A most noble
and exhilarating prospect of sea and shore
presents itself at one glance. Here, at our left, comes the Saco from
its mountain home; right before us, Wood Island lights the entrance,
and Stage Island breaks off the seas that come rolling in toward the
river's mouth from the broad Atlantic.
Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891
Island, about 35 acres in size, lies
about two miles east of the entrance to the Saco River and less than a
mile from the village known as Biddeford Pool. Biddeford Pool gets its
name from a tidal inlet known simply as “The Pool,” bounded by
Fletcher’s Neck to the south and Hills Beach to the north.
Island Lighthouse Station circa 1860s (U.S. Coast Guard)
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.
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
light station was completed by September 1, 1807, for a sum of $4,750.
The builders, Benjamin Beal and Duncan Thaxter, were subcontractors for
Winslow Lewis. For reasons that aren't clear, the 45-foot
octagonal wooden lighthouse didn't go into service until the following
The first keeper, at a yearly salary of $225,
was Benjamin Cole, who had been captain of a privateering vessel during
the American Revolution. There were problems with the buildings from
the start. The rubblestone dwelling was leaky; the walls were repointed
with cement in 1832. The local customs collector and lighthouse
superintendent, John Chandler, called the wooden tower “rotten” in 1835
and complained that it “rocked” in rough weather.
The 1808 tower
lasted until 1839, when a new 44-foot conical rubblestone tower—20 feet
in diameter at the base and 10 feet at the top—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
The engineer I. W. P. Lewis, in his 1843
report to Congress, wrote that the base of the tower rested on an
uneven ledge, the walls were cracked and leaky, the mortar was bad, and
the woodwork was decayed. The one-and-one-half- story keeper’s house
was also in a deplorable state; the windows were leaky, the cellar had
no floor and was wet and muddy, and the entire building was “very
defective in materials and workmanship,” according to Lewis.
a letter in September 1842, John Anderson, superintendent of
lighthouses in Maine, defended the construction of the tower. “I am
satisfied that the mortar used was made of good lime,” he wrote, “and
sand was not wet with salt water. . . . I appointed an experienced and
skillful stone mason of established good reputation.”
who had become keeper in 1841 at a yearly salary of $350, provided a
statement for Lewis’s report. He was provided a boat, but there was no
landing place or shelter for it. Adams’s predecessor, Abraham Norwood,
had built a barn, fence, and stone wall; he demanded that Adams pay him
$200 for the barn and 50 cents a rod for the wall and fence.
hay from the property after Adams had moved in, and then charged the
new keeper $14 per ton for hay that Adams needed to feed his cow. “This
keeper,” wrote Adams, “has since complained of me, because I decline
buying the barn, walling, fencing, and other improvements.”
1856, the light was changed from white to red so it couldn’t be
confused with the lights to the north at Cape Elizabeth. The problems
with the buildings continued; an 1850 inspection, when Stephen
Bachelder was keeper, mentioned that the tower and dwelling were both
still leaky. In August 1854, Congress appropriated $5,000 for another
rebuilding of the tower.
The 1858 annual report of the
Lighthouse Board announced that the work had been completed. A
fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the 47-foot stone tower. The
records for this work aren’t clear, but it seems likely that the tower
was extensively renovated and not totally rebuilt. The present
wood-frame keeper’s house was also constructed at this time; it has
undergone many modifications over the years.
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
binoculars awarded to Keeper Eben Emerson. Courtesy of the Friends of
Wood Island Lighthouse
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
of Nova Scotia, was reduced to kindling by the surf.
extraordinary heroism, Emerson was later awarded a plaque and a pair of
binoculars from the Canadian government. After his lighthouse- keeping
years, Emerson served as a deputy marshal in Biddeford.
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.
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.
retired in 1886. Thomas H. Orcutt, a veteran sea captain from Sedgwick,
Maine, was keeper from 1886 until his death in 1905. Orcutt played a
supporting role in the island’s most infamous tragedy. The principals
in the drama were Fred Milliken and Howard Hobbs.
The bell at Vines
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
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.
Left: Keeper Thomas
Orcutt, courtesy of the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse.
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
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.”
Thomas Orcutt with Sailor, his fog bell ringing dog.
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
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.
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.
