthouse. I doubt that he ever looked in that direction. The 1850 census identified the former lighthouse keeper as a farmer.
When last we met I was telling you about Keeper William C. Williams, the longtime keeper of bleak and isolated Boon Island Lighthouse off the southern Maine coast.
Getting on and off the island was hard enough in calm conditions, but frequently a risky proposition when the seas grew heavy. On one occasion in April 1890, Williams and his wife, with two workmen, set out for Portsmouth in a sailboat. The vessel was overturned by a sudden squall near Gerrish Island in Kittery. The four passengers managed to cling to the boat until a schooner from Rockland rescued them. Not long after that, the government mercifully made Boon Island a “stag station,” meaning the male keepers were the only residents much of the year. The families still spent much of the summer on the island.
In an attempt to brighten up the island in summer, Williams brought barrels and boxes of soil out from the mainland every spring so that the families could enjoy a small flower garden during the summer. With the next winter’s gales, the soil would always be washed away. “I did not care so much about it myself, “ Williams said later, “but it was hard for the children who passed the vacation months and were so interested in seeing flowers in bloom.”
The keeper’s son, Charles, served as an assistant keeper for the better part of a decade. During a shore visit in December 1900, Charles Williams described a storm that had swept the island a few days earlier. He had stood watch through the night in the tower, and he said that it seemed that the tower would topple over. The lighthouse shook, he said, with such violence that his teeth chattered involuntarily.
One of William C. Williams’s grandchildren, Mary Luther Lewis, later wrote an article about life on Boon Island. The keepers took turns keeping watch, she recalled, with rotating shifts. As a girl, Mary loved to roller-skate on the island’s boardwalks. Summer visitors from York were frequent, and her grandmother often made fish chowder for them. The family liked to sit on the rocks outside to eat their lunch, which typically consisted of lobsters and lemonade.
Mary Luther Lewis’s daughter, Eunice Lewis Evans, later wrote down some of the stories passed to her by her mother. Chores assigned to the children included dusting and polishing the brass in the house, picking caterpillars from the flowers, and killing flies. (They were paid a penny per caterpillar or fly.) Keeper Williams had a lobster trap for each of his grandchildren, and the money made from the catch was added to their bank accounts. There would be an evening church service, and everyone was in bed by 8:00 p.m. to be ready to start the next day at 5:00 a.m.
When Robert Thayer Sterling wrote about William C. Williams in Kittery after his retirement, he observed, “To walk about his front yard without risk of being washed into the sea is a pleasure, and with that comes contentment.” Williams, one of the best-known lighthouse keepers in Maine, died in 1939 at the age of 93.
I thought you might like to hear a little about my good friend, William Converse Williams, who was one of the most respected lighthouse keepers in Maine history. During the years I was at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Hampshire, he was just up the coast at remote Boon Island, a miserable little pile of rocks six miles off the southern Maine coast.
Williams (I always knew him as Willie) was a native of Kittery, Maine, and he went to Boon Island as second assistant keeper in 1885. He advanced to first assistant in late 1886, and then became principal keeper on November 21, 1888. He went on to serve 23 years in the position, earning $760 yearly without a single raise.
Williams, who worked in construction as a young man, married Mary Abbie Seaward of Kittery. They had three children: Charles, Lucia Mabel, and Bertie (who died in childhood). A 1926 newspaper article described Williams: “He was a tall, spare, man, dignified, and a refined gentleman of the old school. He had a soft, low voice, and his language was marvelous for its simplicity and purity. He had an optimistic disposition, nothing ever worried him and he never got excited. He was neat and methodical even in performing the simplest task.”
At the age of 90, Captain Williams recounted his experiences at Boon Island to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them. Williams had many pleasant times at Boon Island, but he recalled the danger of the job:
There were days when I first went on the station that I could not get away from the idea that I was the same as locked up in a cell. . . . All we had was a little stone house and a rubblestone tower. When rough weather came we didn’t know as it would make much difference as to whether we went into the tower or not, for a safe place. The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes. It was a funny feeling to be on a place and know you couldn’t get off if you wanted to, and tidal waves was all the talk in the early days. I was a young fellow and had never been placed in such a situation. When the terrible seas would make up and a storm was in the offing, I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away.
Williams described the experience of keeping watch in the tower during bad weather:
There was no lounging place at the top of the tower, only an old soap box or camp stool for a seat. As you set there [sic] just watching your light, all the enjoyment you got was hearing the wind making a cottonmill din around the lantern. With such a noise and being so many feet up from the ground, the seas battering the rocks down below is utterly drowned out. . . . One can hardly believe that after a storm you would find the big plate glass windows of the lantern covered with salt spray, at that distance in the air. After some storms the spray on the glass would be so thick and dimmed with bird feathers it would require a whole day to clean things up before lighting-up time.
In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the lighthouse tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous Portland Gale of November 1898 was “just a breeze.” In a January 1896 storm, Williams and his wife again took shelter in the tower as high seas completely surrounded the dwelling.
The Portsmouth Herald published vivid details of another gale that began on January 31, 1898. The temperature was two below zero, and thick ice formed on the lighthouse and other buildings. The ice was so thick that the fires in the stoves inside the dwellings had to be extinguished for a time because the chimneys were blocked. For nearly 24 hours the winds blew at 75 to 100 miles per hour. The seas moved two water tanks, each weighing approximately four tons, about 75 feet. “It was the hardest night we ever passed,” said Williams, “and no one slept on the island the entire night.” Williams called the unusual sight of the island completely encased in ice “one of the grandest sights” he had ever witnessed. The oil house belfry that held the fog bell was so clogged with ice that it took several hours of chopping with axes to get the bell working again.
In my next column I will tell you more about Captain Williams’s amazing adventures at Boon Island.