The first lighthouse was a 26-foot rubblestone tower with an octagonal wrought-iron lantern, with which housed 10 whale oil–fueled lamps and 15-inch reflectors showing a fixed white light. A four-room dwelling with an attached kitchen was built near the tower.
William and Hannah Gilley took possession of Baker Island in the early 1800s. William Gilley’s father, a native of England, was one of the earliest settlers of Mount Desert Island. William and Hannah had three children and would eventually have nine more during their years on Baker Island. On their small island farm, the family kept several cows, a yoke of oxen, about 50 sheep, chickens, and several hogs. Most of the family’s clothes were made from wool from their own sheep.
When the lighthouse was built, William Gilley was appointed as keeper at a salary of $350 per year. He was described as a large, strong man, six feet tall and weighing more than 200 pounds. One of the Gilleys’ sons was the subject of an 1899 publication by Charles W. Elliot, called John Gilley: One of the Forgotten Millions. Elliot described the remarkable self-reliance of the Gilley family:
It is obvious that this family on its island domain was much more self-contained and independent than any ordinary family is today, even under similar circumstances. They got their fuel, food, and clothing as products of their own skill and labor, their supplies and resources being almost all derived from the sea and from their own fields and woods.
Gilley was still in charge when the engineer I. W. P. Lewis visited for his survey of 1843. Lewis found the walls of the tower cracked and leaky. The lime mortar was of poor quality, and the base of the tower rested on the natural surface of the ledge with and had no proper foundation. The interior was frequently coated with ice in winter. The roof of the dwelling was rotten, according to Lewis, and the kitchen wing—which had been rebuilt only five years earlier—had “settled away from” the rest of the dwelling.
Gilley remained keeper until July 1849, when he was dismissed for not being a member of the party that had come into power, the Whigs. According to Charles W. Elliot, it was suggested that Gilley become a Whig so he could keep his position. “To this overture he replied, with some expletives,” Elliot wrote, “that he would not change his political connection for all the lighthouses in the United States.” At 63, Gilley left Baker Island and moved to Great Duck Island, which he had purchased in 1837 for $300.
Two of William Gilley’s sons stayed on Baker Island, and they were accused of harassing the next keeper, John Rich, and the succeeding keeper, Joseph Bunker. W. B. Franklin, an inspector for the First District, wrote of the Gilley brothers in December 1853: “They allow cattle to graze there, and receive money for the use of the land which the light keeper is entitled to if any one is. They have been ordered to leave repeatedly but have always refused to go, threatening to use force, and are very abusive.” Franklin suggested that the Gilleys’ houses should be torn down. The presence of a revenue cutter might be needed, he said, “to have the business thoroughly done.”
government filed suit against the Gilley brothers in 1854, but the
Gilleys countered by claiming that they owned the island. In October
1855 an agreement was reached that gave the government a 40-rod- square
lot around the light station and, the right of way from the boat
landing to the station, and the right for the keeper to pasture animals
“on any and all the lands on said Island.”
In 1989, the Maine Historic Preservation Commission refurbished the light station at a cost of $3,600. In 1991, the Coast Guard proposed to discontinue the light; tall surrounding trees made it difficult or impossible to see from the water. More than 150 complaints convinced the Coast Guard to keep the light active. The Coast Guard again proposed discontinuing the light in 1997. A letter writing campaign convinced them that the light was still needed by local mariners.
When this photo was taken in October 2007, the light could barely be seen above the trees.
Acadia National Park personnel have stabilized the keeper's
house, but there are no plans for future use of the building. Under
the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, the
lighthouse was offered for transfer to a suitable new steward in 2008.
It appears that ownership will go
the National Park Service. According to John Kelly of Acadia National
Park, the tower is in need of at least $800,000 in repairs.
(This list is a work in progress. If you have any information on the keepers of this lighthouse, I'd love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com. Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
William Gilley (1828-1848); John Rich (1849-1853); Joseph Bunker (1853-1860); John Bunker (1860-1861); Freeman G. Young (1861-1867); Alden H. Jordan (1867-1883); Roscoe G. Lopaus (1883-1888); Howard P. Robbins (1888-1902); George Connors (c. 1902-1912); Vurney L. King (c. 1912 - ?); Joseph Muise (?-c.1936); F. Faulkingham (c. 1935); Wayne Edson Holcomb (U.S. Coast Guard, 1944-1945); Ernest Mathie (c. 1950); ? Coleman (c. 1950); ? Clements (c. 1953)