Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #11

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Keeper George L. Lyon of Egg Rock Lighthouse, Massachusetts. From “Lightkeeper” magazine.

Ahoy, Captain Joshua Card here, down at Portsmouth Harbor Light in my home town of New Castle, New Hampshire. Winter’s been hanging on tight but spring is just around the corner, so they tell me. Today I’d like to tell you about an interesting fellow who kept the old Egg Rock Lighthouse down the coast off Nahant, Massachusetts: George L. Lyon.

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Nineteenth century illustration of a sea serpent passing Egg Rock. Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

The three-acre rocky island known as Egg Rock, almost a mile off Nahant, resembles a whitish-gray whale rising up about 80 feet out of the ocean. It got its name because of the large number of gulls’ nests there. The original lighthouse on the island was established in 1856 largely to help the local fishermen in Nahant and Swampscott; the station was rebuilt in 1897 with a square brick tower attached to the keeper’s house.

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Postcard of the 1897 Egg Rock Lighthouse. Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

George L. Lyon, who grew up in nearby Lynn and was previously an assistant at Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse, became the keeper at Egg Rock in 1889.  A large and athletic man, Lyon loved the sea and was on a lifesaving crew on Lake Erie by the age of 21.

The artist and writer Charles A. Lawrence of Lynn visited Egg Rock in 1891. He described Lyon: “Bronzed and blue-shirted, his yellow beard suggested the Norseman of old. I would not have been surprised to see him raise a drinking horn from somewhere and shout, ‘SKOAL!'”

Lawrence wrote about a tour of the light station with Lyon and his mother, who was then nearly 90. They also met the station’s housekeeper, Ada Foster, who was 15 at the time of their visit. During a tour of the lighthouse, the keeper jokingly told Lawrence, “Lots of people ask us what makes the light red, and we tell ’em it’s the red oil. Some of ’em don’t get it, and they say, ‘Oh, that’s it. I never knew.’” (The light was actually made red by the placement of a red glass chimney around the lamp.)

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This painting, called Saved!, by the English artist Sir Edwin Henry Landseer depicted Milo, a dog belonging to George Taylor, a previous keeper of Egg Rock Lighthouse. Milo was credited with several rescues around the island and gained wide fame. The model for the child in the painting was Keeper Taylor’s young son, Fred.

In the summer, there were countless visitors to Egg Rock. Lyon grew tired of people asking him if he longed for life on the mainland, and took to wearing a sign on his back that said, “No, thank you, I am not the least bit lonesome.” He was an avid reader, especially of scientific and technical books.

Keeper Lyon was a carpenter, boat builder, an expert marksman with a rifle, and an authority on firearms and explosives. He developed a well-equipped machine shop in the island’s boathouse. His mechanical aptitude enabled him to repair the dory engines of many local fishermen, and he invented a new type of crankshaft for boat engines that saved on gasoline. His crowning achievement at Egg Rock was the building of a landing stage on the island. With this arrangement, a boat would be hoisted out of the water onto a deck, then hoisted again into the boathouse. A powerful hand winch was used for both hoists.

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Postcard showing the landing stage built by George Lyon. Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

Lyon was responsible for countless rescues in the vicinity of Egg Rock during his 22 years there. Once, after the keeper saved a group of five men, they took up a collection and presented a not-so-generous reward of 85 cents to their savior.

Keeper Lyon had a Newfoundland dog with the strange name of “O-who.” O-who loved to fetch sticks thrown by the keeper into the waves, and he rode along and “assisted” in some of the rescues around the island. Charles Lawrence called O-who a “sailor at heart.”

Lyon and his housekeeper, Ada Foster, developed a friendship that grew into romance over the years. Charles Lawrence wrote that Ada blossomed from a slender girl and developed a “robust physique that enabled her to bear a hand at the winch in hoisting the boats, an accomplishment which in no wise detracted from her fine skills as a cook and entertainer.” After leaving Egg Rock in 1911, Lyon became keeper at Graves Lighthouse in Boston Harbor, then at Nobska Point at Woods Hole on Cape Cod. The keeper and Ada planned to marry, but Ada died before the marriage could take place, while Lyon was at Nobska Point.

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The keeper’s house in the ocean in October 1922. (Lynn Historical Society)

The light on Egg Rock was converted to automatic operation in 1919 and the keeper’s house was sold at auction, with the stipulation that the buyer had to move it to the mainland. As the house was being moved down the slope toward a waiting barge, a cable snapped and the building careened into the ocean. For some time, remains of the dwelling washed up on local beaches. The brick lighthouse tower stood until 1927 when it was destroyed.

