|Eight or nine miles out, in plain sight, Boon Island lifts
its solitary shaft aloft like an 'eternal exclamation mark' to
the temerity of its builders. There is no comfortable dwelling
on that lonely rock, over which storms sweep unchecked. The tower
is itself both house and home to the watchmen of the sea, and
in great gales a prison from which there is no escape until the
return of fine weather.|
-- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast, 1891.
the summer of 1682, a coastal trading vessel, the Increase, was wrecked
on the rocky ledges of barren Boon Island, several miles off the
southern Maine coast. The four survivors—three white men and one
Indian—spent a month on the island, living on fish and gulls’ eggs. One
day the men saw smoke rising from Mount Agamenticus several miles away,
so they built a fire in response. The Indians at Mount Agamenticus saw
the smoke from the island, and the stranded men were soon rescued.
precise origins of the island’s name are shrouded in four centuries of
history. It’s been often stated that the men from the Increase,
seeing their survival as a boon granted by God, were moved to name the
island Boon. In fact, the island was referred to by that name long
before the wreck of the Increase. John Winthrop mentioned it in his journal in 1630:
saw, also, ahead of us, some four leagues from shore, a small rock,
called Boone Isle, not above a flight shot over, which hath a dangerous
shoal to the E. and by S. of it, some two leagues in length.
island was also mentioned five years later in Richard Mather’s journal;
like Winthrop, he spelled it “Boone.” Another early variation on the
spelling of the island’s name was “Bone,” not inappropriate for a
location where so many mariners met their doom.
|According to some
writers, including the popular New England historian Edward Rowe Snow,
the island’s name stemmed from the practice of local fishermen, who
left barrels of provisions on the island for the benefit of shipwrecked
sailors. That would certainly have been a “boon” in such circumstances.
In any case, the name is an ironic one for the desolate pile of
rocks that the poet Celia Thaxter called "the forlornest place that can
The most famous incident in the island's history was the wreck
of the British ship Nottingham Galley on December 11,
1710. The survivors struggled to stay alive for over three weeks,
finally resorting to cannibalism. The harrowing story was fictionalized
by Kenneth Roberts in his novel Boon Island.
years cannons have been located in about 25 feet of water that
are believed to have been on board the Nottingham Galley.
Drawing of the Nottingham Galley shipwreck
In 1797, General Benjamin Lincoln, local lighthouse superintendent,
met with the Boston Marine Society to discuss the building of
an unlighted beacon on Boon Island for the safety of local fishermen
and coastal traders.
Construction began the following July. The first wooden tower
as finished in 1799. It survived until 1804, when it was destroyed
by a tremendous storm.
A stone day beacon was erected in the summer of 1805. Three
of the workers involved in erecting the tower drowned when their
boat capsized as they left the island.
In June 1811, General Lincoln recommended a lighthouse on
Boon Island. The tower, completed by that winter, exhibited a
fixed light 32 feet above the water. The first keeper, after
witnessing the vulnerability of the low island (14 feet above
sea level at its highest point ) to storms, left after only a
few weeks. The second keeper, David Oliver, also resigned and
was succeeded by Thomas Hanna.
Hanna resigned in 1816. The next keeper, former mariner Eliphalet
Grover, a York native born in 1778, served a remarkable 22 years
at the station. Grover's log resides at the Old York Historical
Society. Here is an excerpt, preserving Grover's spelling:
October 31, 1829: At 9 PM all my famely was forst to go
to the Lighthouse and Stay until 5 next morning. At our return
to the house found all our water gone and all the platforms gone
and all my turnips and cabage washt away and my walls all Down.
I have been hear 13 years 4 months 28 days and never see such
a time before. The sea washd the small rocks from under the Lighthouse
and Dwelling house the island was all under water for 4 hours.
After suffering great damage in storms, the lighthouse was
rebuilt in 1831. It was built of rubblestone and stood 49 feet
tall, with an octagonal wrought iron lantern. The light was 69
feet above mean high water.
