Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Lonely Lighthouse at Mount Desert Rock, Maine

Some light stations were so isolated, lonely, and dangerous that we wonder how anyone survived at them. This was the case at Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse, 26 miles off the coast of  Maine and a guide into Frenchmans Bay and Blue Hill Bay. The "rock" is barely four acres and totally barren. Nothing grows there permanently; the wind and waves purloin every blade of grass, wildflower, or vegetation planted by humans. All supplies had to shipped to the site. Fishing was possible, if the sea wasn't wild. An occasional seabird crashed into the lantern and provided a stew. Water was caught on the roof. Winter was extremely cold; firewood (there was none on the island) could never run out in winter!

Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse was, and still is, the "farthest out" lighthouse in Maine, and rivals several others in the nation for the title of "Worst Lighthouse Assignment."

Before radio or telephone, the families who lived at this lighthouse were truly cut off from civilization. If they needed a doctor, ran out of food or fuel, or a storm came ripping up the coast, they simply had to deal with it. The supply tender came every few months, if it could tie up. Fisherman brought gifts and friendship. Otherwise, families were on their own.

Getting ashore in the station boat was no easy task and was usually only undertaken by the men. Wives and children who came to Mount Desert Rock rarely got ashore. One keeper's wife stayed on the rock seven years straight without getting to shore. Schooling was done by the parents and a traveling teacher who stopped for a few weeks each year, only to rapidly depart when her duty was done. Twenty-two miles away was Mount Desert Island, but its inhabitants were nearly as sequestered as the keepers of the rock lighthouse.

People were made of different stuff in those days. They managed, they coped, and they somehow found contentment in their home, far-flung as it was. It's doubtful many of us today could handle this hermit's life.

There were frequent transfers, as the tedium and loneliness took a toll on the keepers. One keeper stayed only a few months. Most stayed a few years, then asked to relocate. They had done their duty. Thomas Milan (spelled Mylan in some sources) stayed twenty years, from 1882 to 1902. His introverted wife loved the place. He did too. The Lighthouse Board made the deal more appealing by paying him $840 a year, about $100 more than similar assignments along the shore at that time.

The first lighthouse on Mount Desert Rock was a stone house with a wooden lantern rising from its roof, built in 1830. The beacon had ten Argand lamps intensified by 14" silvered reflectors. The lamps and reflectors hung on a circular chandelier. It must have been a lovely apparatus, punching a hole in the gray and dismal milieu. Later, a fogbell was rung by hand--no easy task considering the pea soup fogs that settle over the sea here. This first sentinel was inadequate, though, and of poor construction. The heavy weather at Mount Desert Rock quickly damaged it.

In 1847 a granite tower (pictured) was designed by architect Alexander Parris, and another house for the keeper was built. Life wasn't less lonely or less difficult, but at least the tower and house were sturdy. During severe storms, waves completely washed over the island--a mere 20-feet above sea level at its highest--and rolled large boulders. In one particularly bad storm, a 75-ton rock was rolled 60-feet. It's a testament to Parris' design that the lighthouse remains anchored firmly to its rocky base.

Considering the nasty weather here, it's rather surprising that lighthouse families in the late 1800s and early 1900s gardened. Indeed, they did! They had kitchen window gardens, yes, but also gardens in the rocks. Fishermen kindly delivered boxes of dirt to the lighthouse every spring, which set the women to work cramming the soil in nooks and crannies. Seed packets arrived and flowers and vegetables were planted in the rocks. By summer the place was ablaze with color. Sailors nicknamed Mount Desert "God's Rock Garden."

Come autumn, however, all the plantings were gone--pneumatically removed by powerful winds and hydro-blasted from their stony flowerpots by waves. Heavy storm waves of winter completed the scouring task until not a speck of dirt was left.

Yet, each spring the ritual potting and planting was repeated, with dirt delivered and pushed into the rocks, and seeds sown and tenderly nursed to maturity. So starved for color were the families here, they willingly accepted the inevitable destruction in autumn and winter and vowed to create the gardens again every spring.

The tradition ended with the Coast Guard taking over the lighthouse about 1940, or mostly so. Mount Desert and other isolated lighthouses, like the one above at Saddleback Ledge, were made "stag stations," assignments for men only. Perhaps a few Coast Guardsmen planted vegetables and flowers here and there at these rocky light stations, but never like the keepers before them.

Still, the story of the rock gardens survived. Edward Rowe Snow recounted it in his lighthouse books and talks. It appears in my 1995 book Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers. I also wrote a historical fiction short story about for the U.S. Society's journal, The Keepers Log, for the Spring 1986 issue. I've included the story below, twenty-nine years later.

