The Lighthouse Board initially requested $10,000, but two years later the amount increased to $30,000, a sum which Congress appropriated in 1889. Eleven acres on the southern end of the island were acquired along with an acre on the east side of the island for a landing and a right-of-way across the island. When work commenced in May 1890, the first task was to build a double boat slip and boathouse at the landing, a 2,251-foot-long road across the island, and a barn, twenty by thirty feet in plan, to house the workers. A thirty-two-foot-square fog signal house was erected for a ten-inch steam whistle, along with a 25,000-gallon cistern fed by a rain-shed that measured 130 by 30 feet. The lighthouse consisted of a forty-two-foot, cylindrical brick tower, topped by an octagonal lantern. Three, six-room dwellings were built for the head keeper and two assistants.
The light was placed in operation on December 31, 1890, using a fifth-order lens that produced a red flash every ten seconds. The tower’s daymark was red, until May 20, 1900, when it was painted white. The intensity of the light was increased in 1902 with the installation of a fourth-order, Barbier, Benard & Turenne lens, but the light’s characteristic remained the same.
While some light stations didn’t have a fresh water source, Maine’s intense summertime fog made fresh water absolutely indispensable at Great Duck Island —a steam fog whistle couldn’t run without fresh water, or at least not for long. An arrangement for supplying the boilers with salt water in case of emergency was added in 1902, along with an additional cistern to prevent such emergencies. A 1,200-pound fog bell was rung by hand while steam for the whistle was building and in case the foghorn became inoperative.
Many notes in the Lighthouse Board’s annual report for Great Duck Island refer to its fog signal. The number of hours the whistle sounded and the amount of coal used were meticulously noted and varied from a low in 1900 of 1,071 hours and 47 tons to a high in 1897 of 1,542 hours and 60 tons. The station’s first keeper, William Stanley, told a reporter that the foghorn had once sounded for thirteen days straight. Given that all those tons of coal had to be hauled by wheelbarrow from a boat dock to the fog signal, the addition of a coal tramway in 1902, and the installation of a little railway in 1906, must have been dreams come true. A diaphone fog signal replaced the steam whistle around 1930.
Another dream come true for assistant keeper Nathan Adam “Ad” Reed was the opening of a school at Great Duck Island. Ad gave up his position as a ship captain to be with his wife, Emma, and their sixteen children. Getting approval for the school was difficult, but he fought to keep his family together. At one point, Renay Reed, one of the Reed girls, became the school’s teacher after earning her teaching certificate in Castine. A room was built and outfitted with a wood stove, homemade desks and chairs, and blackboards for eighteen students—fourteen Reed children, two from another keeper, and two from the north end of the island. The Reed family was likely the largest ever known in the Lighthouse Service.
In an interview with a high school magazine, Dalton Reed related that he moved to Great Duck in 1902 at the age of seven and stayed there for ten years until his father was transferred. When Dalton saw a steamer coming, he knew it was likely the lighthouse inspector. Inspectors, usually retired navy commanders, came “once or twice a year to check the lighthouse….They would wear white gloves. They would wipe their hands on the white walls to see if there was any dirt. Everything in the whistle house had to be polished for inspection because it was all brass. They would also come in and check out our house to see if it was neat and clean.”
For fun, Dalton would play checkers or other games. One winter, Dalton and his brother were playing hide and seek in the kitchen in the dark when they heard a strange noise “and looked out the window and saw three white forms.” The boys ran and told their father “that something white was coming through the gate and it was making an awful noise…. About the time he got to the door, three ghosts rapped at the door.” A boat had broken down and two fishermen had been forced to row a long time through flying spray and vapor. “They were nothing but a solid bed of ice. We took them in and got their clothes off them. The noise we had heard was them walking with frozen oil skins.”
In a 1938 interview, Gray said that he began as a keeper before there were telephones, radios, and regular mail deliveries, and those on the island could long be isolated due to storms. Keeper Gray started as an assistant at Great Duck before becoming head keeper three years later in 1905. “I remained 18 years at this station and enjoyed every minute of the time I spent there,” said Captain Gray. “We planted a garden every spring, and there were plenty of berries for canning on the island. When I first went there we used a sail boat, but later a motor boat was assigned to the station. During the World War, eight navy boys were stationed on the island to look out for enemy submarines and we boarded the men at the lighthouse. These lads sighted no subs but they certainly had a happy, carefree life while they remained on the island.”
On September 15, 1931, the fishing schooner Rita A. Viator struck rocks near the station with a heavy sea running. As the vessel was being pounded to pieces, Keeper Andrew H. Kennedy and his two assistants, Earle E. Benson and Leverett S. Stanley, sprang into action and rescued the schooner’s captain and crew. Secretary of Commerce Robert P. Lamont sent special letters of commendation recognizing the keepers’ adherence “to the traditions of the Lighthouse Service.”
On February 6, 1955, just two days after arriving at Great Duck Light, and five days after arriving in Maine, Judy Schwarz, wife of Coast Guard keeper Richard Schwartz went into early labor. When bad weather required the rescue tug to dock on the opposite side of the island, she and her husband were forced to slog through deep snow for 1½ hours to reach it. When she ultimately reached the hospital, Judy gave birth to a baby boy.
Great Duck Island is estimated to support a whopping twenty percent of Maine’s seabird population; the island earned its appellation in the 1700s from its pond that attracted numerous ducks. The island’s avian life has shaped its history and managed to live in harmony with the light station and its keepers.
When it was recognized in the late 1800s that the hat trade’s use of feathers and the eating of birds and their eggs were driving some species to extinction, the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU), sought to protect the birds by passing legislation and deputizing lighthouse keepers. The April 1900 issue of the Union’s The Auk noted: “The Union has always found the U.S. Lighthouse Board very heartily in sympathy with the work of bird protection….” The same issue mentioned that “the U.S. Lighthouse Board has issued special orders to the light keeper [William F. Stanley] at the Great Duck Island Light Station, Maine to prevent the destruction of the colony of Herring Gulls that live on that lighthouse reservation.” In another issue of The Auk, Keeper Stanley told a writer that Indian hunters “claimed to have killed, on the two Duck Islands, during the year 1899, at least twenty-eight hundred gulls.”
In 1998, the roughly twelve acres encompassing Great Duck Island Lighthouse became the property of Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic (COA) under the Maine Lights Program. Today, Great Duck Island serves as a biology, ecology, and wildlife study center for COA. Fortunately for the birds and unfortunately for lighthouse lovers, the island is closed to visitors from spring to mid-fall. COA has been a good steward of the station, having spent over $120,000 for restoration and maintenance. The remaining keeper’s dwelling is staffed by CAO faculty students for much of the year.