Congress appropriated $5,000 in August of 1856, and six-acre Mark Island was purchased from David and Mercy Thurlow that December for $175. Work on the lighthouse, which consisted of a square, brick tower connected to a seven-room, frame dwelling by a brick workroom, commenced during the summer of 1857, and the fixed white light from the tower’s fourth-order Fresnel lens was placed in service at sunset on March 1, 1858. The light has a focal plane of twenty-five feet above the ground and fifty-two feet above high water and could be seen from up to twelve miles away.
Thomas Colby Small, a second cousin of David Thurlow, was appointed first keeper of the lighthouse. Small had been a seafaring man, but a fall from a ship’s rigging ended that career. Keeper Small and his wife, Eliza Fifield, were the parents of fourteen children.
Samuel Holden, a veteran of the Civil War, was appointed the fourth keeper of Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse in 1868. Upon his death in 1874, Melissa, his wife, took over the role of keeper, but running the station and caring for five children under the age of thirteen proved to be too much for one person to handle. An inspector filed the following report for Deer Island Thorofare in 1875: “The Station is in a neglected state. Cleanliness and neatness are strangers to it. If no improvement, the Keeper should be removed. Her husband died March ‘74 of sore throat.” Melissa’s term as keeper of the light ended in 1876.
A frame boathouse was added to the station in 1877, and in 1881, 175 trees on the island were cut down to make the light visible from all points of approach. On October 15, 1884, a bell, struck a double blow by machinery every fifteen seconds, commenced operation in a frame tower, seventy-five feet south of the lighthouse. An oil house and a fuel house were added to the station in 1895. A new beam for hanging the bell was installed in 1902, and the bell’s striker was moved from inside the bell to outside.
In 1916, Allen C. Holt moved from Nash Island swapping keeper positions with John Purington, who had held the position for four years. The move allowed the Holt children, who had been being home schooled by their mother, to attend Stonington High School. The children would board in Stonington during the winter but would often travel to and from school in the station’s motorized dory in the fall and spring.
Holt was always quick to assist any boat that encountered difficulties near Mark Island. In 1917, he was recognized for helping float the schooner Sarah and Lucy, which had run ashore on rocks off Andrews Island, for towing the disabled steamer Minnehaha to a place of safety, and for towing a disabled motorboat owned by Everett Gross to Stonington. In 1921, Keeper Holt towed a disabled powerboat to Sand Beach, and on his return trip, he towed a disabled lobster boat to Stonington.
The dog cut circles around us as we trudged up to the kitchen door of the lighthouse, where we were cordially welcomed by Mrs. Robinson and Miss Rachel Robinson, who seemed pleased with the magazines despite their damp condition. The pots and pans in the kitchen shone, and the floors in the house were like mirrors. I had the feeling that here was a perfectly kept light station.
The three members of the Robinson family are the only persons on the island, and I think we were the first visitors in five or six months. Mr. Robinson said that he managed to get ashore for mail and supplies about once a week, but I gathered that Mrs. Robinson and her daughter, a girl of perhaps seventeen, had not been to the mainland for several months. Mrs. Robinson said that she and Rachel crocheted and made quilts and went to bed early. They had been at the lighthouse four years. Before that they were at Matinicus Rock for six years... I gained the impression that while Matinicus Rock is an offshore light it was less lonely for the Robinsons because of the other families stationed there."
Ralph Stanley Andrews, Sr., who was a keeper at Mark Island from 1945 to 1948, slipped while boarding a dinghy from a motorboat in the summer of 1946, and as a result, was temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. His wife and stepmother cared for the light until a relief keeper arrived at the station three days later. Andrews was able to return to lighthouse duties on crutches, eleven days after the incident. Things were still rather primitive on the island during Andrews service as he recalls using a kerosene refrigerator, an outhouse, and a cistern to collect rainwater.
On September 10, 1958, a battery charger in the basement of the dwelling exploded, causing a fire that quickly spread to other areas of the house. Firefighters from Stonington were summoned along with the Coast Guard cutter Laurel, and together, they managed to save the brick light tower, but the dwelling was a total loss. As marine traffic in the area had decreased, the Coast Guard decided to automate the station rather than rebuild the dwelling. A modern optic replaced the Fresnel lens; a continuously sounded horn took the place of the fog bell; and all of the station’s outbuildings were torn down.
Nearby residents were not pleased with the constant blaring of the “bull moose call,” a nickname they gave the new fog signal. “Many nights I have to turn my radio on loud to drown out the horn in order to sleep,” complained one person, and another wrote, “When we get a good southwest breeze, the thing might just as well be in the living room.” A reduction in power and relocation of the fog horn in July 1959 placated the neighbors.
Late in 1997, the Maine Lighthouse Selection Committee, which oversaw the transfer of thirty-five lighthouses under the Maine Lights Program, announced that Island Heritage Trust would be the new owners of Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse. As members of the trust, Dr. Ken Crowell, and his wife, Marnie Reed Crowell have done much to preserve and document the lighthouse. Dr. Crowell, an emeritus professor of Biology at St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, first became acquainted with Mark Island when he studied its mice populations in the 1980s. Marnie Reed Crowell has authored "Mark Island Light" an informative volume on the history of the lighthouse and whose proceeds are donated to the trust’s Lighthouse Fund.
To celebrate the deed passing to Island Heritage Trust, a Mark Island Light celebration was held on March 14, 1998. Besides local residents, those in attendance included descendants of keepers and former keeper Ralph Andrews. Local schoolchildren put on a skit about a circus ship sinking off Mark Island, and items were auctioned off to help maintain the lighthouse.
The Deer Island Thorofare (Mark Island) Lighthouse can best be photographed from the water on one of several cruises originating from several towns along the coast.