In 1900, Orcutt remarked, “Sailor and I are old
comrades. Wood Island would indeed be a lonely place if I hadn’t the
dog to keep me company. He is a bright, intelligent companion and is
perfectly content to live the life of a lighthouse keeper away from all
Orcutt died after a brief illness in 1905 at the age of 73. His
beloved Sailor had died in his arms just a few months earlier. Orcutt
was “well known among the sea faring men and was well liked by all,”
according to an obituary. His son-in-law, Levi Jeffers, filled in as
keeper until a new one could be appointed.
Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse
A. Burke, who stayed until 1914, was the next keeper. In October 1906,
several earthquake shocks shook the area. Burke told mainland residents
that the island rocked “like the shaking of gelatin pudding” during one
of the shocks, but no damage was done.
Earle Benson, courtesy of the Maine Lighthouse Museum
last Lighthouse Service keeper at Wood Island Light was
Earle Benson, a veteran of World War I who took over when George E.
Woodward was transferred in 1934. Benson and his wife, Alice, loved
Wood Island the most of their four stations. After a stint at Portland
Head Light, where a constant flow of tourists was the norm, the Bensons
preferred the quiet of Wood Island. Benson joined the Coast Guard when
they it took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939; he became a
Chief Boatswain’s Mate and stayed on the island until
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
Island remained a family station under the Coast Guard. Edward G. Frank
succeeded Benson as officer in charge in January 1952. Frank moved to
the island with his wife, Eloise. A son, Steven, was born that April.
The Franks’ daughter, Michele, lived with her grandmother in Vermont to
attend school and lived on Wood Island during school vacations. The
Frank family, like many of their predecessors, kept chickens at the
station. They also had several pets: a St. Bernard named Henry, a
cocker spaniel named Crissey, a Maine coon cat named Timmy, and another
cat named Tom. Once, when it seemed that all the chickens had
disappeared, Crissey was able to find them in their hiding places in
Laurier Burnham, a
native of Biddeford, was the keeper for the Coast Guard from 1959 to
1963. He was a central figure in one of the island’s greatest dramas.
On November 29, 1960, Burnham’s two-year-old daughter, Tammy, was
seriously ill. The seas were growing increasingly rough that late
afternoon, and a 30-foot boat with a four-man crew was dispatched from
the nearby Coast Guard station at Fletcher’s Neck to take Tammy to the
mainland for medical attention. The boat anchored near the island and
two 19-year-old crewmen approached the island in a skiff.
handed his daughter to the men in the skiff, and they started back for
the larger boat. A sudden wave capsized the skiff, throwing its three
occupants into the turbulent water. By this time, it was so dark that
neither Burnham nor the Coast Guardsmen on the 30-footer were able to
see what had happened to the skiff. One of the men from the skiff
managed to swim back to the larger boat. The other man, Edward
Syvinski, clung firmly to Tammy even as they were pulled underwater
several times. He managed to swim with the girl to a nearby island.
had been ordered to remain at the light station, but he was aware of
the situation and decided to take matters into his own hands. He
ventured into the dark and stormy seas in his little peapod boat to
search for his daughter. He eventually found Syvinski and his daughter,
and got both into his boat. Tammy was eventually rushed to shore. She
was taken to a hospital,
where she fully recovered from her illness.
U.S. Coast Guard
photo. Note the fog bell tower to the right.
In 1993, 33
years after the dramatic incident, the Coast Guard awarded Commendation
Medals to Burnham and Syvinski. It was determined that a lobsterman,
Preston Alley, had helped in the rescue, and his widow was also
presented a medal as well.
Laurier Burnham also served at Halfway Rock
Lighthouse and on several lightships during his Coast Guard career.
When he died in 1997, his wife recalled, “My husband was very safety
conscious. He really knew how to handle a boat.”
Wood Island was considered briefly as a possible site
for a nuclear power plant in the late 1960s. In 1970, 28 of the
island's 35 acres were deeded to the Maine Audubon Society.
In July 1976, Coast Guardsman Mike McQuade and his wife
Patsy, natives of Omaha, Nebraska, came to the island. McQuade had
asked for lighthouse duty, and he was pleased when he was assigned to
Wood Island Light Station. "We couldn't have asked for a better place
to be near the ocean," he said.
In addition to operating the light,
McQuade was required to turn on the station's fog signal when the
visibility dropped to less than 2 1/2 miles, and he also had to keep an
eye on 20 navigational buoys near the island.
Right: A Coast Guard
keeper at the top of Wood Island Lighthouse circa 1977. Courtesy of the
American Lighthouse Foundation.
