CREDITS: I would like to thank Jeremy D'Entremont for providing much of the history one can find on this site. He is a speaker, author, historian, and tour guide who is widely recognized as the foremost authority on the lighthouses of New England. For a story on Jeremy or to visit his site (New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide), use the corresponding link in the right hand information bar under "Related Links".

Search for Lighthouses


I have set up this site as a means to share my photographs of lighthouses. Since retiring and finding more time to study photography, my interests have expanded a little. For some of my work other than lighthouses please enjoy my Facebook page at, John Shaw Photography. Come visit, enjoy, and 'LIKE' if you wish.

Also, for your enjoyment, I have provided a slideshow of our journey. To view it please use the link on the right under 'Site Navigation Tools'.

I sincerely hope you enjoy my efforts and use my site not only for information and education but also to provide directions for many enjoyable, inspirational visits to the beacons along our beautiful coas.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Petit Manan Lighthouse

     Petit Manan Lighthouse, located on tiny Petit Manan Island between Narraguagus and Frenchman’s bays, is part of Petit Manan National Wildlife Refuge. The island is closed from April 1 to August 31 for nesting season, although boat tours do provide views of the lighthouse and birds from the water during this time. The original keeper’s quarters now houses refuge personnel, who perform regular duties in addition to helping maintain the light station.

     The first Petit Manan Lighthouse was built using an April 27, 1816 appropriation of $8,000, and its first keeper, who earned $350 per year, was Robert Upton. In 1831, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury Stephen Pleasonton wrote a letter to John Chandler, Superintendent of Maine’s Lighthouses, citing the poor condition of the lighthouse:

      Very bad indeed—built of worse materials than [Mount] Desert Light—the lantern in good order as regarded the Lamps & Reflectors, but otherwise positively dirty—dwelling house much out of repair & leaking badly—the man has gone off, being tired of his state of independence. His wife had charge of the whole concern. This Light house I discover was built in 1817 by Frederick and William Pope, under Mr. Dearborn’s superintendence. You will cause the necessary repairs to be made here, before the season be too far advanced; and if the keeper has actually left the establishment to his wife, you will report the fact and another appointment will be recommended.
The keeper, Robert Leighton, did return (it’s possible that he had been sick), and the lighthouse was repaired. Keeper Leighton died soon after, and his wife, Jane, having cared for the light for many years, applied for the keepership. Some say she was paid for her duties, making her one of the first official woman lighthouse keepers in the nation, but Mrs. Leighton’s petition was eventually denied, and Patrick Campbell was appointed keeper instead.

     After an 1842 inspection of the station, I.W.P. Lewis wrote that the walls of the twenty-six-foot tall conical rubblestone tower were badly cracked and its wood so rotten that one of the assistants broke through the lantern’s platform while measuring the tower. At the time, the lighthouse showed a fixed light from its lantern room, using eight lamps and nine-inch reflectors, but the lantern glass was so thin that it blew out in storms. Lewis found thirty-three of the window panes in the lantern were cracked.

     The keeper’s original rubblestone dwelling contained a full cellar and had a wood-shingled roof. On the first floor were two rooms, with a projecting kitchen in the back and two chambers in the attic. I.W.P. Lewis noted, “north wall of house badly cracked; chimneys smoky; interior plastering scaled off in patches.” For water, the station had a rain-water cistern, and the present keeper, Moses Thompson, had dug a well to avoid having to row six miles in each direction for fresh water.

      As Petit Island Light was very important due to dangerous offshore ledges and its location on Maine’s east-west trade route, Lewis recommended a fog-bell and eighteen of the best lamps for the station. Keeper Thompson, who had been appointed on April 1, 1838 at an annual salary of $350, confirmed the lack of repairs to the station’s buildings: “There have been no repairs done upon the light-house and dwelling-house since my appointment, except what I have done at my own expense.”
     By 1850, when Richard C. Ray was keeper, the tower held twelve lamps and was “considered in good order, as some repairs have been made the year past.” However, a scant three years later, a report of the recently formed Lighthouse Board recorded: “This is the most eastern first class light on the coast of the United States. It is at present one of the worst of all the lights, and the tower is so badly built, and so old, and the lantern is so small, that little can be done to improve it….” The sum of $45,000 was requested to construct a new tower, equipped with a second-order Fresnel lens, and a keeper’s dwelling.

      In 1855 a new, elegant tower, rising a magnificent 119 feet into the sky, was built of interlocking granite blocks, and nearby a one-and-a-half-story keeper’s duplex was erected. The only taller tower in Maine is Boon Island Lighthouse, also built in 1855. The tower’s second-order Fresnel lens, provided by Henry-Lepaute of Paris, France, had three flash panels that revolved around the lens on chariot wheels to produce a fixed light varied by a flash every two minutes. In 1876, a separate residence was constructed for the principal keeper, and the 1855 dwelling was used for the two assistants and their families.

     Although the new ashlar tower, measuring twenty feet in diameter at its base and twelve feet at the lantern, more effectively projected its light, it was also more susceptible to winds. Some blocks were dislodged from the tower during an 1856 storm. Then in an 1869 gale, the swaying of the tower knocked loose the heavy weights of the lens’ clockwork revolving mechanism, which plummeted from the top of the tower, breaking eighteen cast-iron spiral staircase steps.

     In 1881, an inspector wrote that the tower was “very shaky” and “it vibrates so much during heavy weather that the plate glass of the lantern is cracked. In a recent gale three panes were thus broken.” Despite having the lantern braced and strengthened and the tower walls repointed in 1882, the problem remained.

