During the mid-19th century the town of Ellsworth, on the Union River, was said to be the second-busiest lumber port in the world, and the Blue Hill Bay lighthouse was built to help guide ship traffic to this very busy port.
The cylindrical white tower with attached one-and-a-half story dwelling was built in 1856, after the government purchased the island the previous year for $150. The lighthouse looks today much like it did when it was built, except for the addition in 1905 of a boathouse and brick oil house.
Lighthouse keepers often supplemented their meager income with fishing and farming, but because the light towers were often built on rocky islands with little vegetation, keepers sometimes had to use neighboring islands to graze their sheep and cows during the summer. In a typical lighthouse, the whole family pitched in to help, with the children rowing to nearby islands to pick berries and other available edible plants. Most lighthouse families had at least one cow for milk and several hens for eggs. Some also had sheep for wool and possibly a few turkeys for holiday dinners.
During the 1920s, a family living at a lighthouse like Blue Hill Bay was given a yearly ration of 500 gallons of kerosene and nine tons of coal. The kerosene was used to keep both the lighthouse and the keeper’s house lit, while the coal was used for heat. The coal was often not enough to last the winter, and had to be supplemented by driftwood gathered nearby. Fresh water came from rainwater collected on the roof and stored in a 4,500-gallon underground brick cistern.
A 1920s keeper, named Roscoe Chandler, kept two cows on nearby Flye Island. Each spring, the cows were walked across the exposed rock during a low tide to graze all summer. The tides often didn’t coincide with the twice-daily milking times, so the family’s children often took the dory to the island, where they wandered the fifteen-acre island following the sounds of the cowbells. During thunderstorms, the cows often went into the sea and swam towards the lighthouse, and someone usually had to go out in a boat and herd them safely to dry land.
The original beacon at Blue Hill Bay was a fourth-order Fresnel lens showing a fixed white light with a visible range of nine miles during clear weather, augmented by a fog bell. The lighthouse was deactivated in 1933 and replaced in 1935 by an automated skeleton tower, which is now solar powered and still in use. The lighthouse was purchased in 1976 for use as a private residence by a Mr. Wilbur Trapp, a retired accountant from New Jersey who retired to nearby Brooklin, Maine. The Trapps had the house and accompanying outbuildings beautifully restored and installed a long floating walkway to his deepwater mooring, giving easy access to the island during all tides. The lighthouse changed hands again in 1995. The station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The Blue Hill Bay Lighthouse best photographed from the water on cruises originating from various towns along the coast.