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.