The legend of the rock gardens also inspired the children's book Lighthouse Seeds by Pamela Love and Linda Warner. Those are nasturtiums on the cover, a particular flower we know grew in the rock gardens. A girl who grew up on Mount Desert Rock recalled this fact in an article about Mount Desert Rock for Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly in September 1896.

Mount Desert Lighthouse was automated in 1977 and it's lantern was removed. The feeling of the Coast Guard was that no one cared about a lighthouse so far from shore; it was considered okay to decapitate it. Despite its distance, the public objected to such dismemberment of the old Mount Desert Rock tower, and the Coast Guard kindly put back the lantern. This was a sacred place where flowers once grew in the rocks.
The College of the Atlantic then took over the quarters to house researchers studying the marine environment.
The rock gardens are long past, but much remembered. Storms continue to pummel the site. Hurricane Bill damaged the house in 2009; it's still not completely repaired. The light tower was built strong though. Like an old soldier, it continues to fight off the worst kind of weather. Likely it will for many years to come.
A foggy day image taken by Kraig Anderson of "Lighthouse Friends."

Below is that historical fiction story I promised. Click on the images to make them large. Read this tale some day when the rain is pelting your windows and its cold and blustery outside. And consider that it tells the tale of a world devoid of color, except for gray. That's what Mount Desert Rock is today--very gray and lonelier than it's ever been, without a dapple of flowers peeking out from its rocks.

(All b&w photos courtesy of the Coast Guard Historian's Office.)


Monday, September 21, 2015

The Light in the Northwest Corner--Cape Flattery

MARCH 24, 2003--
          Raindrops pelted the windshield of the helicopter as I made my way to Cape Flattery Lighthouse, a lonely sentry on Tatoosh Island marking the entrance to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is the most northwestern bit of land in the lower forty-eight states. My pilot, based in Olympia, didn’t know much about lighthouses but assured me I would enjoy my visit to this one.  He had been there once to deliver a researcher doing bird studies for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  On this day, he had a lighthouse nut on his hands.

The chopper jostled lightly in the thermals above Olympic National Forest, then bounced energetically as we flew off the coast.  The staggering beauty of rock stacks, arches, and sea caves left me breathless.  AA counterpane of brown and beige dots appeared ahead. I squinted to see what it was--a herd of elk grazing on a treed hillside, their pillow-like butts pointed toward the insistent wind that swayed the grasses and buffeted the helicopter. There must have 300 of them! Roosevelt Elk.
Moments later, Tatoosh Island came into view, eighteen surreal acres draped in the sunbreaks and leaden clouds of a blustery spring day in the Pacific Northwest.

As we drew nearer, I noticed that many of the station’s buildings were in disarray or missing entirely.  At one time, this was a busy island with about forty residents – lightkeepers, navy personnel, weather service forecasters, and lots of children, so many kids that a schoolhouse had to be built.  Today, it looked desolate, uninhabited except by seabirds. In fact, a bald eagle was perched on top of the old flagpole, as if surveying his realm.

The helicopter descended and touched down lightly on the large X in the middle of the helopad.  I jumped out, ducked my head, and cleared the blades, allowing the pilot to take off again for Neah Bay where he would pick up three members of the Makah tribe who own the island and would give me a tour.  A brief and intense rain shower forced me to take shelter under the eaves of the foghouse while I waited.  It was gone minutes later, and sunshine bathed the island.  Everything glistened with magical wet sheen.

About to land on the helopad at Cape Flattery Lighthouse!

The helo-pilot returns with members of the Makah tribe.

Makah ancestors named the island for a legendary chief, Tatooche, a great seal hunter.  The tribe processed fish, seals, and whales on its northeast beach and grew potatoes on the flat top.  When the government decided to build a lighthouse on Tatoosh Island in 1855, the Makah signed a peace treaty and provided assistance to the work crew.  The tower cost $39,000 and was lit December 28, 1856.  The Indians continued to help out by bringing supplies and mail in their canoes, but the first three lightkeepers felt uneasy in this isolated place with only Indians for neighbors, and soon they resigned. 
Chief Tatooche, drawing from the University of Washington Special Collections.

It was a matter of cultural ignorance, according to Jeanine Bowchop, head of the Makah tribal council.  “The early keepers simply didn’t understand the Makah way of life,” she told me after she arrived and we walked the grounds together.  Later, lightkeepers would not only accept the Makah but happily join in their potlatches and dances.  Much of the tribe’s history since 1856 commingled with that of the lighthouse and its keepers. In fact, Old Doctor was a well-known Makah who paddled his canoe out to Tatoosh island to deliver mail and supplies to the keepers.