A view from the top
The McQuades inherited the station's mascot, a
five-year-old collie named Kelly. Kelly came to Wood Island Light as a
puppy and performed the important duty of keeping rats and mice under
control. The McQuades also brought along Torrey, their Lhasa Apso. In
1978, the McQuades welcomed their first child, Damian, born on the
mainland at Webber Hospital in Biddeford.
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
Wood Island Light during its "headless" period.
U.S. Coast Guard photo.
New handrails were installed in the lighthouse tower in 2008. In
April 2009, the
American Lighthouse Foundation was awarded a federal appropriation of
$380,000. Wood Island is one of three Maine lighthouses that will
benefit from the funds. FOWIL's portion will be used to refurbish the
lighthouse keeper's house.
the fall of 2009, FOWIL contracted Stone Age Masonry to carry out the
restoration of the lighthouse tower.
FOWIL worked with architects and
Maine state officials to establish a restoration plan. The work was
completed in the summer of 2010. The project was funded by money raised
by FOWIL's tours and local donations.
The lighthouse tower was
under restoration when this photo was taken in June 2010
the summer season, boat tours are offered to the island and light
station from Vines Landing in Biddeford Pool. The tours take about 90
minutes. Click here for more information.
nineteenth century daymark, the Stage Island Monument, can be seen near
Most of the rest of the island is managed by the Maine
Audubon Society, and some of it is privately owned. Wood Island Light,
still an active aid to navigation, can be seen from a trail along the
water in Biddeford Pool and distantly from the Old Orchard Beach
In this video clip, Brad
Coupe, president of the Friends of Wood Island
Lighthouse, invites everyone to visit the lighthouse.
(Thanks to the Friends of Wood
Island Lighthouse for their help with this list. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Benjamin Cole (1808-1809); Philip Goldthwaite (1809-1832); Tristam
Goldthwaite (1832-1833); Abraham Norwood (1833-1841); John Adams
(1841-?); Stephen D. Batchelder (1849-?); Nathaniel Varrell (185?);
L.F. Varrell (185?); Joseph R. Bryant (1854-1861?) ; Ebenezer Emerson
(1861-1865); Edwin Tarbox (1865- 1872); Albert Norwood (1872-1886);
Thomas Henry Orcutt (1886-1905); Charles A. Burke (1905-1914); C.B.
Staples (1914-1917); W. F. Lurvey (1917-1923); Albert Staples
(1923-1926); George Woodward (1927-1934); Earle Benson (Lighthouse
Service 1934-1939, Coast Guard 1939-1942)
U.S. COAST GUARD: EN3 Edward G. Frank
(1952-1956); BM2 Forrest S. Cheney (1952); BM3 Edwin R. Duquette
(1952); SN R. M. Sawtelle (1952-1954); John Rogers (Rodgers?) (c.
1948); BM2 Gerald E. Ryan (1957); EN3 David G. Crider (1957); EN3
Harrison E. Parker (1957); BM3 David A Katon (1957-1959); FN Bruce A.
Creswell (1958); SN Richard M. Gramlich (1958); SN Constantine H.
Szczechowicz (1958, 1961); EN2 Laurier Burnham (1959-1963); Edward J.
Conner (1959); SN Spencer N. Graham (1959-1960); BM1 Lee Merrick
(1960); Raymond E. Bill, Sr. (1961); ENS Bryon H. Stauffer (1961); BM1
James E. Murray (1961); SA Alan L. George (1961-1962); Wasil W. Johnson
(1962); BM3 Frank D. Harmon (1962); SN Martin P. Hass (1962); BM1 Jack
B. Netherwood (1962-1963); Roger O. Shaw (1962-1963); EN2 David
Winchester (1963-1964); SNCS James Willis (1963-1964); SN Clifton M.
Wood (1963-1964); EN2 David P. Bichrest (1964-1967); George Tevis (sp?)
(1965); Perley or Peiley Aprague (1965, 1968); John P. Reidy (1966);
BM3 A.J. Savageau (sp?) (1967-1968); BM2 Ronald A. Handfield (1968);
EN2 James J. Roche (1968-1969); Clifford Trebilcock (1970-1972); Andrew
Preneau (1972); Jerry Murray (1973-1976); Michael McQuade (1976-1979);
Russ Lowell (1979-1982); Phillip Brothwell (1983-1985); Merton Perry
(1986); Warren Rowell (1986).