The communities of Saco and Biddeford grew up on the banks of the Saco River, and around Winter Harbor at the river’s mouth. The first sawmill in the area was established in 1653, and textile mills grew into the chief local industry. Fish and lumber were the other major exports.
Fletcher’s Neck was considered a hazard to navigation, and Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse on Wood Island in March 1806. The government purchased land for the station from Pendleton Fletcher for $160.
The light station was completed by September 1, 1807, for a sum of $4,750. For reasons that aren't clear, the 45-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse didn't go into service until the following year.
The 1808 tower lasted until 1839, when a new 44-foot conical rubblestone tower was built, along with a new one-story granite dwelling, after a congressional appropriation of $5,000 in July 1838. The revolving light was 69 feet above mean high water. A rotating “eclipser” created the appearance of a flash at certain intervals.
Eben Emerson was keeper from 1861 to 1865. Emerson had been a sailor as a young man. He was said to be a staunch Republican and a dedicated abolitionist, and in his later years he was a beloved character known to all as “Uncle Eben.”
At about 1:00 a.m. on March 16, 1865, Emerson rose from bed to trim the wick in the lighthouse lamp. Through thick fog and heavy surf, Emerson heard frantic voices out on the water. He tried to launch his boat toward the source of the sounds, but the rough seas made it nearly impossible. The keeper raced to a nearby home on the island and recruited the help of the resident fisherman. The two men were able to launch the light station’s small rowboat, and they soon encountered a brig that had run onto Washburn Ledge. The crewmen were clinging desperately to the rigging as the seas hammered the vessel.
Emerson managed to get aboard the brig. One lifeboat had already been lost, and another still hung by the davits. Emerson urged the men to climb into the lifeboat, while the captain remained at the bow and the mate stood by at the stern. Before returning to his rowboat, Emerson rescued two guinea pigs from below decks and put them in his pockets.
After returning to his boat, Emerson waited for a large wave and yelled, “Cut loose!” The lifeboat rode the wave and the crew escaped safely just before the brig, the Edyth Ann of Nova Scotia, was reduced to kindling by the surf.
For his extraordinary heroism, Emerson was later awarded a plaque and a pair of binoculars from the Canadian government.
Albert Norwood became keeper in 1872, and he was in charge in the following year, when Wood Island got its first fog signal, a 1,315-pound bell that sounded single and double blows, alternately, every 25 seconds. The striking machinery was housed in a pyramidal wooden tower.
A new 1,200-pound bell was installed in 1890. The 1872 fog bell from Wood Island, manufactured by Vickers, Sons & Co. in England, is now on display (below) at Vines Landing in Biddeford Pool.
Fred Milliken, a fisherman, game warden, and special policeman in his thirties, lived in a house on Wood Island with his wife and three children for several years in the 1890s. He was described as a giant, in his thirties, who easily carried his dory on his shoulders. Hobbs, a young fisherman, took up residence on the island, sharing a converted chicken house with another fisherman, William Moses. Both Hobbs and Moses were in their early twenties.
On June 2, 1896, Hobbs and Moses visited Old Orchard Beach, and they were reportedly intoxicated by the time they returned to Wood Island late in the afternoon. Milliken greeted them when they arrived, and he told Hobbs he wanted to speak to him—apparently about an overdue rent payment. Hobbs and Moses returned to their shack. Hobbs picked up his rifle, telling Moses he might shoot some birds. The two young men walked back to Milliken’s property.
Milliken greeted Hobbs and Moses at his garden gate. Milliken asked if the rifle was loaded, and Hobbs replied that it wasn’t. Milliken decided to check for himself. As he stepped toward Hobbs, the younger man fired a shot into Milliken’s chest. Milliken’s wife, who had been watching from the doorway, helped her husband inside and onto a bed. Moses left with Milliken’s young stepson to row ashore with the intention of fetching a doctor.
Milliken died within 45 minutes. In a daze, Hobbs went to the keeper’s dwelling at the lighthouse, where Orcutt advised him to give himself up to the authorities. Hobbs returned to his small shack and proceeded to put a bullet in his own head.
There are many ghostly tales told about the island, and some blame the 1896 murder-suicide. Some people have claimed the island is cursed. Another incident that contributed to this idea was the suicide of another fisherman. After years of solitary island existence, the man went to a hotel in Saco and jumped from a window.
Robert Thayer Sterling, in Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them, described another strange incident. Sometime in the late 1800s, a Frenchman who lived on the west side of the island was selling liquor to visiting fishermen. Brawls among the fishermen became commonplace on the island. One of the fights got out of hand, and a drunken fisherman set fire to the Frenchman’s shack.
According to Sterling, “The bottles broke and the seething alcoholic blue flames created such a torchlight that it was seen twenty miles at sea.”
In addition to Wood Island’s macabre history, there’s also a brighter tradition of fascinating pets. Keeper Thomas Orcutt’s dog, Sailor, a mostly-black mongrel (described as a Scotch Collie in one article), was taken to the island as a two-month-old puppy and went on to achieve wide fame. In 1894, the Lewiston (Maine) Journal reported: "It is customary for passing steamers to salute the light and the keeper returns it by ringing the bell. The other day a tug whistled three times. The Captain did not hear it, but the dog did. He ran to the door and tried to attract the Captain’s attention by howling. Failing to do this he ran away and then came a second time with no better result. Then he decided to attend to the matter himself, so he seized the rope, which hangs outside, between his teeth and began to ring the bell."
The self-trained Sailor developed the habit of vigorously ringing the bell for every passing vessel. Over the next few years, many passengers aboard local excursion steamers were startled to see the dog’s amazing performances. Sailor was said to possess almost human intelligence. He also served as a messenger, delighting in carrying letters and other small articles in his mouth. It was claimed that he understood all that was said to him.
The Coast Guard converted the light station to electricity in 1950. The Bensons were thrilled to replace their battery-operated radio with a television. Their TV watching included the 1950 World Series. “It was so clear you could see the lines on the ball,” said Benson. The Bensons’ favorite TV show was The Lone Ranger.
By the 1970s, many improvements had been made to the keeper's house. There were three bedrooms, a kitchen, an office, a living room, laundry room and an upstairs bathroom. The furnace in the basement was converted from coal to oil in the 1950s. Water came from a fresh water well; it was pumped into a 2,000 gallon cistern and then pumped to the faucets as needed. Electric power for the light and the house came from Biddeford Pool and was backed up by a diesel generator.
In 1972, Wood Island Light's lantern was removed and a rotating aerobeacon was installed. The public complained about the "headless" lighthouse so a new aluminum lantern was installed when the light was automated and the keeper and his family were removed in 1986.
In early 2003, a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation was formed to care for the light station. The group, Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse (FOWIL), has been working for a full restoration of the lighthouse tower, keeper’s house, boathouse, and oil house. FOWIL also takes care of the wooden boardwalk from the boathouse to the keeper’s house and seven acres of land at the light station.
Directions:From ME 9 between Cape Porpoise and Biddeford, turn souts onto ME 208. Alternatively, from US 1, take ME 111 into Biddeford toward Biddeford Pool. Turn south onto Me 208. Bear left at aa "T" intersection, continuing on ME 208 to Biddeford Pool. Pass the fire station and continue about 0.5 mile - the road makes a right angle to follow the shoreline. Just before that turn there is a gate and a path to a well-marked footpath (Audubon Trail next to the golf course) with the lighthouse visible shortly ahead across the inlet. Afternoon light is the best for photographs.
The "Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse" run tours originating at Vine's Landing in Biddeford Pool. To access the days and times of them and to register, go to, woodislandlighthouse.org.
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).