In the summer of 1682, a coastal trading vessel, the Increase, was wrecked on the rocky ledges of barren Boon Island, several miles off the southern Maine coast. The four survivors—three white men and one Indian—spent a month on the island, living on fish and gulls’ eggs. One day the men saw smoke rising from Mount Agamenticus several miles away, so they built a fire in response. The Indians at Mount Agamenticus saw the smoke from the island, and the stranded men were soon rescued.
The precise origins of the island’s name are shrouded in four centuries of history. It’s been often stated that the men from the Increase, seeing their survival as a boon granted by God, were moved to name the island Boon. In fact, the island was referred to by that name long before the wreck of the Increase. John Winthrop mentioned it in his journal in 1630: "We saw, also, ahead of us, some four leagues from shore, a small rock, called Boone Isle, not above a flight shot over, which hath a dangerous shoal to the E. and by S. of it, some two leagues in length."
The island was also mentioned five years later in Richard Mather’s journal; like Winthrop, he In 1797, General Benjamin Lincoln, local lighthouse superintendent, met with the Boston Marine Society to discuss the building of an unlighted beacon on Boon Island for the safety of local fishermen and coastal traders.
Construction began the following July. The first wooden tower as finished in 1799. It survived until 1804, when it was destroyed by a tremendous storm.
A stone day beacon was erected in the summer of 1805. Three of the workers involved in erecting the tower drowned when their boat capsized as they left the island.
In June 1811, General Lincoln recommended a lighthouse on Boon Island. The tower, completed by that winter, exhibited a fixed light 32 feet above the water. The first keeper, after witnessing the vulnerability of the low island (14 feet above sea level at its highest point ) to storms, left after only a few weeks.
After suffering great damage in storms, the lighthouse was rebuilt in 1831. It was built of rubblestone and stood 49 feet tall, with an octagonal wrought iron lantern. The light was 69 feet above mean high water.
Capt. Nathaniel Baker became keeper in 1846. The schooner Caroline was wrecked on the island in the same year, and Baker rescued the crew. Despite his heroism, Baker was dismissed as keeper in 1849 and replaced by John Thompson, who had been dismissed earlier. In those days lighthouse keeping jobs were frequently given as political favors.
The present lighthouse was constructed in 1854, along with a new dwelling. The stone tower, built of granite is 133 feet high -- the tallest lighthouse in New England. It is 25 feet in diameter at its base and 12 feet in diameter at the top.
An additional $19,973 was appropriated in 1854 for "procuring illuminating apparatus, and completing the light-house tower and buildings..." The new second-order Fresnel lens went into operation on January 1, 1855.
According to some writers, including the popular New England historian Edward Rowe Snow, the island’s name stemmed from the practice of local fishermen, who left barrels of provisions on the island for the benefit of shipwrecked sailors. That would certainly have been a “boon” in such circumstances. In any case, the name is an ironic one for the desolate pile of rocks that the poet Celia Thaxter called, "the forlornest place that can be imagined".
The most famous incident in the island's history was the wreck of the British ship Nottingham Galley on December 11, 1710. The survivors struggled to stay alive for over three weeks, finally resorting to cannibalism. The harrowing story was fictionalized by Kenneth Roberts in his novel Boon Island.
In recent years cannons have been located in about 25 feet of water that are believed to have been on board the Nottingham Galley.
Poet Celia Thaxter described the lighthouse in her 1873 book, Among the Isles of Shoals:
"A slender column against the sky... Sometimes it looms colossal in the mirage of summer; in winter it lies blurred and ghostly at the edge of the chilly sea and pallid sky."
In 1889, it was reported that the keeper's dwelling had problems with leaks and was cold and unsuitable for occupation. The house was largely rebuilt and an upper story was added. In the following year a stone and brick oil house was built.
Capt. William C. Williams, a native of Kittery, Maine, went to Boon Island as an assistant in 1885 and served as principal keeper from 1888 to 1911. At the age of 90 he recounted his experiences to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them.
Captain Williams had pleasant times at Boon Island, but he later remembered the danger of the job: "The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes... I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away."
In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous "Portland" Gale of 1898 was "just a breeze."
The Boon Island light is reportedly one of Maine's haunted lighthouses. If you ever visit this lighthouse and hear the screams or see the spirit of a woman, they are reportedly that of Katherine Bright, the wife of a keeper. Just four short months after moving in with her new husband, he slipped on the rocks while tying up the boat during a storm and drowned. She pulled his body to the lighthouse steps, and then set to work keeping the light burning for 5 days. She was found on day six holding her dead husbands frozen corpse sitting on the steps of the lighthouse. She reportedly had gone insane. It has been reported that she died just weeks after being rescued.
Directions: From I-95 or U.S. Route 1 in York, take U.S. 1A to York Beach, continuing to Nubble Road (Marked with a small "Nubble Light" sign). Follow this road to Sohier Park and the parking area. The light is visible some nine miles off shore.
Credits: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont, webmaster of, http://www.newenglandlighthouses.net/, for sharing the above history. Jeremy is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England. To view a story on him, go to, (Jeremy D'Entremont).