In 1812, William and Hannah Gilley moved with their three children to 123-acre Baker Island, situated four miles off Mount Desert Island. With a rocky coastline that often made landings impossible, Baker Island was unclaimed and unoccupied, so, according to Charles W. Elliot, author of John Gilley – One of the Forgotten Millions, the family “simply took possession of it.” Baker Island is the outermost of the five Cranberry Isles, located at the entrance to Southwest Harbor and named for the bright red berries found over much of the islands in the fall. The names of the other four isles are: Great Cranberry, Little Cranberry, Sutton, and Bear.
With backbreaking labor, William Gilley cleared the land, ferried timber to a sawmill and back, and built a home for his family, which steadily grew to include twelve children, six boys and six girls. When the government needed a keeper in 1828 for its recently finished lighthouse on Baker Island, Gilley was the obvious choice.
Built of rubblestone, the twenty-six-foot-tall tower was topped by an octagonal lantern, with a wrought iron frame and copper dome, that housed tens lamps, backed by fifteen-inch reflectors and arranged in two rows, one above the other. The tower and keeper’s dwelling cost $3,800.
Gilley was provided a salary of $350 a year, free housing, and all the sperm whale oil his household could use— but after a few years he received an official letter stating that he was using too much oil and had to economize. The government’s lighthouse tenders supplied lighthouse families with just the barest essentials, such as flour and pickled food stuffs in barrels. Thus, land permitting, keepers constructed outbuildings and barns, often using their own funds, for raising animals. The Gilleys kept pigs, sheep, ducks, chickens, and cows in their barns and sheds, and fortunately, other food sources were abundant on Baker Island. Traps weren’t necessary to capture lobsters; they could simply be plucked from between rocks located just offshore. Fish, such as mackerel, were easy to catch, and the eggs of seabirds could be gathered. During the winter the Gilleys killed a “beef-critter” or two as the family increased in number.
On the island’s ten acres of arable land, they grew fruits, vegetables, and lots of potatoes, which they stored in a root cellar under the house. They planted flax for linen and spun wool from their sheep for clothing and blankets. The children went barefoot much of the year, and an older son learned the shoemaker’s trade to keep them in winter boots. On the mainland, the Gilleys would sell their butter, smoked herring, and other products so they could purchase needed supplies. Hannah Gilley loved to read and made sure her children could read and “scribe.”
The Gilley family was religious, independent, and had a hard, but generally happy life. But that is not to say that everything on Baker Island was idyllic. An 1842 inspection report by I. W. P. Lewis noted that the walls of the tower and dwelling were cracked and that the kitchen, built just five years earlier, had started to separate from the dwelling. The tower’s soapstone roof was loose and leaky, and the interior of the tower an its stairs coated with ice during the winter. Crammed in a cold, four-room, rubblestone house, the Gilleys had no fresh water well, no cistern, and were not provided a government boat, despite being cut off from the mainland. Lewis’ report strongly recommended rebuilding the tower and dwelling, but this would not be undertaken for thirteen more years, after Keeper Gilley had left the island.
I. W. P. Lewis felt that instead of Baker Island, the government should have erected the lighthouse on Great Duck Island, located seven miles to the south. As it was, vessels were likely to run aground on Great Duck Island or Long Island Reef before seeing Baker Island Light.
Despite their tribulations, the Gilleys treasured the beauty of the sea and shore at Baker Island until William Gilley was yanked from his position in 1848 for not backing the Whig Party—in those days lighthouse positions were plum presidential appointments. Even though his $350 salary was a fortune to coastal families in Maine, when given the opportunity to switch parties, Gilley replied, with some expletives, that he “would not change his political connection for all the lighthouses in the United States.”
Aged sixty-three-years, William Gilley left the island and lived mostly alone (Hannah was too infirm to join him) on the more remote Duck Island, which he had purchased earlier for $300, intending to raise cattle there. Back on Baker Island, his two older boys, asserting their ownership rights, badgered, bedeviled, and threatened two subsequent keepers until the government threatened to evict the young men from the island. One angry keeper wanted the Gilleys’ house destroyed and a revenue cutter sent in “to have the business thoroughly done.” The matter was eventually taken to court, and the U.S. government was awarded nineteen acres around the lighthouse and a right-of-way to the boat landing, while the Gilleys retained the rest of the island.
A report in 1853 noted that the tower on Baker was “entirely worthless,” while the keeper’s dwelling was “so old and leaky” that it was unhealthy. Two years later, the dwelling and tower were rebuilt for $4,963 on the island’s highest point of land, far from the sea, and a modern fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the lantern room. Until the station was automated in 1966, each twilight the keeper would mount the forty-three spiraling wrought-iron stairs steps to activate the and return in the morning to extinguish it. The Fresnel lens is now in the Fisherman’s Museum at Pemaquid Point Lighthouse.
From 1888 to 1892, Captain Howard P. Robbins served as keeper. One of his children would go on to marry one of the children of Captain Vurney King, who would serve as keeper at Baker Island from 1915 to 1928. Some modern conveniences did eventually make it to the island. King managed to transport a car to the island to make it easier to get around, and a telephone line, paid for by the national defense budget, connected the station with Northeast Harbor, Maine, in 1898. A brick oil house was built at the station in 1895, and a fuel house was added in 1905. The tower was reinforced with an external four-inch brick wall in 1903.
The lives of Keeper Joseph Muise and his wife were tied to the water surrounding Baker Island in the most joyous and grievous ways. As a powerful storm blew in November 1932, Muise’s wife went into labor. Unable to leave his post because his assistant was on leave, Muise rang the Coast Guard. A lifeboat with a five-man crew picked up Mrs. Muise and set off for the mainland, but the baby refused to wait, and a healthy girl came into the world about two miles offshore. After the drowning of his oldest son at Baker Island, Muise was transferred to Moose Peak Lighthouse, and then spent fifteen years at Burnt Island Lighthouse, before retiring in 1951.
The government’s original nineteen acres of land and the keeper’s dwelling were transferred to the National Park Service in the 1950s, leaving the Coast Guard with just the lighthouse tower and a one-foot-wide strip of land around it. In 1991 and again in 1997, the Coast Guard announced its intention to discontinue the light, but feedback from fishermen and other boaters convinced them that the light was still needed.
Pine trees have grown up around the light, blocking it in many directions, but Acadia National Park officials say budgetary restrictions prevent them from taking any action, as great swathes of trees would have to be topped or felled. The lighthouse tower was offered to non-profit and government groups in 2008 as part of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and it is believed that it will be awarded to the Park Service. Unless priorities change, Baker Island Light soon will no longer be visible from the water, and the tower, which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2008, may be endangered due to lack of repairs.