Digest>Archives> July 2008

From The Memoirs Of A Veteran Lighthouse Keeper

By Timothy Harrison


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Gleason W. Colbeth, is shown here (l) wearing the ...

In his retirement, veteran lighthouse keeper Gleason Colbeth wrote his memoirs recalling in great detail his life from 1895 up through 1977. With his detailed memoirs he kept extensive newspaper clippings and photographs that were related to his interests and his memories, much of it about lighthouse life. Recently, his son, Welton Colbeth, shared this large life-story book with us and we have taken some small excerpts from the book for this story.

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Vintage image of Maine’s Little River Lighthouse ...

When Colbeth joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1930, he was very familiar with lighthouses and had previously served in the Coast Guard as well as the U.S. Navy. His first assignments were as an “Additional Keeper,” which was a position designated to someone who would travel from lighthouse to lighthouse to fill in when the full time keeper or assistant keeper at a light station went on vacation or was too ill to work. As an additional keeper he served at Seguin Island Lighthouse under keeper Bracey. From there he went to Goose Rocks Lighthouse then on to Ram Island and from there to Great Duck Island Light Station.

His sixth station was at the Isles of Shoals Light in Portsmouth, NH under John Olson and Wilbur Brewster where he served eleven months.

Finally he received a permanent appointment to Libby Island Lighthouse. Part of the thirteen and half years he served at Libby Island was under head keeper Herbert Wass who was taken sick and never returned to the island. That left Colbeth in charge with assistant keeper Jasper Cheney. Eventually Millard Urquhart was assigned as a keeper at Libby Island and the station now had three lighthouse families, “enough for a baseball team,” he recalled.

During World War II the Coast Guard assigned six young Coast Guardsmen to the station whose primary job was to watch for enemy ships or planes. Colbeth recalled that none of them were familiar with rough water and had no seamanship experience, recalling, “Getting these young boys on and off the island for liberty was a major inconvenience for the lighthouse keepers.”

One of Colbeth’s sons loved to go duck hunting on the island. During one such expedition he leaned his gun on a rock and the dog pushed it over. The gun discharged and hit a muscle in his son’s right arm. Colbeth and keeper Cheney tried to patch him up as best they could and they radioed for help. He recalled in later years that Cheney was pretty good as a medic of sorts. It was four hours by the time the Coast Guard arrived to take his son off the island and to the hospital in Machias, Maine. By that time he had lost quite a lot of blood. Although he recovered, he was never able to use that arm to its fullest again.

In 1945 Colbeth was transferred to Little River Light Station in Cutler, which was another island station, but much more hospitable than Libby Island. The boat ramp was on the lee side of the island and the boat ride was only ten minutes across the harbor and much safer than getting to and from Libby Island ever was. At this time he still had two young children living with him and his wife.

A Navy veteran of World War I, Gleason Colbeth served duty on the battleship North Carolina. He had also served a stint in the Coast Guard as a surfman at Cross Island Life Boat Station before joining the Lighthouse Service. Interestingly, Colbeth had followed in his father, William A. Colbeth, footsteps, with a love of the sea. As well as working on sailing ships, his father was a member of the United States Life-Saving Service, which in 1915 became the Coast Guard.

Gleason Colbeth had several accidents during his lighthouse career, the most serious being from when he was stationed at Isles of Shoals Lighthouse in New Hampshire where he injured his back. His back problem got more serious as time went on, but he wasn’t one to complain. He enjoyed his job as a keeper at Little River and he said he loved the friendly people in the community of Cutler where the lighthouse is located.

When the Lighthouse Service was dissolved in 1939 he decided to go into the Coast Guard rather than remain as a civilian lighthouse keeper, a decision that he would later regret.

When the Coast Guard Commanding Officer made an inspection trip to Little River early in 1950, the officer realized that Colbeth was slowing down and suggested that he take early retirement because of his medical problems. Colbeth had heard from other lighthouse keepers that the Coast Guard was squeezing out the old lighthouse keepers in favor of younger Coast Guardsmen. He told his Commanding Officer that he was happy with his job at Little River Lighthouse and he was content here, besides he could not afford to retire; he still had two boys at home. Colbeth asked if his medical problems showed any indication of his not being able to perform his duties and the officer replied that they did not and informed him that he would give him a good report. As he dropped the Commanding Officer back on the mainland in Cutler, the Commanding Officer was very cordial to him and gave no indication that there would be any changes.

However, a short time later he received a letter saying that he was to report to the retirement board in Boston, which in turn sent him to Coast Guard doctors for a physical. A short time later he was given his disability discharge papers and told to vacate Little River Lighthouse at once. He said he was informed very bluntly and coldly, “to go find another job.”

He was given disability pay of $109.35 per month.

And so, in July of 1950, Gleason Colbeth ended his long career as a loyal and dedicated lighthouse keeper.

So much for being a good employee for so many years; the Coast Guard had a different way of doing things than the old Lighthouse Service did. But he did not hold any hard feelings; writing that he was too much of a good Christian. He then bought himself a new boat and started to do some lobstering and hired his boat out for fishing parties.

This story appeared in the July 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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