Digest>Archives> June 2008

Memories of Maine's Perkin's Island Lighthouse

By Shirley Morong


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Perkins Island Lighthouse as it appeared form the ...

Along with other Coast Guard families, we had our share of new duties. Outstanding in my memory — perhaps because it was mid-winter — were the thirty-five days we spent on Maine’s Perkins Island Lighthouse. It was the only structure on the rather small, partly wooded island located near the mouth of the Kennebec River.

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Vintage image of Perkins Island Lighthouse. The ...

On January 16, 1941, Mr. Powers, the civilian keeper, left over from the old Lighthouse Service, had taken ill and had to be taken ashore to the hospital. Cliff, my husband, was given orders to take his place at the lighthouse. We were living at Popham Beach at the time where he was stationed at the Kennebec River Life Boat Station.

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The view from the bell tower looking back at ...

The weather was miserable with a sleet storm that has started that morning making everything glisten with ice, very pretty, but not appreciated.

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Lighthouse keeper Clifton S. Morong on the steps ...

Packing suitcases with clothes and boxes of groceries, we got into the car and traveled over slippery roads to Parkers Head where the rowboat was tied at the wharf.

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The keeper’s house was turned over to the State ...
Photo by: Geraldine McCue

The row across the river was nerve-racking as the tide was running against the wind, making it very choppy and I was glad when the thirty-minute trip was over and we had reached the safety of the island.

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USCG Keeper Class Buoy Tender :Marcus Hanna” ...
Photo by: C. E. Trebilock

Mr. Taylor, another civilian keeper from the Lighthouse Service days, who had been staying with Mr. Powers at the light, helped us bring the boat up the ice covered tracks of the boat ramp to the boathouse.

Carrying what we could, the boys and I made up over the steps, across the walk that went the length of the house to the back door. Mr. Taylor had thoughtfully sprinkled ashes where we had to walk; otherwise we would probably have gone sliding down the banking into the water below.

The heat from the black Atlantic stove felt good as entered the kitchen as all of us had got chilled through the trip across the river.

I was dismayed to learn the furnace was out of order and we would have to confine our living quarters to the kitchen, pantry and dining area for a while. A bed was already set up in the dining room and we put anther one up for the boys to sleep on. Mr. Taylor slept on the couch in the kitchen. A coal fire was kept burning in the kitchen stove day and night, so, with the rest of the house closed off, it was fairly comfortable.

Cliff lighted the Aladdin lamp in the tower at sundown, we had a lunch and soon afterwards got the children ready for bed. It seemed our son Bob had got more cold as he was feverish and had a very tight cough. I fried out some onions in plenty of grease. Made a poultice and put it on his chest. Then Cliff mixed a teaspoon full of pure kerosene with a little sugar and gave it to him. Shortly after he was tucked into bed, his cough loosened up and he breathed easier. So, did we, for we were far away from medical help and had to rely entirely on these old fashioned remedies.

Thus began this period of island living with kerosene lamps and outside toilet. The house was nice with pleasant rooms, hardwood floors, and a nice basement. The shed and other outbuildings were kept in good condition, scrubbed and painted. The lighthouse tower was just a few feet from the front of the house and the interior was varnished and everything, including all brass containers and even the dustpan, was kept polished. The toilet was at one end of the shed quite a distance from the house and reached by a wooden walk starting at the back door.

On real cold days Cliff kept a lighted lantern in the privy to melt the frost from the seat. We also appreciated the little bit of heat it furnished after bucking wind and snow to reach our destination.

When Bob got over his cold, the boys went out to play but we had to watch them for fear they would go too close to the edge of the front lawn and slip down over the rocks, or go down on the boathouse platform and fall overboard. Bob was seven years old and Jerry was nearly five and both were very active. Due to the fact that snow covered the island, there was only the surrounding yard that they could play in.

Evenings after the children had gone to bed, we sat in the kitchen and near the table where the Aladdin lamp was and read or listen to the many stories that Mr. Taylor had to tell about his early years. The first few evenings found his stories rather interesting, but when he started to repeat them over and over, it became monotonous. He would sit on the couch chewing tobacco and would spit toward the spittoon on the floor. It didn’t always reach its mark. But he was an old man, so we didn’t say anything.

Cliff rowed to Parker Head almost every weekday to pick up the mail and milk. If it was nice, the children and I went along, sometimes going to Pomham, but more often going to nearby Bath to get a supply of groceries or do a little shopping. Often the river would be as smooth as glass going over but, with a change of tide of tide and a stiff breeze blowing, it would be choppy coming back. It seems that along the coast the wind often starts blowing in the afternoon.

One day while going ashore, I was complaining about Mr. Taylor being there, his spitting, telling the same old stories over and over. I was quite disgusted with the whole set-up.

When we returned to the lighthouse we had hardly got into the kitchen when Jerry pipes up, “Mr. Taylor, my mother doesn’t want you here.” I felt link sinking through the floor and hastily said, “Don’t pay any attention to him. He’s apt to say most anything.” Needless to say, Jerry was severely reprimanded and I decided I had better be more careful what I said in the presence of children thereafter.

