New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
Cape Neddick ("Nubble") Light
York, Maine
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History

Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.

By following a cart-track for a quarter of an hour one comes to the canal, a stone's throw across, dividing the cape from the Nubble Rock. On the top of this bare crag the lighthouse-keeper's dwelling and fog signal stand out bold and sharp against the blue sky. At the east, a clump of blanched ledges stretches off... This prospect comprises everything between Cape Ann and Cape Elizabeth in clear weather, and is every way admirable.

                                               -- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891.
The "Nubble" is a small, rocky island a short distance off the eastern point of Cape Neddick, about two miles north of the entrance to the York River and York Harbor. In 1602, explorer Bartholomew Gosnold met with local Indians on the island and dubbed it "Savage Rock."

A view from Long Sands Beach in York

The placement of a lighthouse on the Nubble had been recommended by many local mariners since 1807. An 1837 proposal was rejected on the grounds that there were already enough lights in the vicinity. Even after the wreck of the bark Isidore in 1842, north of the Nubble near Bald Head Cliff, it still took nearly four more decades before the lighthouse was established. The Isidore, according to legend, still reappears as a ghost ship with a phantom crew.

old photo of Nubble
Congress appropriated $15,000 for the building of a lighthouse on the Nubble in 1876. The 41-foot cast-iron tower, lined with brick, was first illuminated on July 1, 1879.

At first, the lighthouse was painted reddish-brown, showing a fixed red light through a fourth order Fresnel lens.

The lighthouse still exhibits a red light, but the tower has been painted white since 1902.


The distinctive red oil house (right) was built in 1902, and the walkway connecting the lighthouse to the keeper's house was added in 1911.

The station originally had a fog bell operated by automatic striking machinery. The skeleton frame bell tower was replaced in 1911 by a white pyramidal tower, itself torn down in 1961.

For a time, the Nubble's 3,000 pound fog bell could be heard by the keepers at Boon Island six miles away. The bell was later replaced by a diaphragm horn.

oil house

U.S. Coast Guard photo

Nathaniel Otterson was the first keeper. His replacement, Brackett Lewis, formerly assistant keeper of Whaleback Light, was keeper from 1885 to 1904, the longest stint of any keeper at the Nubble. While Lewis was keeper, his daughter, Hattie, married Charles Billings in the lantern room.


The next keeper, William Brooks, previously at Boon Island and White Island, picked up extra cash by ferrying sightseers and fishermen to the island for ten cents apiece. This was not appreciated by Brooks' superiors, and the keeper soon "resigned."


James Burke of Portsmouth (right) became keeper in 1912. One of his sons, Charles Burke, was keeper at Wood Island Light, just up the coast off Biddeford Pool. James Burke had gone to sea at the age of 14 and eventually skippered fishing vessels before turning to lighthouse keeping.

Like many lighthouse families, the Burkes kept a cow and chickens on the island. Burke went duck hunting and fishing to supplement his family’s food supply. Lobsters, crabs, and mussels were also plentiful near the island.

In a letter to author Clifford Shattuck, James Burke’s daughter Lucy Glidden Burke Steffen later recalled other details of life on the Nubble:

We all had lots of work to do, as everything had to be immaculate throughout the house as well as the lighthouse tower. . . . We had lots of company, weather permitting. Many of my schoolmates used to enjoy coming over to the Nubble, some just to spend the day, some to spend the night or possibly to stay for a few days. Sometimes the sea got rough and they HAD to stay. We had an organ in the living room which I used to play and we all had such good times singing the old songs. Our home was a very comfortable six-room house, having a very pleasant living room, a nice size dining room, a large kitchen with pantry, and three bedrooms upstairs. But, of course, no bathroom. We had a large parlor stove which seemed to heat most of the house very well. Even though a severe storm might be blowing up outside, we were nice and cozy.
James Burke

Keeper James Burke
Courtesy of William O. Thomson

At low tide, it was sometimes possible to walk between the Nubble and the mainland. Lucy recalled being carried piggyback by her father, who would wear hip boots for the occasion, across the bar. She also recalled the large numbers of birds that would fly into the tower at night; the family sometimes had to rake up hundreds of them that lay dead on the ground in the morning.

James Burke’s second wife died during his stay at the Nubble, and the government provided a lighthouse tender to transport the family to Boothbay Harbor for the funeral. During World War I, the Burkes were joined on the Nubble by military personnel who kept watch for enemy submarines. The light was dimmed on some nights and extinguished on others with, the intention of being to confusing confuse “possible submersibles.”

After he retired in 1919, Burke opened a small fish and bait shop at York Beach. William Richardson, the next keeper, stayed until 1921. During his relatively brief stay, Richardson’s son died of croup. Richardson was discharged for ferrying passengers to the Nubble for a fee.