Principal Keeper John Cowan, seated, and his assistant keepers posed in dress uniforms for a photo in front of the Cape Flattery Lighthouse circa 1920. Photo from the Coast Guard Museum Northwest

The brick and stone tower wore a worn and weary countenance on this day, belying its distinction as one of the Washington Territory's oldest sentinels, a guardian on the gateway to Victoria, Vancouver, Seattle, and Tacoma.  I inspected it closely and found it sound, but much in need of repairs and a facelift.  The foghouse still stands, but it's disheveled.  The derrick is a shambles, and the old concrete radio compass and decoding station has collapsed into a pile of rubble.  On the island’s southeast side is a little cemetery. Two graves are surrounded by daffodils and a picket fence.

The Coast Guard maintains the beacon in good working order, and the graves are groomed, but the grounds and buildings have had little attention since automation in 1977. This is often the case at offshore lighthouses.  Away from public view, they fall into decay easily and become the targets of vandals.

The ten second delay on my camera allowed me to take this image of myself crouched on the ruins of the old weather station. It was an amazing weather day on the island, with everything from rain and sleet to sunshine--a typical spring day on the island.

The helicopter pilot snapped this image of me with three of the Makah. Jeanine Bowchop is on the right. It was windy everywhere on the island!

The Makah have expressed interest in acquiring the lighthouse when it is excessed by the Coast Guard.  “It’s an important part of our heritage,” Jeanine Bowchop told me before we departed Tatoosh.  “We want to preserve it as much as any other part of our tribal history.”  She added that this site is not easily accessed, and the lighthouse may never serve as a museum or inn.  But it should be saved.  “We don’t want the birds here to become extinct and that goes for the lighthouse too.”
Footnote--This article was written for a newsletter at least a decade ago. Since then, the Coast Guard has done repairs to the light tower. It also removed the beacon in the lighthouse and transferred it to a post on the seaward edge of the island. The lighthouse was relinguished to the Makah tribe a few years ago.
I was able to locate some historic images and some descendants of people who worked on the island years ago. Below are some photos they gave me.
Workers at Cape Flattery Lighthouse in 1872, sent out to construct a new fog signal building. Courtesy of Coast Guard Museum Northwest.
A view of Tatoosh Island in 1914 shows the many buildings on the island by this time. It's easy to see what an obstacle the island was and is to shipping entering the Strait of Juan de Fuca, seen in the background. The mountains of Vancouver Island appear on the horizon in the background. To the right is the Washington mainland. Photo from the Coast Guard Museum Northwest.
This unnamed couple lived at the lighthouse sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. (I judge it to be 1960s based on the optic seen in the lantern.) This image was found in the collection of the Coast Guard Museum Northwest but had no information on the back.
Doris Smith of Brookings, Oregon gave me this photo from the early 1930s of she (left) and her sister Marion at Tatoosh Island as little girls. Their father was an assistant lightkeeper at the time.
Lois Melville of Anacortes, Washington provided this image of the light station in the late 1930s. Her father was assigned duty at the Weather Station. Notice the water tower to provide water for the boilers than ran the fog signal. Also, to the right of the water tower is the school house and two privies--one for girls and one for boys. A cow was grazing in the field. Lois Melville said there was a chicken coop too, and a pig sty.
Getting on and off the island was treacherous. Donna Shinney of Portland, Oregon gave me this shot of her father in the hoist crate being hauled up from the beach to the light station. He was on duty at the lighthouse in the early 1950s.
The Coast Guard continues to operate the post beacon. The on-demand fog signal can be activated by mariners using a special radio frequency. U.S. Fish & Wildlife allow bird research on the island, but for the most part it is a lonely, seldom-visited place these days.
 To see the lighthouse, drive the winding road to Neah Bay and follow signs to the Cape Flattery lookout. There's a pay-parking area and a trail that leads to an overlook. It's a sobering view of one of the most exposed lighthouses in the nation. But it's dramatic, so much so that couple like to get married there and photographers hunger for a strong storm so they can get snapshots of the waves beating the island.
In need of TLC.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Mystic Lighthouse

