Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Nutty for the Nubble

Courtesy Yankee Magazine
Who doesn't love Maine's Cape Neddick "Nubble" Lighthouse? It's one of my favorites, not only because of its quaint beauty--sitting just offshore on a tiny islet--but also for its storied past. Built in 1879, it gets much attention from photographers and lighthouse hunters. The Internet and eBay are loaded with baubles and images of this lighthouse. My collection of pictures and old postcards is enormous. I include a few of them here...but also some grist to grind the wheels of fascination.

This postcard shows the old fogbell and the pyramidal structure that held the bell striker and clockworks. Note the covered way between the lighthouse and the bellhouse.

In the 1930s, the Nubble was home to Sambo Tonkus the cat, a rough and tumble 19-pound tom that loved to swim back and forth to the mainland to carouse with other cats and catch mice. He was a tourist attraction as well as the rodent eradicator for the islet and a companion for the keepers. He became a part of the light station and its work, and he was passed down from keeper to keeper. It seems the islet had a bad problem with rats. They foraged on the mainland where tourists left garbage and remnants of their picnics. When that food was gone, the rats swam to the Nubble. The keepers fought the rats with shotguns, traps, poison bait, pitchforks, brooms, and more. Sambo Tonkus was, perhaps, the most skillful rat fighter! Stealth and huge jaws aided his effort. 

My friend and colleague, Jeremy D'Entremont, has a picture of Sambo Tonkus here http://www.newenglandlighthouses.net/cape-neddick-nubble-light-history.html. Scroll down to see the image on the right--Sambo sitting on the lap of Keeper Eugene Coleman.

Below is Karyn Terry and her lighthouse pets. She and her husband were the lightkeepers in the mid-1980s. It seems that felines were prominent in this light station's story.

Lightkeeper rowing visitors from shore to the lighthouse.
The Winchester family, who lived on the Nubble in the Coast Guard years, were known for putting their son, Ricky, in the cable car crate that connected the islet with the mainland. The crate was designed to ahul such things as mail and groceries, but the Winchesters found it useful in other ways. Ricky was pulled across the tidal isthmus, called the Hellespont, in the cable car crate, and then he hopped out on the mainland and went to school. At the end of the school day, he was pulled back across the water in the cable box. His was the most unique school bus yet! Jeremy has a picture of Ricky in the box on his website, not far below the image of Sambo Tonkus. All this happened in the 1970s, and the publicity surrounding Ricky's daily ride to school soon reached the Coast Guard. Officials in the district told the Winchesters to stop the practice, as it was too dangerous.

At one time, the lighthouse was painted a dark color. Photos of this daymark, which likely was dark brown, are from the late 1800s. The Lighthouse Establishment experimented with tower colors at a number of lighthouses, always looking for the best one to help the lighthouse show up against its background. Ultimately, it was decided white was the best color for the Nubble.

Note that the Nubble's bellhouse varied in design through the years. This is how it originally looked. It was tall so that weights for clockworks could drop and power the bell striker.

If you fancy whimsy, visit the Nubble at Christmas time and in July to see it lighted with holiday lights. There's a Nubble Christmas in July and then a real Nubble Christmas in December. Over the years, the lighting has grown somewhat commercial. Sales of hot cocoa and trinkets became part of the event, as well as holiday music. Then a welcome center was built. The viewing area for the lighthouse is called Sohier Park. It's packed with people most every clement day in summer and also crowded for the holiday lights.

Getty Images

Jeremy D'Entremont

Another whimsical aspect of the lighthouse are the finials on its lantern railing. They are miniature lighthouses! And to think the Lighthouse Establishment--an organization known for its straightforward, frugal practices--took time to add something so lovely to this lighthouse. How many hands have touched them? Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse also has lighthouse finials of the same design. The photo, courtesy of Jeremy D'Entremont, shows the simple design.

Oooops! The Hassan Cigarette Company created a set of lighthouse cards in 1910 and put a card in every pack of cigarettes. This was the Nubble card. The house, oilhouse, and belltower were somewhat accurate, but the tower...not so much.

Voyager I--artist's impression. Courtesy of NASA.

A final note about the Nubble is indeed a special one. An image of this lighthouse was digitized years ago and added to a collection of sights and sounds on a disk for inclusion in the time capsule that was placed aboard the Voyager I spacecraft. The probe was launched in the 1970s and began its tour of the large outer planets Jupiter and Saturn. Afterward, it went adrift and journeyed to the outer reaches of the solar system. As far as we know, it's still traveling--an ambassador from Earth carrying images and sound from our planet. Should aliens encounter it, they will know that Earth has water and civilization, a world where lighthouses stand to guide and protect, welcome and warn.

Yes, I'm "nutty for the Nubble." Here I was in the 1986 with my kids, visiting the Nubble. The flag was flying straight out. The little oilhouse was bright red. And the white tower held much romance. My husband took this picture of the DeWire Lighthouse Hunters. It's been thirty years, and I must go back!

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