Fairfield Moore

Keeper Fairfield Moore
Courtesy of WIlliam O. Thomson
Fairfield Moore (left), previously at Rockland Breakwater Light, was keeper from 1921 to 1928. The first birth of a child at the Nubble occurred on August 23, 1923, when Moore’s daughter, Phyllis Moore Searles, delivered a baby girl.

In July 1926, it was reported that the fog bell tower was moved about four feet from its foundation by a powerful storm, leaving it on the brink of a precipice. Moore didn’t dare sound the bell because he feared that the vibration could plunge the bell and tower into the sea. Repairs were soon completed.

On March 20, 1927, the keeper’s daughter Eva Moore Kimball went into labor during a severe snowstorm. Keeper Moore rowed across the channel and picked up a local doctor. The two men returned to the Nubble just in time for the last seconds of the birth of Eva’s daughter, Barbara.

Barbara Kimball (Finnemore) lived at the lighthouse until she was six. Her favorite memory was accompanying her grandfather to the top of the tower to light the lamp.

Fairfield Moore returned to Rockland Breakwater Light in 1928 and was succeeded at the Nubble by Edmund Howe, who was had previously been at Great Duck Island Light. During his tenure, Howe married his housekeeper, Emily Williams, in the living room of the keeper’s house.

James Burke and his family had left their  cat behind because he had come so attached to the Nubble, and the big tabby weighed 19 pounds by the time Eugene Coleman (right) arrived as keeper in 1930. Sambo Tonkus, also known as Mr. T, became well known to locals and tourists alike for his mousing and swimming prowess. Three or four times a day, he would swim to the mainland to hunt rodents hiding among the rocks.

During the Colemans’ stay, the first indoor toilet was installed, and electricity came to the Nubble in 1938. During World War II, the light was extinguished and a lookout tower was built on the island. A contingent of Coast Guardsmen kept a 24-hour eye out for German U-boats. (This was before hidden cameras could be employed for the job.) A U-boat sighted in 1943 just to the east of the Nubble was subsequently sunk by a depth charge southwest of Boon Island.

The historian Edward Rowe Snow, in his book Famous New England Lighthouses wrote that on one occasion, Eugene Coleman was rowing across the channel near the Nubble with his wife, a friend, and a load of groceries, when the boat capsized. “The dory went over and the keeper had a busy five minutes, trying to rescue his wife, his friend, and the groceries,” wrote Snow, “but all ended happily except for minor injuries to the groceries.”

The lighthouse has a long history as a tourist destination. In 1930, Coleman recorded over 1,000 visitors in his guest register, including guests from 11 nations and 32 states. The Colemans moved on to Nauset Light on Cape Cod in 1943, and thereafter Coast Guard keepers staffed the Nubble. It remained a family station.
Eugene COleman

Eugene Coleman and Sambo Tonkus
Courtesy of WIlliam O. Thomson
boy ina bucket

Ricky Winchester riding in the bucket in 1967. 
Courtesy of Lighthouse Digest.

The Coast Guard keeper from 1948 to 1951, Wilbur Brewster, had a parrot whose home was a cage in the living room. According to the lighthouse historian William O. Thomson, the parrot enjoyed carrying on conversations with visitors. Its favorite phrase was, “I’ll have a cup of coffee.”

The usual way of getting to and from the Nubble was by boat. For a time, the keepers used a bucket suspended on a line across the channel to transport supplies. This system, installed in the 1950s, was never intended for the transport of people.

Around 1967, Coast Guard keeper David Winchester put his two children in the bucket each morning to send them on their way to school.

A photographer snapped a picture of seven-year-old Ricky Winchester in the bucket, and the photo appeared widely in newspapers. A woman also painted a scene of the boy in the bucket, and it won the York Harbor Art Show.

The district commander saw the photo in a Boston paper. An arrangement was made for the child to board on the mainland during the week. Soon after that, it became policy that families with school-age children were not sent to the Nubble.

bucket on cable

The "bucket" today

The lantern room in Cape Neddick Light is one of the most complete in an active Maine lighthouse. Nearly all the original brass fittings remain. One of the few changes is that red plastic now encases the light, replacing the original glass used to produce the light's characteristic red light.


The present lens was manufactured in 1891 by F. Barbier in Paris
 

The fourth-order Fresnel lens is not the original one, but is an 1891 lens moved from another station in 1928. The original lens had been damaged in an explosion.

The great blizzard of February 6-7, 1978, washed out the Nubble's boathouse, which was replaced by the present structure.

boathouse

The boathouse

The Nubble Light has probably appeared on more postcards, calendars, and other souvenirs than any other New England lighthouse, with the possible exception of Portland Head Light. In 1977, when NASA sent Voyager II into space to photograph the outer solar system, it was also loaded with artifacts designed to teach possible extraterrestrial civilizations about our planet. One of the images it carried was a picture of the Nubble Light.

finial

The finials on the gallery railing are miniature lighthouses.
stairs and brick lining inside tower

Inside the tower
 
The light was automated in 1987 and the last Coast Guard keeper, Russell Ahlgren, was removed.  Brenda Ahlgren wrote down her thoughts about leaving the island:

On our last night on the island we went for one last walk. We sat back on the rocks with Christopher between us and just watched the glow from that beautiful tall white tower and listened to the familiar drone of the horn we had come to enjoy. We felt that in its own special way the light was saying goodbye to family life on the island. As we sat there thinking back over our special adventure there was no way to hold back the tears.

