Digest>Archives> April 2002

Baker Island Light Station: Does it Have a Future?

By Jeremy D'Entremont


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The beautiful tower of Maine’s Baker Island ...
Photo by: Brian Seltzer

Maine’s 123-acre Baker Island lies about four miles from Mount Desert Island within the boundaries of Acadia National Park. Marking the southern entrance to Frenchman’s Bay, it is one of five islands that make up the Cranberry Isles. The Baker Island Light Station, established in 1828 to warn mariners of shoals and a sandbar nearby, is the oldest in the Mount Desert region and is on the National Register of Historic Places. The entire lighthouse station may be dying a slow death unless someone steps in to help.

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Vintage photograph of Maine’s Baker Island ...

Much of Baker Island’s lighthouse history is intertwined with the fascinating story of the Gilley family. William and Hannah Gilley took possession of Baker Island in the early 19th century. They had three children when they arrived at Baker Island and had nine more during their years on the island. Their son John Gilley was immortalized as the subject of an 1899 book by Harvard University President Charles W. Eliot, John Gilley, One of the Forgotten Millions. When a wooden lighthouse was built on the highest point on the island in 1828, William Gilley was appointed keeper at a salary of $350 per year.

William Gilley remained keeper until 1848 when he was dismissed for not being a member of the party that had come into power, the Whigs. At 63 Gilley left Baker Island and moved to Great Duck Island, which he also owned. Two of Gilley’s sons harassed the succeeding keepers of the light, John Rich and Joseph Bunker, until the U.S. Government tried to evict the Gilley family from the island. The Gilleys countered by claiming that they legally owned the island, and the legal battles went on for years. Finally the government won the right to 19 acres for the lighthouse station and the necessary right-of-way, while the Gilleys’ heirs retained the rest of the island.

The present 43-foot brick tower, with its light 105 feet above sea level, was built in 1855 along with a new keeper’s house at a cost of $4,963. At one time there was a short covered passageway between the dwelling and the lighthouse but it was removed many years ago. The light was automated in 1966, and the fourth order Fresnel lens was removed and is now on display at the Fisherman’s Museum at Maine’s Pemaquid Point Light.

The Coast Guard now owns only the lighthouse and a one-foot wide belt of land around the tower, while the rest of the site has belonged to Acadia National Park since the 1950s. The transfer agreement stated that the National Park Service was required to trim the surrounding vegetation so that the light remains visible. Some tree trimming was done in the past, but according to Acadia National Park Deputy Director Len Bobinchock, a University of Maine Forestry Department study a few years ago indicated that the amount of clearing and trimming necessary to keep the light visible is beyond the means of the Park Service, given their shortage of funds and personnel. Keeping the light visible would require the trimming of trees not only right around the lighthouse, but also across a large portion of the island.

In 1989 the Maine Historic Preservation Commission was responsible for some refurbishing of the light station. A few years ago the Coast Guard planned some renovation of the tower, but could not gain permission to clear an area to set up a staging area for the work.

In 1991 the Coast Guard proposed to discontinue the light because the tall surrounding trees made it difficult or impossible to see from the water, but more than 150 complaints convinced the Coast Guard to keep the light active. In 1997 the Coast Guard again proposed discontinuing Baker Island Light. A letter writing campaign convinced them that the light was still needed by local mariners.

The still active solar-powered flashing white light reportedly is not visible to mariners in several directions at the present time due to the surrounding trees. In an effort to address the problems for mariners, the Coast Guard has placed a lighted buoy in nearby waters.

Budgetary constraints now prevent the Coast Guard from restoring Baker Island Lighthouse. And as long as the surrounding trees obscure the light, the lighthouse is virtually useless as an aid to navigation. The lighthouse will probably eventually be transferred to Acadia National Park or to a nonprofit group.

For some years Acadia National Park offered a summer excursion to the island and a guided tour that included the lighthouse. That tour was not available in 2001, but may be offered again in the future.

Acadia National Park personnel have stabilized the keeper’s house with the addition of ventilator shades and a ventilator cap on the roof. There is no planned use for the dwelling, oil house or garage on the property, and they are slowly deteriorating.

According to Len Bobinchock, the idea of restoring the house and using it as housing for a park ranger has been discussed in the past, but a lack of funds has prevented this. Bobinchock says he’d like to see the building totally rehabilitated. Unfortunately, the National Park Service, like the Coast Guard, is faced with a budget that is increasingly spread far too thin, and the areas of the park that receive far more visitors than Baker Island get the lion’s share of attention and funding. What may be needed to save Baker Island Light Station is a donation given specifically for its upkeep, or at least the active involvement of a concerned nonprofit organization.

This story appeared in the April 2002 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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