I have a fondness for Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. I worked there in various jobs from 1986 until 1995 and then as a consultant and occasional speaker. That's me in the photo above visiting the museum in 2013 with my son's family. For one enamored of maritime history, working at the museum was a dream job! In fact, I went to work there in 1986 just to gain free use of the Blount White Library, whose vast holdings of maritime information included material I needed on lighthouses. Much of what appears in my early lighthouse books was gleaned from old books, old copies of nineteenth century magazines, and the clippings and pictures files of the Blount White Library. Librarian Paul O'Pecko found me many a tidbit about lighthouses!
Beyond access to the library, the museum taught me much about other maritime subjects--navigation, nautical instruments, kinds of ships and shipboard work, maritime industries, marine weather, and more. I worked in various exhibits and then landed in the education department teaching astronomy in the planetarium (all sailors love the stars!) and creating kids' activities and exhibits for the entire museum. One of my extra jobs in summer was driving the horses for the Horse & Carriage venue. This might surprise you--an author, planetarium lecturer, and education guru driving horses??
It came about by chance. One of the carriage drivers passed away unexpectedly from a stroke, and the museum was desperate for someone to drive those carriages. A message circulated through the museum asking if anyone had experience with horses and could fill in until a fulltime driver was found. It happened I had such experience, so I was temporarily hired to dress up like a nineteenth century carriage driver and take museum visitors on rides around the museum's 17 acres of exhibit buildings. Yes, that's me above in about 1988, driving a carriage with Max the quarter-horse. I'd often allow a youngster to sit up front with me and hold one of the reins. Max was so docile, he really didn't need a driver. He knew the route and loved the pettings he got from visitors.
Since I had a good general knowledge of the place, I began narrating the carriage tours. One of my favorite buildings was the lighthouse. As you might can imagine, I had a lot to tell about it too!!! I always stopped the carriage at the lighthouse for a few minutes and talked to visitors about the nature and importance of navigational aids in the age of sail, before electronics. I also reminded them this was a replica lighthouse, not a real one. The museum had it built in 1966 to look like Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket. So much of the museum's interpretation was related to whaling that the curators felt a lighthouse was needed. What better lighthouse than the one at New England's best-known whaling port--Nantucket.
Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket was and remains the sentinel for that port. It's heavily photographed, drawn, painted, and idolized in postcards and poems. But it had a hard career. The current lighthouse at Brant Point, pictured on a gift shop trinket with the 1841 wooden whaler Charles W. Morgan (also on display at the museum), is the tenth tower to be built at Nantucket. Wooden lighthouses don't last in harsh coastal conditions--dampness, salt air, storms, shifting sands. Brant Point Lighthouse is proof of the tough life some lighthouse have. Also, fire consumed at least two of the light towers at Brant Point. Incendiary illuminants and live flames in oil lamps were a danger, especially if not carefully handled and kept clean.
Below is a 1901 image of the Brant Point lighthouse with its pant-legs rolled up above the tide (Nantucket Historical Association image), and a current image from Kraig Anderson of Lighthouse Friends.
The replica lighthouse at Mystic Seaport was designed and built using plans from the Brant Point Light. The architect was William Hermann and the builder was Engineered Building of Groton, Connecticut. Mr. and Mrs. John P. Blair of Essex, Connecticut donated the money for the lighthouse because they were nostalgic about Brant Point Lighthouse. It was one of the first lighthouses they saw when they began cruising the New England coast in the 1950s. A fixed fifth order Fresnel lens from the museum's collection was installed in the lantern of the replica lighthouse. During my time at the museum it flashed 24/7. I think it still does!
One of the comments I often heard from visitors to Mystic Seaport was: "It would be nice if we could go inside the lighthouse." At the time I drove the carriage and worked at other museum jobs, the lighthouse was locked. I would see visitors go to the door and try to open it, then walk away disappointed. Staff occasionally talked of putting an exhibit inside the lighthouse, but nothing came of it while I worked at the museum. After I moved to the Pacific NW, however, I got a call from one of the museum curators asking me to help with a film project for the interior of the lighthouse. The curator was planning to make the inside of the lighthouse into a mini movie theater and show a movie about lighthouses!
The project was completed a few years ago. I was pleased to be part of it and had fun re-connecting with old friends at the museum, if only by phone and email. I got to the exhibit in 2013. It's excellent--a fabulous collaboration between people who know about lighthouses and people who know how to present a story. The image below is from the museum's website and shows kids enjoying the movie inside the lighthouse. There are five conjoined screens that tell a narrated story of lighthouses and their importance to navigation in the nineteenth century.
Who hasn't photographed the lighthouse at Mystic Seaport? It's a favorite subject with locals and visitors. If you pass through Mystic, Connecticut and cross the bascule bridge in town, you'll see the quaint lighthouse replica up the river at the museum's waterfront village. Cross into West Mystic and head north on one of the streets for a great view across the river. (Two images below are from www.mysticseaport.og)
Or, you can pay admission to the museum and visit the lighthouse in person. One of my favorite views is from the little steamboat Sabino, a working museum exhibit that gives visitors a ride on the Mystic River.
And, if you're a collector, there are lots of trinkets in the museum gift shop and shops in town to remember your visit to the lighthouse. Cat's Meow Village did a wooden image of it some years ago--

Harbour Lights did a replica of the Mystic Seaport Lighthouse--

Many painters have rendered it too--

Painted by Alfred La Banca
Painted by Richard Ramsey

Painted by Jean Costa

Mystic Seaport Lighthouse. Go see it!!





Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Lighthouse Keeper & the Big Wave

Who hasn't seen this amazing image from 1989? It's French photographer Jean Guichard's stunning photo of France's La Jument Lighthouse in a December storm. Look closely, and you'll see a lighthouse keeper standing in the doorway.
Within seconds after this photo was taken, the wave inundated the lighthouse and crashed up the sides of the 154-foot concrete and block tower. The concussion of the wave hitting the lighthouse must have been deafening!
Did the lightkeeper in the doorway survive? Was he washed away? Drowned?
I've been asked these questions so many times at talks and during interviews!
Let's settle the question, here and now--
There's good news: He did survive! He heard a helicopter and came out on the gallery at the base of the lighthouse to look for it. He and his comrades on the lighthouse were expecting to be taken off the tower that day because of damage the storm had already done to La Jument Light. The violent wind and waves had torn off the front door, flooded the interior, and washed away furniture. None of the lightkeepers were injured, but they could no longer remain in the damaged lighthouse.
The helicopter the keeper saw was not coming to rescue him. Instead, it had Jean Guichard aboard, taking storm pictures as he leaned out the open door. (The relief helicopter would come later.) It was hardly a day to be over the North Atlantic snapping pictures! Guichard was well aware of that, but he also knew the weak of heart seldom get amazing pictures. Guichard's storm images have since become famous. The one above has sold over a million copies in poster format. One of the posters says "Courage" on the bottom. Was it the lightkeeper's courage, or Guichard's? Or maybe it was the bravery of the pilot of Guichard's helicopter!
The courageous keeper's name is Theodore Jean Malgorne. I have a photo of him in my 2007 book The Lightkeepers' Menagerie. He was at La Jument Lighthouse in 1989, right before the lighthouse was automated and its lightkeepers were removed; after that he transferred to Ile-Vierge Lighthouse, one of the tallest in the world at 271-feet. Jean Guichard kindly gave me the photo of Malgorne (above) sitting on the rocks at Ile-Vierge with his dog, Wyckice. Malgorne had a dog at every lighthouse where he served, including La Jument. At the time I wrote the book, Malgorne had nearly 40 years in the French lighthouse service. He is undoubtedly retired by now and enjoying well-deserved quieter days.
The lighthouses Malgorne kept for so many years take harsh punishment from some of the worst storms the North Atlantic can brew. This is the Brittany Coast of France, and Bretons know the definition of a storm! Between 1888 and 1904 some thirty ships wrecked in this area, as well as the Drummond Castle in 1896 with the death of 250 passengers--a sobering statistic that forced construction of La Jument Lighthouse. It was a challenging task to build the lighthouse on a stump of rock at sea, and even after the beacon was placed in service in 1911, the tower remained unstable for many years, with cracks forming and masonry deteriorating. Large waves made it vibrate and move with frightening intensity! Repeated repairs finally shored it up by 1940.
The great sea-swept lighthouses that stand along the Brittany Coast are a tribute to the engineering skills of the French and their great concern for the mariner. La Jument Light stands guard on a rock called Le Vieille Jument---"the old mare"---about 620-feet south of the island Ushant. (The French call it Île d'Ouessant.) The island has four other lighthouses around it, warning mariners of its craggy outline, which looks like a sea monster's head with its mouth open to the southeast. (Can you see the monster in the NASA image below?) Ushant Island is a dangerous obstacle for shipping along the Brittany Coast, with a ragtag following of smaller islands trailing to the southwest. Much of the shipping leaving and entering the southern part of the England Channel passes here, grateful for the lighthouses, even in this age of modern, satellite navigation.
Below is a Wikipedia image of La Jument on a nicer day. It's a lovely tower, built in the years 1904-1911. It was staffed until 1991 when automation took over the operation of the light.
Lighthouse Digest has an article about Jean Guichard's 2001 visit to Maine. He's shown in the photo below (from Kathy Finnegan) signing books and calendars for visitors to the Lighthouse Depot store in Wells, Maine.
This website has a sobering film showing the relief and replacement of lighthouse keepers on La Jument. Those frightened of heights need not apply!!