Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Living at a Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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Winter Harbor Light Station circa 1908. Note the ...

Winter Harbor, Maine, is on the west side of the Schoodic Peninsula, near the entrance to Frenchman’s Bay. In the 1800s fleets of vessels sailed by daily and the area was a favorite safe harbor for mariners seeking shelter from storms. In the summer this was an ideal spot for those on their annual yacht cruises. Noted Maine Lighthouse Keeper Robert T. Sterling wrote that “sometimes there would be so many vessels at anchor it was a guess if all could swing clear, should the wind change.”

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Winter Harbor Light Station from the water circa ...

As shipping in this part of the coast continued to flourish during the mid-1800s, the government in 1856 under President Franklin Pierce appropriated $4,500 to build a lighthouse near the entrance to Frenchman Bay, on the southern point of Mark Island, to guide vessels into the harbor and to warn of the dangerous ledges nearby. Mark Island, an “islet” really, consisted of about four acres more or less, depending on the tide, surrounding by dangerous ledges. The light here was intended to direct the mariner into the harbor, or through the narrows between the flats of turtle Spectacle and Heron Islands.

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Winter Harbor keeper’s house and light tower post ...

The lighthouse went into service on January 1, 1857. From the white, cylindrical, brick tower, a fixed white light was shown from a fifth-order Fresnel lens, thirty-seven feet above high water. Attached to the tower was a wood-frame, one-and-one-half-story keeper’s dwelling, painted brown. For some years, the station also had a fog bell with an automatic striking machine.

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“Our Island Lighthouse” by Bernice Richmond (1947)

By 1876, the keeper’s dwelling was “decayed past repair.” The dwelling was replaced by a new one-and-a-half-story frame structure, painted white, just north of the old site. Two years later, a twelve by twenty foot wooden boathouse was built, and a stone oil house was added to the station in 1905.

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The boat house and oil house at the Winter Harbor ...

Situated just a mile from shore, Winter Harbor Lighthouse was considered a good posting for families. During the lighthouse’s seventy-six years of service from 1857 to 1933, only nine keepers and their families lived on the island.

By August 1933, the light here had become of limited use as boat traffic in the area decreased. In addition, as the Great Depression continued, Lighthouse Service searched for ways to economize. Winter Harbor Light was closed and replaced by a lighted bell buoy set to the southeast of the lighthouse. The light tower would continue to serve as a daymark.

By 1934 Winter Harbor Light Station, along with Pumpkin Island Light Station were sold at auction by the Government to the highest bidder, Mr. George Harmon of Bar Harbor for the sum of $552.

Three years later, Bernice “Bunny” Richmond, a writer and musician, and her husband, Reginald Robinson, a sociologist, bought the island from Harmon for $2,000.

Reginald completed the purchase and wrote to Bernice in August 1939 to describe their new home: “The outside needs a coat of paint. The inside is swell. Newly painted, floors in fine shape, everything is nice. Steam heat with radiators all over the house. Cisterns to collect rain water and a pump in the kitchen. There are other buildings: a workshop, an oil house, and a boat-house where we can put a boat for winter. Even a cement sidewalk from the main house to the hen house. If we want a lighthouse on an island, this is it.”

As a girl, Bernice Richmond, originally from Livermore Falls, Maine, had visited the keepers at Halfway Rock Light in Casco Bay. “That is why I wanted a lighthouse of my own,” she explained.

She described her first view of the light station that would become her home: “In each life there are but a handful of great moments and I knew this was one of mine. I could not look hard enough or deep enough. I was dreaming of something I had lived, or living something I had dreamed. No matter how often I looked at the rugged shore line and the green of the island where the oil house, the shop, and the boathouse stood, my eyes always came back to trace the outline of the tower and the house. It was the tower I loved most. It stood with its one small window gleaming faintly and its black lantern silhouetted against the green of thickly wooded Turtle Island half a mile beyond. It seemed to me to be standing like a sentinel before our home, watching everything at sea.”

As Bernice first stepped on the island and began to explore the buildings, she began to describe a bit of what she saw: “The stone oil house was like a doll’s house, made of pink and grey rocks from the island and topped with a fine slate roof. There were two small panes of glass in the doorway – too high to peek in….In the light tower, the spiral stairs gleamed as though freshly painted. At the top was the pedestal where the light had rested. The base of the tower opened into the tiny room that had serviced the light. It had an outside door and one window. A shelf below the window was at desk height…. The ell came next, made up of two kitchens with doors opening on either side of the house. There were closets, the cellar-way down to one cistern, an entry, and a large storeroom….”

It was at this idyllic spot that the Bernice Richmond would spend the next 11or more years, and where she penned two wonderful books about their experiences living at this offshore lighthouse on Mark Island: Winter Harbor (1943 Henry Holt & Co.) and Our Island Lighthouse (1947 Random House).

She wrote: “It is hard for people living on the mainland to understand the contentment found on an island. I couldn’t put into words how terribly important it was to sleep on the island with sea sounds encircling me. I couldn’t explain how I looked forward each morning to that first rush of salty air through my kitchen door, to the early tour I take over the vein-like paths to the gardens.”

Bernice would continue: “In each life there are but a handful of great moments and I knew this was one of mine.” On the island she had learned how to be self-sufficient, perform repairs, raise vegetables, and row to town for supplies and mail. She had made a life and became equal to the tasks that confronted her, able to take whatever came. And most important of all, she was be content with her life.

Bernice Richmond’s two books about her life at Winter Harbor Lighthouse have today become classics. Many of us have shared her dream to live at an island lighthouse but only a few of us have been fortunate to realize our dream. But, through her wonderful reminiscences we can still live a bit of that dream. I highly recommend her duo of books, which can be found in used book stores for about $30 - $50 each.

In the 1950s, the island was bought by Rene Prud’hommeaux, an author of children’s novels, including The Sunken Forest and The Port of Missing Men. The island would eventually serve as a haven for a number of other writers.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 2016 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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