Saddleback Ledge is a wave-swept granite outcropping at the southern entrance to East Penobscot Bay (also known as Isle au Haut Bay), approximately four miles from the southeastern corner of Vinalhaven to the west and three miles from the southwestern coast of Isle au Haut to the east.
In 1836, the ship Royal Tar, carrying circus performers and animals, caught fire and sank near the ledge. In March of the following year, Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse on Saddleback Ledge.
The noted architect and engineer Alexander Parris (1780–1852) designed the tower. Parris is best remembered for designing Boston’s Quincy Market, the executive mansion of the Commonwealth of Virginia, and various buildings at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.
Construction was carried out in 1838–39. Another $10,000 was appropriated for the project in July 1838; the total cost of $15,000 made this an expensive lighthouse for its time. The lighthouse is a 43-foot-tall conical granite tower with an octagonal wrought wrought-iron lantern.
The high expense of the tower appears to have been justified. Engineer I. W. P. Lewis, highly critical of many lighthouses in his 1843 report to Congress, called it "the most economical and durable structure that came under my observation." He pointed out, however, that there was "no convenience for collecting fresh water, nor any means of securing the boat -- both important omissions."
In the early days, the four-room keeper's quarters were inside the tower. An attached wooden building was added later, sometime before 1868. The lower floor of the building was a boathouse, and two rooms for keepers were located on the second floor. Incredibly, before the attached building, the upper part of the tower was home for many years not only to the keepers themselves but their families as well.
The first keeper was Watson Y. Hopkins, a Maine native. Hopkins moved into the lighthouse with his pregnant wife, Abigail, and seven children. The large family was crowded into living quarters inside the lighthouse tower that consisted of a living room with a cooking stove, two bedrooms, and a cellar.
Hopkins painted a dismal picture of the living conditions at the lighthouse for I. W. P. Lewis's 1843 report: “I was appointed keeper of this light, December, 1839, upon a salary of $450. I live with my family in the tower, which is the only building on the ledge. The tower is in good repair, excepting a leak in the deck on the east side, and the want of any ventilator to the kitchen smoke pipe. I am obliged to bring my water from shore, a distance of seven miles.
My family consists of nine persons. There is a living room and two chambers in the tower, besides a cellar. The copper spout carried round the tower to catch rain water has been so injured by the surf, that it is no longer of any use. The iron railing, which was secured to the rock around the tower, has been all swept away; also, the privy, which was carried away the first storm after its erection. The windows all leak in storms, the shutters having no rebates in the stone work. The fastenings of all the shutters are iron, and have corroded away."
In September 1843, Abigail Hopkins gave birth to a baby girl at the station. A week later, a boat came to the ledge to take the mother and daughter to the mainland. During the transfer to the boat, the baby was dropped briefly into the icy waves. She was quickly plucked out of the water before any serious harm was done. The girl, Margaret Roberts Hopkins, later married William Kitteridge, a Civil War veteran. She lived to the age of 86 as one of Vinalhaven’s most beloved citizens.
Like Boon Island and Mount Desert Rock, Saddleback Ledge has absolutely no soil. As they did at those other remote stations, the keepers at Saddleback Ledge brought soil from the mainland each spring and planted a few vegetables and flowers. The soil would inevitably be swept away by winter storms.
Legend has it that one keeper went to get supplies from the mainland, leaving his 15-year-old son alone at Saddleback Ledge. The seas grew stormy, and it was three weeks before the keeper was able to return to the ledge. His son was exhausted, but he had managed to keep the light burning every night.
An 1850 inspection revealed that a winter storm had exposed the base of the lighthouse to the seas. The local lighthouse superintendent wrote: “I consider it a very dangerous place to live in, in its present condition. . . . Immediate attention should be paid to this establishment, as it is an important light-house. I would take the liberty to recommend a new lantern and lighting apparatus.”
In 1874, the first assistant keeper, Nathaniel Bowden, assaulted the principal keeper, James H. Orcutt, and pointed a loaded revolver at his head. Needless to say, Bowden's light keeping career was soon ended.
It was extremely difficult to land at Saddleback Ledge. In 1885, a derrick with a swinging arm was added. The arm held a bosun's chair on a hoist. This method of getting keepers and visitors on and off the rock was used for many years.
An 1896 article in Scribner's described the visit of the lighthouse supply ship Armeria to Saddleback Ledge: “Saddleback Ledge, as was seen last summer, was a bare rock absolutely devoid of vegetation, save for three sickly pea-vines, two hills of potatoes, and a dozen spears of oats, which, with a longing to look at something green, the keeper had coaxed into life in his trash heap, though with the certain knowledge that the first heavy gale would sweep them away.
At this station the rocks rise so abruptly, and the break of the sea upon them is so constant, that an anchor is dropped over the stern of the freightboat, a line from her bows is made fast ashore by the light-keepers, and, as she lies thus, moored in tossing white waters, within a few feet of the sullen coast, her cargo is transferred to the Ledge by means of a stout iron derrick, securely planted in the solid rock high above her.”
Historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote in the 1940s: “It is a never-to-be-forgotten experience to be swung around and landed from the rocking deck of a small craft onto the hard rocky ledge, and those of us who have had that sensation do not forget it in a hurry.”
In the 1930s, Keeper W. W. Wells reported hoisting 42 visitors ashore in a single summer day. Robert Thayer Sterling interviewed Keeper Wells for his 1935 book, Maine Lighthouses and the Men Who Keep Them. Wells described a rough day in January 1925 when his dory capsized: “Had it not been for a local fisherman I would have gone to Davy Jones' locker. I... was trying to make a landing when a mountainous sea rushed in from the ocean, overturning my boat and sending me flying into the water. Why, it turned me upside down faster than you can say 'Jack Robinson.' I was just about to give up when George Wells, a local lobsterman, came along . . . and hauled me out of the water.”
By the 1920s, Saddleback Ledge had become a "stag" station attended by male keepers only. Wells went on to describe life at the remote station: “Winter we all hate the most, beginning when the summer guests have gone and the hotels on shore are closed. This means we will have to bank up the old station, get some good reading matter and snuggle down for a long period of isolation.
The weirdest experience I have had since being in the service was the bombardment we got on a February night away back in 1927, when to my surprise I picked up 124 sea birds around the tower. There were ducks and drakes. Some were alive, but most were dead.
Just when I thought the cannonading had ceased, one big sea drake struck the plate glass in the tower lantern and came through without asking for a transfer. When he struck he broke up the works. Before he stopped he put out the light and broke prisms out of the lens. The bird weighed 10 pounds.
Wells was first assistant keeper at the time of this incident. The principal keeper, Andrew Dennett, was ashore taking a vacation. According to a newspaper story, the two assistants on duty worked feverishly, disregarding their own safety, until the damages had been repaired and the beacon was again sending its welcome message across the water. According to the article, 30 sea birds were found alive around the base of the tower. The surviving birds were placed in the boathouse overnight and they went on their way next morning with satisfied honkings. The damage to the lens was reportedly visible years later.
Wells also described the destruction done by a particularly bad storm in January 1933:
“The storm struck in the dead of night, the wind blew a sixty mile gale. With it came the seas. They struck plentiful and hard. I did not even dare to peak out the door to see what was doing... One tremendous sea that boarded us seemed to shake us like a tablecloth. I thought it was going to clean up the works. Why it didn't I haven't been able to fathom out. When daylight came and the storm subsided we ventured out to look things over.
Things were certainly a mess. Over 128 feet of our boat slip was torn up... and the cement breakwater built around the light to protect it, broken through in several places... It threw a 140 gallon oil tank and one boathouse door upon the winch hoist and put that out of commission... Take it altogether, it was a hummer and did lots of damage.”
Benjamin E. Stewart was an assistant keeper in the 1930s. His daughter, Aleta Stewart Buotte, recalled those days in emails in April 2011: “Once in a while during the summer I went back to the light with my dad. When it was a little rough I would wrap my arms around his legs. I was so afraid he would fall overboard. I had lost my mother, so he was mother and dad to me. The boat was what they called a peapod. I have great memories of my time there.
When we arrived at the light he would put me in a chair that was on a boom and swing me on the ledge and he'd be there to get me. I would want to fish off the rocks so my dad would tie a rope on me and the boom. One time I got myself untied and snuck up in back of the house and climbed the ladder to the bell house. My dad went to check on me and i was gone. I heard him calling and in a panic. Then he heard me giggling, so I said, "Dad, here I am." I never came so close to getting a good paddling.”
Another ferocious storm in March 1947 almost washed away the attached wooden building. The same storm sent the hand-wound fog bell into the ocean, never to be seen again. “We were all relieved when the bell tower washed away and the Coast Guard installed a bell buoy,” Lawrence later recalled. Alley was willing to make repairs to the station himself, but his search for tools didn’t turn up “as much as a monkey wrench,” according to a letter he wrote to the Maine Coast Fisherman.
Albert F. “Bug” Osgood, a native of Vinalhaven, was the keeper from 1948 to 1951. Osgood, a civilian, supervised the Coast Guard crew. After Osgood was transferred to the peaceful, close-to-shore station at Curtis Island in Camden, he reported, “It gets rougher in the wash dish out there [Saddleback Ledge] than it does around here. My wife has to throw water on the windows so I can sleep.”
During a period of rough seas following a storm on November 25, 1951, three keepers—including Osgood and Giffin—were stranded for weeks at the station with, their food and water supplies running low. The storm had badly damaged the attached wooden building and the derrick, and it had also disrupted telephone communications. A Coast Guard plane dropped a walkie-talkie to the keepers, and the Coast Guard tug Snohomish eventually got through with supplies on December 14.
The light was automated in late 1954. The Fresnel lens was replaced by a modern optic, and the light continued as an automatic aid to navigation.