In 1837, Captain Joseph Smith of the U.S. Navy sailed along the coast of Maine examining sites for proposed lighthouses. After visiting Mount Desert Island and conversing with experience sea captains, he concluded, “there is no place where there is a light so much required, on or about the island of Mount Desert, as on a small island, called Bear isle, at the entrance of Northeast and Southwest harbors; these harbors are much frequented by vessels employed in foreign and domestic trade; I have frequently seen from three to four hundred sail of vessels at a time in these harbors.”
Captain Smith learned that the owner of the island, William Moore, demanded $500 for the eleven-acre island or $50 for two acres on its western side, even though he had purchased the island for $101.17 just a few months earlier.
Bear Island was from the beginning a family station with a single keeper. The original lighthouse consisted of a wooden tower set atop the southern gable of a granite rubblestone keeper’s house. The dwelling had three rooms on the first floor, two chambers in an attic, and a cellar beneath it that held two wooden rainwater cisterns. The tower’s octagonal lantern room housed seven lamps and thirteen-inch reflectors, which produced a fixed white light at a focal plane of ninety-eight feet above the surrounding water.
Bear Island Lighthouse was severely damaged by fire in 1852 and rebuilt in 1853. Experience proved that the original design put too much stress on the dwelling, thus, the new construction featured a thirty-one-foot-tall, cylindrical brick tower painted white, placed at the southern end of the dwelling. A few years later, in 1856, the station’s old lighting apparatus was replaced with a fifth-order Fresnel lens.
Additions to the station include a 170-foot crib wharf in 1885, and, in 1887, a bell tower and a thirty by sixty-foot coal-shed, with a capacity of 390 tons, which served as a coal supply depot for the area’s buoy tenders. The coal depot remained until it was relocated from Bear Island in 1934. A 1,000-pound bell, struck by machinery, was housed in the bell tower. Terry Stanley, a Coast Guard keeper from the 1950s, said the apparatus “worked like a Swiss clock. You cranked weights up to the top of the tower and it would ring the bell every so many minutes.”
By 1888, the keeper’s stone dwelling was in such a poor state that it was determined erecting a new one-and-a-half-story wooden dwelling would be less expensive than repairs. Everything at the station—other than the new fog bell tower, coal-shed, and wharf—was torn down and rebuilt. On September 1, 1889, a light with the same characteristics as the old one, was exhibited from a temporary skeleton tower placed about twenty feet south-southeasterly from old tower. This light served until the current brick tower and attached frame dwelling were completed later that year at a cost of $3,750.
Bear Island Lighthouse passed to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939 but remained a family light. Steve Loiver, one of the last Coast Guard keepers, was concerned about the move to automate the light. Said he, “I just hope that in the need to economize we don’t destroy the things that give flavor and uniqueness to life.” Besides, an automated light can’t save or assist people as Keeper Heber G. Sawyer did. In 1914, 1916, 1918, and 1921, he used his personal boat to rescue people aboard disabled craft.
In the early 1980s, Bear Island Light slowly began to deteriorate after it was replaced by a lighted bell buoy offshore. The lighthouse was resurrected by the Friends of Acadia and relit in 1989 as a private aid to navigation, exhibiting a white flash every five seconds. The light station is owned by the National Park Service, which leases it to a private individual as a residence.
Martin Morad, a professor of pharmacology and medicine at Georgetown University who first saw Bear Island Lighthouse in 1971 and had subsequently tried to purchase or lease the property, was the first lucky private citizen to call the lighthouse home. Morad and his wife Fabiola Martens, a lawyer turned interior designer, spent a few years and a lot of money restoring the lighthouse before using it as a summer vacation cottage.
”The house had been boarded up for so many years that the humidity from the water in the cisterns permeated the entire place,” Martens recalls. “At every inspection the lighthouse keepers added another layer of paint, without ever removing any of the old paint. Over the years the dampness caused the eleven layers to crumble and form stalactites and stalagmites. It was as if one was entering a grotto!” The station’s water problem was solved by running an underwater pipeline to Northeast Harbor. Later, electricity was brought in, and a sewer system was installed.
The couple found little need to hang paintings in the house, as the views from each window offered an ever-changing picture. “Our primary goal,” Martens remembers, “was to respect the essential simplicity of the lighthouse.”
Bear Island Lighthouse is not open to the public. It is best seen from the water, with cruises past the island being offered most days during the summer.