Capt. Nathaniel Baker became keeper in 1846. The schooner
Caroline was wrecked on the island in the same year, and
Baker rescued the crew. Despite his heroism, Baker was dismissed
as keeper in 1849 and replaced by John Thompson, who had been
dismissed earlier. In those days lighthouse keeping jobs were
frequently given as political favors.
present lighthouse was constructed in 1854, along with a new
dwelling. The stone tower, built of granite supplied by Joseph W.
Coburn of Boston, is 133 feet high -- the tallest lighthouse in New
England. It is 25 feet in diameter at its base and 12 feet in diameter
at the top.
An additional $19,973 was appropriated in 1854 for "procuring
illuminating apparatus, and completing the light-house tower
and buildings..." The new second-order Fresnel lens went
into operation on January 1, 1855.
- From the collection of Edward
Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dorothy Bicknell
- From the book Ye Romance of Old
York by Herbert M. Sylvester, 1906
Poet Celia Thaxter described the lighthouse in her 1873 book,
Among the Isles of Shoals:
A slender column against the sky... Sometimes it looms
colossal in the mirage of summer; in winter it lies blurred and
ghostly at the edge of the chilly sea and pallid sky.
In 1876, 14-year-old Annie Bell Hobbs, daughter of Assistant
Keeper Edwin Hobbs, wrote an article about life at Boon Island
for a children's magazine called Nursery.
Out at sea, on a rock eight miles from the nearest point
of land and about nine miles east of the town of Kittery, is
Boon Island, upon which I have been a prisoner, with the privilege
of the yard, the past two years.
I will give you a description of the place and its inhabitants.
The island is made up of nothing but rocks, without one foot
of ground for trees, shrubs, or grass. Now and then sails dot
the wide expanse, reminding me that there is a world besides
the one I dwell in, all surrounded by water.
The inhabitants of this island consist of eight persons
-- just the number that entered the ark at the time of the flood.
There are three men, the three keepers of the light, whose duties
are to watch the light all night, to warn the sailors of danger.
There are two families of us, and in my father's family are five
members... Our colony is so small, and the children so few, that
the inhabitants have concluded not to build a schoolhouse. Consequently
I have my father and mother for teachers...
In the summer we have quite a number of visitors, who board
at the beaches during the season. They come to see the lighthouse
and all it contains; and we are very glad to show them all, though
it is quite tiresome to go up into the light a number of times
during the day, since it is one hundred and twenty-three feet
from the rock on which it stands to the light.
Up there among the clouds, my father and the other keepers
have to watch, night after night, through storms as well as pleasant
weather, through summer and winter, the year round, from sunset
to sunrise; so that the poor sailors may be warned off from danger.
|In 1889, it was reported that the keeper's dwelling had problems
with leaks and was cold and unsuitable for occupation. The house
was largely rebuilt and an upper story was added. In the following
year a stone and brick oil house was built.|
Capt. William C. Williams, a native of Kittery, Maine, went
to Boon Island as an assistant in 1885 and served as principal
keeper from 1888 to 1911. At the age of 90 he recounted his experiences
to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine
Coast and the Men Who Keep Them.
Captain Williams had pleasant times at Boon Island, but he
later remembered the danger of the job:
The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes... I
was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save
my life, should the whole station be swept away.
In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had
to take refuge at the top of the tower for three days. Compared
to this storm, said the keeper, the famous "Portland"
Gale of 1898 was "just a breeze."Right: William C. Williams Courtesy of William O. Thomson
One Thanksgiving, Williams and his assistants were unable
to go ashore to buy a turkey. Providence intervened when a dozen
black ducks smashed into the tower, providing the keepers with
their Thanksgiving dinner.
Left: William C. Williams and his wife, Abbie. Courtesy of William O. Thomson
A Boon Island legend concerns a keeper of the nineteenth century
who arrived at the island with his new bride. After a few happy
months the keeper fell ill and died during a gale. His wife realized
the importance of keeping the light and, despite her grief, managed
to climb the tower's 168 stairs and light the lamp for the duration
of the storm, which lasted several days.
Soon after the storm
ended local mariners noticed the lack of a light at Boon Island.
They landed to investigate and found the young woman wandering
the rocks aimlessly, driven mad by grief and exhaustion. The
young woman supposedly died a few weeks later.
Another story concerns keepers who were marooned on the island
for weeks by bad weather. Their food had almost run out when
they sent a bottle adrift containing an urgent plea for help.
