Far-flung Mount Desert Rock
Light is one of the most dramatically isolated of all American
lighthouses. More than 20 miles from the nearest port at Mount Desert
Island, the low-lying, waveswept rock is, as historian Edward Rowe Snow
put it, like "part of another world." George Putnam, for many years the
commissioner of the Bureau of Lighthouses, regarded Mount Desert Rock
as the most exposed light station in the United States. The tiny rock
is only about 17 feet above sea level at its highest point.
Congress appropriated $5,000 for a lighthouse on Mount Desert Rock on March 2, 1829, to aid mariners heading to Frenchman and Blue Hill Bays from the south. The light went into operation on August 25, 1830, with a fixed white light 44 feet above mean high water. Esais Preble was the first keeper and his son, William, was his assistant.
The new tower was designed by the noted architect Alexander Parris, and the contractor who built it was Joseph W. Coburn of Boston. In 1858, a new lantern was installed along with a third-order Fresnel lens exhibiting a fixed white light. A rotating fourth-order lens replaced the third-order Fresnel lens in 1898, and the characteristic was changed from fixed to a white light flashing every 15 seconds.
A second dwelling, a one-and-one-half wood-frame house, was added to the station in 1876. The old stone dwelling was replaced by a wood-frame double dwelling in 1893, providing accommodations for two keepers and their families. Several new outbuildings were added around the same time, and 250 feet of planked walkways were added between the buildings.
A December 1878 newspaper reported on a particularly bad storm at Mount Desert Rock:
That Saturday night a light was finally seen and it was learned that the keeper and his family had somehow weathered the storm.
In Lighthouses of New England, Edward Rowe Snow told the story of an unusual wreck in the vicinity of Mount Desert Rock in the 1880s. The schooner Helen and Mary, carrying granite from Halifax, sank in a storm near the island. The captain's wife, who was also the sister of the first mate, was on board with her baby girl. When the vessel sank the first mate was able to survive by clinging to some wreckage.
As he drifted the mate saw a package floating by. He snatched it from the water and found that it was his sister's baby girl wrapped in oilskin. Air trapped inside the wrapping had kept the baby afloat. The mate held the child close to him through the night and the next day the pair was picked up by the crew of the lighthouse tender Iris.
In the 1880s there were three keepers living at Mount Desert Rock with their families. A teacher from Southwest Harbor spent the summers at the lighthouse to teach the children.
In December 1902, the New York tugboat Astral, with a barge in tow, ran aground at Mount Desert Rock in a gale with 18 men aboard. The situation looked hopeless, but with the arrival of low tide Keeper Fred Robbins and an assistant (Charles H. Newman or William H. C. Dodge) managed to get close enough to the vessel to get a line aboard. All the men except one who had already frozen to death were pulled to safety. The keeper's wife prepared steaming coffee for the survivors, and salve applied to the men's freezing limbs enabled them to recover fully.
The crew of the Astral remained at Mount Desert Rock until the storm subsided six days later. Meanwhile, the barge that was being towed by the tug drifted all the way to Rockland with several men safely aboard.
Despite its isolation, Mount Desert Rock was for many years a family station. It became a tradition each spring for the families to bring soil to the island for a garden, and local fishermen made contributions of earth from the mainland. By the summer a beautiful flower garden would be in bloom. With luck the flowers would remain until fall, but the first gales of winter would sweep the rock clean of the last bit of dirt. One woman who grew up on Mount Desert Rock told Mary Ellen Chase, author of The Story of Lighthouses:
On October 6, 1962, Hurricane Daisy struck the Rock, destroying the walkway between the house and tower, as well as sweeping away fuel tanks and other structures. The three Coast Guardsmen there at the time spent the night near the top of the lighthouse tower. One of the men, John Baxter, said later:
In spite of the arrival of modern conveniences like television, life for Coast Guard keepers at Mount Desert Rock wasn't much easier than it had been for Lighthouse Service keepers. 20-year-old Douglas Nute, a native of St. Louis, told author Bill Caldwell that he was "ready to scream" after a week at the station. Nute had previously been stationed on Great Duck Island; there, at least, were trees and grass and some space to walk around.
In the mid-1970s the Coast Guard removed the lantern of Mount Desert Rock Light to make room for rotating aerobeacons. A combination of public complaints and storm damage to the aerobeacons convinced the Coast Guard to install a new lantern in 1985.
Researcher Tim Cole told the Christian Science Monitor in 1988:
Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute of Rockland, Mount Desert Rock Light, along with Great Duck Island Light, became the property of the College of the Atlantic in 1998.