A crowd of more than 300 spectators witnessed the automation ceremonies on July 13 in dense fog. The station was leased to the town of York in 1989.


Russell and Brenda Ahlgren with their son, Chris, circa 1987. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

When the town took over, more than 300 unsolicited applications were received from people wanting to be live-in caretakers. The keeper's house remains unoccupied because of water and sewer issues.

In 1989, the town received a grant from the Maine Historic Preservation Committee for restoration work on the keeper's house. Two second story windows were removed and replaced by a larger window resembling the one originally installed.

In November 1997, the people of York voted overwhelmingly to allow the town's selectmen to "adopt" the lighthouse. Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute, the lighthouse officially became the property of the town in 1998.

gift shop

The welcome center at Sohier Park
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Sullivan once said, "The park is absolutely jam packed every day. Part of the allure of Nubble Light is its mystical nature. You can't quite get there. You can almost reach it but you can't get there."  Because it's easily reached by a drive of just a few minutes from popular York Beach, Sohier Park across from the Nubble is today visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually.

Sohier Park, incidentally, is named for William Davis Sohier, a lawyer from Boston who gave the land to the town of York in 1929. His father had bought the land for the fine duck hunting.

One of the most popular events of the year on the southern Maine coast is the annual Lighting of the Nubble, when the lighthouse and other buildings are illuminated with Christmas lights. The late November event is accompanied by holiday music and never fails to draw a large crowd.

nubble with Christmas lights

One of the Nubble's tireless volunteers, Verna Rundlett, originated a "Christmas in July" event, giving summer visitors a chance to view the station decorated just as it is at Christmastime. She also supervised the building of a welcome center at Sohier Park. The building, open seasonally, houses a gift shop and public restrooms.

In 2001, the Sohier Park Committee installed a $7,000 fire alarm system at Sohier Park and spent $14,000 for a 120-foot ramp and dock on the Nubble.

The foundation of the lighthouse was also painted and regrouted, and the walkway to the lighthouse was replaced. 

Much more work has teken place in recent years, both on the Nubble and at Sohier Park. The lighthouse tower and keeper's house were repainted in the summer of 2010 (right and below). The painter in charge of the work was Gordon Lindquist (seen below).

Besides being easily viewed from Sohier Park, Cape Neddick Light can be seen from an excursion boat leaving Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, and from occasional lighthouse cruises leaving Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

painter at work

lighthouse with ladder

Band performing in front of lighthouse
Band performing in front of lighthouse

Left and above, the band Nickel Creek shot a music video at the Nubble Light in October 2001

For more information, or to help with the preservation of the Cape Neddick "Nubble" Light, contact:
Friends of Nubble Light
186 York Street
York, ME 03909
(207) 363-1040
 
plaque on stone at Sohier Park
 

 
Keepers: (This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at nelights@gmail.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)

Leander White (1879 - was reassigned before lighthouse was established); Simon Leighton (1879 - resigned due to illness); Nathaniel Otterson (1879-1885); Brackett Lewis (1885-1904); William M. Brooks (1904-1912); James Burke (1912-1919); William Richardson (1919-1921); Fairfield Moore (1921-1928); Edmund Howe (1928-1930); Truman J. Lathrop (1930); Eugene Coleman (1930-1943) ; Oscar M. "Tiny" Sparrow (Coast Guard, 1940s); Wilbur Brewster (Coast Guard, 1948-1951); Irving T. Sparrow (Coast Guard, 1951-?); Bruce Reed (Coast Guard, c. late 1950s); Boyd L. Davis (Coast Guard, c. 1950s); John Johnson (Coast Guard, c, 1961); Leo R. Midgett (Coast Guard, c. 1964); Allan E. Wilson (Coast Guard, c. 1960s); Alfred Paul Chadwick (Coast Guard, c. 1967); David K. Winchester (Coast Guard); Arnold P. Chadwick (Coast Guard); Lindsay C. Rome (Coast Guard); Daniel J. Fries (Coast Guard); Michael Carbino (Coast Guard); Michael Hackett (Coast Guard, 1973-1975); Richard Harrison (Coast Guard, 1975-1977); Ronald O'Brien (Coast Guard, 1977-1979); John Terry (Coast Guard, c. 1984); Robert French (Coast Guard, 1984-1986); Russell Ahlgren (Coast Guard, ?-1987)
Last updated 12/26/10

Jeremy D'Entremont. Do not reproduce any images or text from this website without permission of the author.

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