     According to the 1888 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board the vibrations in the upper portion of the tower were alarming in high winds and had loosened the entire horizontal joint, two courses below the lantern room deck. “In September last,” the report noted “the watch-room and lantern were firmly secured to the tower with six sets of 1 1/8 inch tie-rods, passing each from an iron collar inclosing the lantern to an iron strut set in the masonry and thence to a bolt set in the granite 34 feet below the deck. Fortunately, the lantern was thus secured before the severe gale of December, 1887, which might have otherwise proved disastrous at this station.” This unique method for bracing the tower is still in place today.

     A fog bell was erected on the island in 1853, and in 1869 a ten-inch steam whistle was added to the station. A well was dug to supply the necessary water, but as the greater portion of this water percolated in from a nearby swamp rich in rotting vegetable matter, the whistle’s boiler was soon damaged. This problem was addressed by re-roofing the original keeper’s dwelling, fitting it with gutters and water-conductors, and placing two wooden storage tanks in its cellar.

     The fog signal was crucial, because Petit Manan was one of the foggiest spots on the coast. In 1889, the “10-inch steam-whistle, in duplicate, was in operation 2,454 hours, and consumed about 74 tons of coal.” Over a thirty-one-year period, Petit Manan had the highest annual average hours of fog in the country at 1,691 hours, or nineteen percent of the time. Also in 1889, a special railway, 760-feet long, was built for moving the coal from the boat landing to the boilers and keepers house. Otherwise that 74 tons of coal would have been hauled in 1,850 bags weighing 80 pounds each, one at a time from the lighthouse tender to the coal house on the backs of the men who worked the ships.

     In the late 1800s, it became clear that some species of birds were becoming extinct through the sale of their eggs for food and the use of their plumage for hats. Laws were enacted to protect the birds, and then a warden system was established by the American Ornithologist Union (AOU) to see the laws were enforced. The AOU turned to a sympathetic U.S. Lighthouse Service for wardens, some of whom were paid while others served as volunteers. In 1901, Keeper William D. Upton at Petit Manan Lighthouse joined the program.

      A small school operated for some years on the island to educate the children of the keepers. When a new teacher, Lilla Severance Cole, arrived at her new post in 1915, the keeper informed her that his wife was about to give birth. Despite her lack of medical training, Lilla was forced to deliver the couple’s eighth child. When the doctor finally reached the island, he congratulated Lilla, thinking she was a nurse.

     In December 1916, thirty-four-year-old Keeper Eugene C. Ingalls set out in a boat for Moose Peak Lighthouse to visit his wife, whose father was a keeper there. However, a storm blew in, and he never arrived. His disappearance was noted several days later, but his body was never recovered. He left behind a wife and two little girls.

     In response to a young girl’s 1918-school assignment, Keeper Leo Allen at Petit Manan Light wrote a detailed letter about his experiences there beginning in 1917, during WWI.

     The winter of 1917 was a terrible experience for the three keepers. The nearest village is twelve miles away, making it bad to get supplies. With 5 naval persons and 20 men, women and children and the government only allowing a small amount of supplies at a time. We had to leave quite often for the main. For three months the island was surrounded with fields of ice for miles and three times the keepers were very near losing their lives. If it had not been for the Patrol boats, someone would have gone hungry a lot of times. The 2nd keeper on watch sighted a German submarine 1 1/6 miles east of Tower making it quite a bit of excitement…. We have a nice house. Hot water, heat, electric lights and telephone, a new launch, a 88 note player piano with one hundred dollars worth music, a good library and four daily papers. There is three of us in my family, my wife and a little girl five years old. Our Keepers all have large families. The Salaries have been raised this year. Principle Keeper receives $109, 2nd keeper $88, third keeper $73. Our trouble now is a school teacher for the twelve children here. The Government teacher has been here three weeks this year. We want a teacher one month at a time, not one week. When we get the educational part for these children under control everything will be fine.

     Maizie, daughter of Keeper James H. Freeman (first assistant then keeper 1930 -1940), said that despite the deafening fog signal, keepers would placidly sit nearby reading. The island was barren of trees, but there were wildflowers and a cranberry bog. They abandoned attempts to grow a vegetable garden and once brought over a cow for the luxury of fresh milk. “I shall never forget getting her there,” said Maizie. “You’ve never lived until you’ve shared a rowboat with a cow! But she ate oil-soaked grass one day and passed on to greener pastures.” One time high tide covered the whole island with twelve inches of water. The Freeman’s moved all they could to the second story, as the chicken coops floated over the cranberry bog.

      Petit Manan became the second brightest light in Maine, following its electrification in 1938. The Coast Guard took over the station in 1939, turning it into a “stag” station (for men only). Indoor plumbing, complete with a bathtub to replace an enameled fifty-gallon oil drum, arrived in 1950. The 1950s also saw the demolition of the original dwelling. When the light was automated in 1972, its Fresnel lens was moved to the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland. The station’s 1868 fog bell is now located at the elementary school in Millbridge.

      The island’s seabird population has fluctuated over the years, but since the island was ceded by the Coast Guard to the Fish and Wildlife Service in 1974, several types of terns, Atlantic puffins, Leach’s storm-petrels, and more, have made the island home. Petit Manan Lighthouse was listed for transfer in 2004 under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, and in late 2006 ownership was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. At Petit Manan, the roles have been reversed—lighthouse keepers are no longer watching out for the birds, it is the keepers of the birds who are responsible for Petit Manan Lighthouse.

Go to Home Page

No comments:

Post a Comment