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A Life of Duty

Goat Island

Goat Island


Maine lighthouse keepers’ dwellings were small, damp and lacking in comforts. Pay was poor. Few of the lighthouses had wells, so keepers had to rely on cisterns or they had to travel to the mainland to get water. Mail and supplies came by boat, but crossings and landings could be difficult and unpredictable. Most keepers served in the days before radio or telephone—some even relied on carrier pigeons to bring important news.

The keeper’s main job was to make sure that the light shone every night from sunset to sunrise and to sound the foghorn during inclement weather. This mainly meant keeping the wicks trimmed and lit precisely on time and lugging oil up the stairs to keep the lights burning. They also had to keep all the buildings whitewashed and the mechanical parts polished and operating smoothly.

Keepers also were required “to aid wrecked persons as far as lies in their power,” as one government circular put it. Most of the keepers were men, although many brought families with them. By the second half of the 19th century, a handful of lights provided some sort of facility for teaching the keepers’ children.

Many lighthouse keepers viewed self-sufficiency as a key to success. One keeper at the Boon Island station observed, “I thought all one had to know how to do here was to clean, paint, and polish brass, but I have found out that one has to be a doctor, painter, steeplejack, glazier, boatman, gasoline engineer, electrician, stonecutter and even a cook.”

In her memoir, The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife, Connie Small describes it as a life of “order and duty,” full of small satisfactions despite the hardships. She recalls her pleasure, for example, in the evening ritual of turning on the lights. On Seguin Island, where she lived for awhile, she had a panoramic view of a large number of the lighthouses along the Maine coast. She writes, “I loved being in the tower at sunset. When I took the lens cover off and the light flashed, I could begin counting from Portland to Pemaquid as almost simultaneously the lights came on—thirteen of them. It was like saying ‘hello,’ ‘hello,’ ‘hello,’ all up and down the coast.”