Digest>Archives> June 2008

Women of the Lights

The Women of Maine's Deer Island Thorofare Light

By Jeremy D’Entremont


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Melissa Colby Holden was appointed keeper of Deer ...

Deer Island Thorofare-a narrow passage south of Stonington in East Penobscot Bay-was a busy waterway in the mid-nineteenth century, with booming granite quarries in the area and a strong fishing industry. A lighthouse was established in 1858 on six-acre Mark Island, about a mile offshore at the western entrance to the passage.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The Deer Island Thorofare Light Station on Mark ...

Samuel E. Holden of Deer Isle, a former farmer and teacher who had been disabled in the Civil War, became the keeper in 1868. Holden's wife, Melissa (Colby), was his former student. Melissa had four children with her first husband, who had died, and Holden also had four children by a previous marriage. Samuel and Melissa's only son, Amasa, was born at the light station in May 1872 with the help of Melissa's older children, while her husband was ashore.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Deer Island Thorofare Light as it looks today. ...
Photo by: Jeremy D'Entremont

When Samuel fell ill in early 1874, Melissa tended the light while caring for her husband and children. Samuel Holden died at the end of March 1874. A letter from the local lighthouse superintendent recommended the appointment of 30-year-old Melissa Holden as keeper:

During the sickness of her husband, Mrs. Holden tended this light for about two months to the entire satisfaction of the public. She is strongly recommended as a capable and efficient woman — every way competent to take charge of the station. She has five children dependent on her for support, and her husband was the owner of a homestead, which is mortgaged for a small amount.

Melissa Colby Holden won the appointment. A few stories survive about the feisty woman's lighthouse keeping days. The custom at that time was to keep the place settings on the fully set dining table covered with a cloth between meals, and Melissa also kept a loaded pistol under the cloth. If a stranger landed at the island, she stayed near the table and gun. "I never had to use the gun," she later said, proudly. Trespassers didn't go unpunished; it was reported that Melissa once emptied a chamber pot on the heads of some unlucky intruders.

During her stay, the fuel for the light was changed from lard oil to kerosene. Melissa Holden remained keeper for only a little more than two years; James A. Morris succeeded her in 1876. After a third marriage that lasted 32 years and four more children, Melissa died in Stonington in 1920 at the age of 76.

Among the other women who figured prominently in the history of this light station were the wife and daughter of Elmer Conary, who was keeper for several years in the 1920s and '30s. According to a newspaper story, Conary and his wife, Gertrude, split the work at the light station "on a fifty-fifty basis, which should furnish food for thought for some of our modern married couples." Elmer did some of the cooking and housework, and Gertrude frequently helped with painting and odd jobs. She also made rugs and quilts and home schooled their youngest daughter, Alice. On occasion, when her husband was ill, Gertrude Conary filled in as keeper.

Alice Conary died of pneumonia at the lighthouse at the age of 19 in 1932. An obituary stated that she had been stricken by infantile paralysis (probably polio), but "she did not let her infirmities deprive her of life but lived fully with many interests." Alice was said to have a gift for drawing and embroidery.

On the day of Alice's funeral, the Maine Seacoast Mission's vessel Sunbeam carried her family and many friends from the lighthouse to Manset, where the service was held. A local man, Harry Buxton, wrote, "There is great sorrow behind the light on Mark Island but that sorrow will never dim the light of love and courage in the hearts of Captain and Mrs. Conary."

An accidental fire destroyed the keeper's house in 1958, but the lighthouse tower survives. The nonprofit Island Heritage Trust now cares for the Deer Island Thorofare Lighthouse.

This story appeared in the June 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History