Nestled snugly atop a rocky cliff and overlooking Somes Sound between Maine’s Sutton Island and Northeast Harbor stands the little known Bear Island Lighthouse.
The lighthouse is within the bounds of Maine’s world famous Acadia National Park, which celebrated the 100rh founding this year. While tens of thousands of people who visited Acadia National Park this year to hike its trails, take in the spectacular view from the top of Cadillac Mountain, or visit the camera-friendly Bass Harbor Head Lighthouse, very view of them will ever see the historic Bear Island Lighthouse, or have even hear or know about it.
The 11-acre island where the Bear Island Lighthouse stands is off-limits to the public, and the lighthouse, although owned by Acadia National Park, is also off-limits to the public. The only exception is for the friends and family of the lease holder for the lighthouse property, and perhaps, from time to time Acadia National Park employees or volunteers.
The Bear Island Lighthouse cannot be seen from any publically accessible spot by the tens of thousands of tourists who flock each year to Mount Desert Island to visit its quaint communities - and of course Acadia National Park. However, those who take the car ferry to Great Cranberry or Islesford pass close by the lighthouse, but very few people on board actually pay much attention to it. However, there are sightseeing boats, often loaded with camera toting tourists looking for whales or spectacular coastal scenery, and, of course, some true lighthouse aficionados who, wanting that ever elusive snap, do make stops in the water near the lighthouse for lots of picture taking.
The Bear Island Lighthouse was established back in 1839 under the presidency of Martin Van Buren. The original lighthouse consisted of a wooden tower with an octagonal lantern that sat atop the granite rubble-stone keeper’s house. The lantern held seven lamps with 13” reflectors.
The first keeper was an interesting man named John Bowen, whose name is sometimes spelled Bowan. Lighthouse keeper Bowen was fired in 1842 for, because, as a letter from the Secretary of the Treasury stated, “Interference in elections, both under the late and present administrations and absence from the lighthouse for days in succession . . .” (That original letter is now on display at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine.) Politics often played a big role in who got a lighthouse keeping job in those days, and in 1844 John Bowen got his job back, even though some local politicians complained vehemently, one writing “Washington needs to know what kind of critter Bowen has been . . .” But, Bowen lasted another six years, until he was again fired for political reasons in 1850. However, in a letter dated April 20, 1850, Bowen wrote to the Superintendent of Lights asking that he be allowed more time to make his move from the lighthouse, stating, “in consequence of the peculiar state of my family, at this time, as well as the fact that I am on a lone island, and have no place to remove to – it will be attended with great damage and personal loss and inconvenience, for me to give possession to my successor, in less time than a month or more.” The Superintendent supported his request to extend his appointment as keeper until June saying that “it is an inclement season to be moving.”
Being a lighthouse keeper was a prestigious job in those days, and believe it or not, after being gone for three years, John Bowen got his job back again for the third time in 1853 and was able to hold onto it for another two years.
By 1889, the time had come for a new lighthouse and keeper’s house to be built, and although some changes have been made over the years, it basically has the same look today as it did then. By the late 1800s the Lighthouse Service erected a semi-quasi lighthouse depot at the site to store buoys and coal for the lighthouse tenders. The buoy docks remained in operation until they were replaced by a new buoy station that was established in nearby Southwest Harbor, Maine.
One interesting story pertains to the Bear Island lighthouse dog. In 1959 when Coast Guardsman Terry Stanley and his wife Nancy were the keepers, the lighthouse came with a dog named Cleo. “When we took her to shore, she didn’t know what to make of all the cars,” Nancy recalled. “Of course she had only seen boats up until then.” In an interview with a reporter for the Bar Harbor Times, Nancy Stanley recalled the challenges of cooking at the remote island lighthouse, “The kitchen was equipped with a huge refrigerator, but the freezer compartment could only hold one ice tray. We ate an awful lot of macaroni and cheese, tuna casseroles and SPAM.”
As we skip forward to 1981, the lighthouse was automated and eventually de-staffed, then discontinued and replaced by an offshore lighted bell buoy. By 1987, when ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to Acadia National Park, the lighthouse was in a sorry state of disrepair. In 1989 the Friends of Acadia spent $17,000 to help rehabilitate the lighthouse and then relighted it as a private aid to navigation.
In 1989, the National Park Service issued a long-term lease to Dr. Martin Morad, a professor from Georgetown University. Born in Tehran, Iran, Dr. Morad, who was educated in Europe and the United States, took on the daunting and enormous task of restoring the keeper’s house and making it livable.
In 1992, Dr. Martin Morad married Fabiola Martens, a Belgian by birth and a former lawyer, who stood side by side with her husband for the major restoration. Their biggest project was getting fresh water from the mainland, which was accomplished by attaching a pipeline to an old abandoned transatlantic cable under the water, a project that required many months of planning. This was followed by electricity brought in and a sewer system being installed on the island. Finally, after years of hard and often back-breaking work, the keeper’s house was fully restored, and even the old tool shed was restored and converted to a guest house.
Thanks to this ingenious couple and their hard work, the historic Bear Island Lighthouse was saved. If the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear were to return for a visit, they would be shocked at what they would see, and even perhaps even delighted.
But as we take a journey through time in the following photographs, let us not forget how hard life was for the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear who dedicated their lives to keep the light shining for the benefit of safe travels to the mariner at sea.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 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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