A passing schooner picked up the bottle and managed to get a
barrel of food to the keepers, which may have saved their lives.
In his book Storms and Shipwrecks of New England, Edward
Rowe Snow wrote of a powerful storm that hit Boon Island in November
1945. John H. Morris was keeper at the time and was at the station
along his wife, Gertrude, their child, Lorne, and the assistant
keeper, Ted Guice. The storm was threatening to destroy the buildings,
so Morris took his family to the second assistant keeper's house,
which was partly sheltered by the tower, and they weathered the
storm. Morris later told Snow:
What really scared us was the sound that the rocks made
as they hit against each other. Not a stone on the island was
left unturned. The generator failed when a giant sea broke right
into the engine room, and we had to operate for the rest of the
storm with kerosene lamps. The waves actually climbed halfway
up the side of the lighthouse tower itself. I shall never forget
that Gale of '45.
Coast Guardsman Kendrick Capon was at Boon Island for a time
in the 1950s. Forty years later, Capon told the York Weekly,
"The island isn't much bigger than my yard, and after a
while, you'd sense where the other person was. You'd become accustomed
to hearing the sounds."
One day, after becoming aware that the other keeper was not
in the house, Capon looked outside to see the man, a steeplejack's
son, shimmying his way down the lightning rod that runs the length
of the tower. When he got halfway down, the copper rod began
to cut into the man's hands. By the time he reached the bottom
his hands were cut to the bone. "He was in bad shape,"
- U.S. Coast Guard photo
Capon recalled being stuck on Boon Island for 83 days in one
stretch, living on bologna, bread, and crackers. Despite the
hardships, Capon remembered his lighthouse days fondly. "After
about the second or third day, you feel completely relaxed,"
he said. "I've never felt that relaxed since. I've never
been able to capture that."
When Capon was at Boon Island, the keepers would pass the
time by telling stories. "We would sit and tell ghost stories
to each other until late and then we'd strap on a gun to go out
and check the motors," he recalled. "That's where all
the cannibalism took place."
According to Robert Ellis Cahill's book, Lighthouse Mysteries
of the North Atlantic, a ghost has been seen by many people
on Boon Island. The ghost is described as "a sad faced young
woman shrouded in white." This phantom has been seen by
keepers and fishermen, wrote Cahill. Some say the woman in white
is the ghost of the mistress of the captain of the Nottingham
Galley, while others claim she is the young bride whose husband
died on the island one winter.
Bob Roberts, a Coast Guard keeper in the early 1970s, says
the other keepers asked him if he believed in ghosts when he
first went to Boon Island. Roberts laughed at the time, but strange
events on the island soon had him thinking differently. One time,
he and fellow crewman Bob Edwards were off the island fishing,
and they drifted too far from the island to make it back in time
to turn the light on before dark. There wasn't a person on the
island, but somehow the light was glowing brightly by the time
the keepers returned.
On other occasions Roberts and others heard doors mysteriously
opening and closing. When he would go to turn on the fog signal,
Roberts said he felt as if "someone was watching."
Another former Coast Guard keeper, Dave Wells, says that one
time the station's Labrador retriever chased "something
from one end of the island to the other and back again."
The Coast Guardsmen couldn't see what the dog was chasing. "We
figured the island must be haunted, but nothing ever bothered
us," says Wells.
Coast Guard keepers reported weather conditions every three
hours to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. They also monitored the Cape
Neddick "Nubble" Light. When the light from Cape Neddick
couldn't be seen, it was time to turn on the fog signal.
In 1932, Boon Island was swept by a storm that sent 70-foot
waves over the island, severing the submarine telephone cable.
severe storm in February 1972 a destroyed the boathouse and swept
boulders, along with five feet of water, into the keeper's house. The
storm broke every window in the house and also destroyed a wall of the
boathouse. The Coast Guard crew had to use a jackhammer to remove giant
stones from around the dwelling.
Even this wasn't as bad as the great blizzard of 1978. The
early February storm, one of the worst in New England history,
flooded the 1899 keeper's house to a depth of five feet and scattered
boulders around like they were pebbles. The Coast Guard keepers
were forced to take refuge in the tower. The following day the
keepers were removed by helicopter. It was estimated that $100,000
worth of damage was done at Boon Island by the blizzard of '78.