 

 

 

 

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Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #10

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Early 1900s postcard of Fuller Rock Lighthouse, collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

Captain Joshua Card here, down at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in New Castle, New Hampshire. We’re looking forward to a new paint job for the tower this spring. Thought I’d take this opportunity to tell you about a colorful character who was a contemporary of mine down in Rhode Island, John Mullen—better known as Captain Jack.

Captain Jack was hired in April 1886 to be the keeper of two small lights on the Providence River, Fuller Rock and Sassafras Point. These little structures barely qualified as lighthouses. They were twin hexagonal pyramids, only about 14 feet tall, with small cast-iron lanterns. They were both put into operation in 1872. Fuller Rock was in the middle of the main shipping channel to Providence, while Sassafras Point was about a mile north near the river’s western shore. The lights never had keepers’ houses; instead, the government hired local men who row to the lights to care for them.

A Providence Journal article by Wilfred Stone later described “Captain Jack” as a “character of the old school.” At social gatherings, he was a master of clog dancing, “keeping hop to the pick of the banjo when he was scores of years older than most dancers.”

The article described a harrowing accident that befell Captain Jack while he was a lighthouse keeper in the 1890s. It was brutally cold and windy on New Year’s Eve one year as Mullen sailed in his yawl from one light on the Providence River to the other. Luckily, he was dressed warmly in many layers. “It was tough pulling,” wrote Stone, “but his lights were burning at sunset as his orders called for.”

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Early 1900s postcard of Sassafras Point Lighthouse, collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

On his way home after “lighting up,” Mullen’s small boat overturned near Kettle Point on the east side of the river and he found himself “struggling to gain a toehold on the bottom.” Fortunately, nearby resident Ed Grogan saw the keeper’s plight. Grogan launched his own boat and soon rescued the cold and soggy, but no doubt grateful, Captain Jack.

The day after his near-death experience, Mullen had a conversation with a devout female acquaintance. “Surely the Lord was with you when you were in the water,” said the woman. “He certainly was on my side,” replied Jack. When asked if he was thinking of the Lord throughout the experience, Mullen surprised the woman by answering in the negative. “Why, what else could you have been thinking of?” she asked. “How in blazes I was going to get ashore,” said the always-practical Captain Jack.

Sassafras Point Light was removed in 1912. Late in the morning of February 5, 1923, a crew aboard the lighthouse tender Pansy arrived to install new acetylene tanks at Fuller Rock. The men first removed the empty old tanks, and then installed six new ones, each about six feet long and weighing about 300 pounds.

After lunch, the men went back just to make sure everything was in proper order. Just as the crewmen were boarding the pier next to the light, there was a terrific explosion that could be heard a mile away. Five men were sent hurtling through the air onto the sharp rocks below. There were no fatalities, but the men’s injuries ranged from facial burns to broken legs. The lighthouse structure was completely destroyed by the fire that resulted from the blast.

 

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #9

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.

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Captain Amos Baker (New Bedford Public Library)

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.”

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Early 1900s postcard of Butler Flats Lighthouse (collection of Jeremy D’Entremont)

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.

Happy New Year to one and all!

 

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #8

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.

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Conimicut Lighthouse, early 1900s. Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont.

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!

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Early postcard of Conanicut Lighthouse, Rhode Island. Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont.

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.

Kaptain's Kolumn · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #7

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.

Theed “Crazy” Judson

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.

National Archives photo of first lighthouse at Stratford Point, CT, circa 1870s.

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.

Early 1900s postcard of Stratford Point Light (collection of Jeremy D’Entremont)

 

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, August 7, 2018.

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #6

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.

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Bird Island Lighthouse in 2011; photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

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.

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The plans for Bird Island Lighthouse (National Archives)

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.

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Bird Island Lighthouse with its original “birdcage-style” lantern. (National Archives)

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.

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Bird Island Lighthouse was discontinued in 1933. It was a lucky thing that Keeper George Gustavus and his family left at that time, because the hurricane of September 21, 1938, swept away every building on Bird Island except the lighthouse tower. Sadly for the Gustavus family, they moved to Prudence Island Light Station in Rhode Island, and the keeper’s wife and son died in the hurricane. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

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.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, May 4, 2018.

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #5

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.

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Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse in July 2013. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

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.

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Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse circa 1859 (National Archives). The attached wooden building on the left side of the tower was added later, after Keeper Watson Hopkins had left.

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.

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Painting of Watson Y. Hopkins (Courtesy of Margo Burns)

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. . . .

 

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A woman is hoisted onto Saddleback Ledge using the landing derrick installed in 1885. (Vinalhaven Historical Society)

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.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, April 22, 2018.