The lighthouse is best seen by private boat or from the air, although whale watches from Bar Harbor occasionally pass near Mount Desert Rock.
August 29, 2009: According to this article, Mount Desert Rock suffered badly from the effects of Hurricane Bill. The boathouse was mostly destroyed, and two walls of the generator shed were swept away. There was also water damage inside the keeper's house. This is a major setback for the College of the Atlantic's programs on the island. As Andrew Peterson, marine facilities superintendent for the college, aptly put it, "When it comes down to it, the ocean always wins."
If you would like to find out more about how you can help the whale research effort at Mount Desert Rock, please call Allied Whale at 207-288-5644.
I received the following message on March 17, 2012:
My name is Robin (Rob)
Runnels, the last commanding officer of the light station Mt. Desert,,
and the last Coast Guardsman to act in an official capacity at the
station. I was privileged with the opportunity as such and was a big
part of my life then and now still after all these years!! It was a
fine tradition and the light I shall always remember as a fantastic
experience and great responsibility. I worked in conjunction with
a civilian work crew in the automation of the light, and enjoyed
spending time with the Atlantic Whale Watch.
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 email@example.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.)
Esais Preble (1833-1835); Benjamin Ward Jr. (1841-?); Jacob L. Richardson (1848-1850); David King (1850-1853); Rufus King (1853-1859); George Booth (1859-1860); Joseph Hopkins (1860-1861); William E. Holden (1861-1864); Seth H. Higgins (assistant 1864-1865, principal keeper 1865-1867); J. A. Williken (1867-1868); Otis W. Kent (1868-1872); Amos B. Newman (1872-1881); James A. Morris (1881-1882); Thomas R. Milan (or Mylan) (1882-1902); Fred M. Robbins, second assistant (1898-1899), then first assistant (1899-1902) then principal keeper (1902-1911); Vinal O. Beal, second assistant (1909-1910), first assistant (1910-1911), then principal keeper (1911-c. 1919 and 1924-1931); Arthur Edward Ginn (c. 1918-early 1920s); R. W. Powers (c. 1928); George York (1928-1936); Robert G. Wass (c. 1930s); Jarvis Barnett (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1946-1948); Ralph Demons (or Demmons) (c. 1948-?); Robin Runnels (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1970s), Melvin Davis, Jr. (Coast Guard officer in charge, c. 1977)
Assistant keepers: William Preble (1833-1835); William H. Ward (1855-1858); John Dolliver Jr. (1858-1859); B. Thurber (1859-1864); David Rollins (1865-1867); Dan Ladd (1865); William Gilley (1867); Dan B. Eaton (1867-1871); Perry W. Richardson (1868-1870 and 1871-1872); Amos B. Newman (1870-1872); Mark W. Hodgson, (1872-1882); William P. Sawyer, second assistant (1872-1878); James A. Morris (1874-1876); Frank Collins (1876-1877); Howard P. Robbins, second assistant (1878-1882); William Stanley, assistant (1882-1883); Benjamin Maddox (1883-1888); Howard M. Gilley, second assistant (1883-1887); Lewis F. Sawyer, second assistant (1887-1888), then first assistant (1888-1889); Willis Dolliver, second assistant (1887-1890), then first assistant (1890-1891); William J, Newman, second assistant (1890), then first assistant (1890); Thomas R. Savage, second assistant (1891-1892); Orrin L. Milan, second assistant (1892-1895), then first assistant (1895-1897); Charles Thurston, second assistant (1895-1897), then first assistant (1897-1899); Joseph M. Gray (1900-1901); Bert Richard (c. 1901); Herbert P. Richardson, second assistant (c. 1902); Charles H. Newman (c. 1902-1908); William H. C. Dodge, second assistant (c. 1902-1908); W. P. Kent (1909-1910); Wilbert F. Lurney (or Lurvey?) second assistant (1910), then first assistant (1911-?); Charles A. Radley, second assistant (1911-?); Joseph Muise (c. 1920s); A. H. Kennedy (c. 1932); Everett Quinn, assistant (c. 1935); H. C. Day, assistant (c. 1935); M. J. Hergatt (Coast Guard, c. 1948); H. B. Clement (Coast Guard, c. 1948); John Baxter (Coast Guard, c. 1962); Gary L. Crossman (Coast Guard, 1973-1974); Glenn Gearhart (Coast Guard, 1974-1975); Robin Runnels (Coast Guard, c. 1977); Douglas Nute (Coast Guard, ?-1977); Richard "Rick" Fox (Coast Guard, c. 1970s)