Except for the times that I went ashore, my daily routine didn’t vary much. Cooking, getting hearty meals, washing clothes, including sheets, dungarees and heavy pants, by hand in a tub, ironing with the heavy old fashioned flat iron heated on a hot stove. If the weather wasn’t too cold I would venture outside in the afternoon and the boys and I would take a walk along the other side of the island where there were no trees and the snow wasn’t as deep.

Some days the river would be full of big ice cakes coming down with the tide from “up-river.” They would strike the can buoy just off the island with a bang, their weight temporarily submerging it. It would pop up again, only to be put down by another one.

I watch Cliff row across to Parker’s Head one day dodging between the ice cakes which weren’t very thick in the channel. But as he neared the shore he encountered a line of them, which made it impossible to land at the usual place and he had to make quite a detour before he could get close enough to get his boat to the edge of a point of land that extended out into the bay just above the wharf. I was thankful when he returned safely to the island.

Some nights, there would be a snowstorm and Cliff would have to start the bell. The bell machinery was located in a pyramid wooden tower on the shore a short distance from the house and reached by a wooden walk built over the rocks with a railing on each side. It was pretty miserable walking down with the cold wind and snow beating at him and trying to carry a lantern or flashlight and keep hold of the railing so that his feet wouldn’t slide out from under him all at the same time.

The bell machine consisted of a large spool shaped cylinder upon which a long cable was wound by means of a hand crank. When set in motion, the mechanism would cause the attached hammer to strike the large bell on the outside of the tower through an opening in the wall every few seconds depending on the character of the station. On some river lighthouses the bell would strike once every two seconds, another every three seconds. As I remember it, the bell on Perkins Island struck twice close together, waited a few seconds then repeated. Offshore lights had the more powerful horns that could be heard for many miles.

Although the bell machine would operate nearly four hours after the cable was fully wound up, it was the general practice to wind it every two or two and a half hours for it was a lengthy, tedious job to rewind it if the cable was nearing the end.

On a stormy or foggy night, Cliff would set the alarm and get up every two hours, get his thick clothing one and go out to wind the bell.

On February 10, the lifeboat from the Coast Guard Station at Popham arrived and a man from the South Portland Coast Guard Base came ashore and started repairs on the furnace. He and his helper worked all the afternoon, were transported back to the station in the lifeboat for the night and returned the next morning to finish the job. By mid afternoon the furnace was running once again, in operation and the hissing of steam in the radiators was a sound pleasure to hear.

By nightfall the beds had been moved back up stairs and made up in two of the three bedrooms and it seemed good to have warm extra space to move around in.

The window in our bedroom faced

the tower and the reflection of the light shone on our faces as we lay in bed. Several times through the night one of us would wake up automatically and check the light and the weather.

Sometimes the Aladdin lamp in the tower would stream up as the result of a slight draft or a speck on the mantle. If it weren’t discovered right away, black smoke would blacken the glass chimney and spread to the whole inside of the enclosure causing the rays through the red glass to be obliterated. Thus, not only would the light be considered out by anyone looking for it, but there would be an awful mess for the lighthouse keeper to clean up. So a pretty close watch was kept at all times.

In spite of the drawbacks, as the days went by and I became more accustomed to island living, I began to really enjoy it. On calm sunny days we would row around the island and explore the nearby shoreline. When the tide was running out and it wasn’t too cold, the boys and I would walk down over the hill a short distance from the light and watch Cliff dig clams.

One day we watched a destroyer built at the Bath Iron Works go down by, bound for her trial runs at sea. We were just eating super that night when she returned, lighted from bow to stern with searchlights probing the channel and shore for navigation aids. What a pretty picture it was.

On the morning of February 19, Mel Sproule, a member of the crew at the Coast Guard Station arrived in the lifeboat and informed us that we were being relieved and he would return at 3 PM to take us back to the Popham Life Boat Station. On the return trip he would be bringing Mr. and Mrs. Fred Osgood from the Fort Popham Lighthouse to replace us. They were to be stationed there permanently, as Mr. Powers, the keeper we were filling in for, has passed away.

I felt rather sad as our luggage was stored on board the lifeboat and we departed for Popham Beach. I looked back at the island as we cruised down the river and a wave of loneliness passed over me as I had become really fond of it and sort of hated to leave.


Some years later we spent a day on Perkins Island Lighthouse when our oldest son Robert, was a substitute lighthouse keeper there. Robert had enlisted in the Coast Guard in 1953 and in some instances followed his father’s footsteps, first at the Coast Guard Station in Cape Elizabeth, Maine and later to substitute on some of the same lighthouses that we did years before.

In August of 1957, Robert was sent to Perkins Island Lighthouse to fill in for a keeper who was on vacation. One day, Cliff and I, our sons Jerry with his wife Frances, and Wayne, and our daughter Joanne, spent an entire day with Robert at the lighthouse. Robert picked us up at Popham Beach and transported us to the lighthouse with a boat with an outboard engine, quite different from the days when Cliff had to row the same distance.

Landing at the boat slip brought back many memories. Years earlier our sons Robert and Jerry were small children being lifted carefully from the boat; now they were young men helping us older family members on to the slip. That station had changed much since our tour of duty there, but it would in later years after it was closed up and turned over to the State of Maine.

The weather was nice and we all enjoyed our day there with the men digging clams to have them steamed for dinner and later Bob in one boat and Jerry in the another, they cruised around the river near the island. All too soon it was time to leave.

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.

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