Shortly after the blizzard of '78, the light was automated.
In 1993, the second-order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced
by a modern optic.
The Fresnel lens remained in storage at the Coast Guard's
Aids to Navigation Team's facility in South Portland until April
2000, when it was put on display at the Kittery
Historical and Naval Museum.
The town of Kittery, just south of York, has strong historical
ties to the lighthouse; many of the keepers were natives of the
In May 2000, the lighthouse was licensed by the Coast Guard
to the American
Lighthouse Foundation. On April 1, 2003, the "Republic
of Boon Island" declared its (fictional) independence in
an effort to raise funds by selling citizenships and political
offices. For more information contact the American
Boon Island Light can be seen distantly from the shores of
York, but is best seen from a private vessel or from the lighthouse
cruises offered by the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company.
- The lens at the Kittery Historical
& Naval Museum
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Anyone copying this list onto another web site does so at their own
risk, as the list is always subject to updates and corrections.)
Oliver (c. 1811); Thomas Hanna (c. 1811-1816); Eliphalet Grover
(1816-1839); Mark Dennet (1840-1841); John Thompson (1841-1843 and
1849-1853); Morgan Trafton (1842, assistant keeper, died in boating
accident); John Kennard (1843-1846); Nathaniel Baker (1846-1849);
Benjamin O. Fletcher (assistant c. 1849); Caleb S. Gould (1853-1854);
George Bowden (1854-1855); Samuel S. Tobey (assistant, 1856);
Christopher Littlefield (1854); Sam Philbrick (1854); Charles H. Tobey
(assistant 1850, keeper 1856); Charles E. Thompson (1858); John S.
Baker (assistant, 1858); Nathaniel Baker (1859); Hiram Tobey (1859);
Josiah Tobey Jr. (assistant, 1855; principal keeper ?-1859); Joseph H.
Hart (c. 1859-1861); William L. Baker (assistant, 1859); Cabin (?) Gray
(1861); George B. Wallace (June 1861-1866); Benjamin Bridges (1861);
George E. Bridges (assistant, 1864-1865); Richard C. Yeaton (1864);
Charles Ramsdell (assistant 1865); Joshua Kenney Card (1867-1874);
John W. Card (assistant, c. 1873); George H. Yeaton (assistant 1867); Samuel Meloon
(assistant, 1868); Luther Amazeen (assistant 1868-1870); Nathan White
Jr. (assistant c. 1870-1873); Alfred J. Leavitt (1874-1886); Leander White
(first assistant, 1874-1878); Edwin J. Hobbs (assistant, 1874-1876);
R. Grogan (assistant, 1876, keeper 1879); George O. Leavitt (second
assistant, 1878-1880, first assistant 1880-?); Walter S. Amee (second
assistant, 1878); Paschal Fernald (secnd assistant 1880-?); John
Kennard (1884); William C. Williams (second assistant 1885-1886, first
assistant 1886-1888, principal keeper 1888-1911); James Burke (second
assistant, 1886-1887, first assistant 1887-1890); Orrin M. Lamprey
(1886-1888); Meshach M. Seaward (second assistant, 1886-1900); Leonidas
H. Sawyer (second assistant, 1889, principal keeper 1889); Charles W.
Torrey (first assistant, ?-1893); Charles S. Williams (second
assistant, c. 1895-1897, first assistant 1897-1905); William T. Stevens
(first assistant, c. 1905); Charles W. Allen
(second assistant, 1907-1911, first assistant 1911-?); Mitchell
Blackwood (second assistant c. 1905, then first assistant, then
principal keeper 1911-1916); Roger
Paul Philbrick (first assistant 1913-1918); Albert Staples (second
assistant, c. 1913-?, principal keeper 1920-1923); Harry Smith
(1916-1920); Harold Hutchins (1924-1933); Fred C. Batty (assistant, c.
early 1930s); Clinton Dalzell (assistant c. 1934); George Woodward
(assistant?, c. 1920s); Charles Edward. Tracy (1933-1935); Hoyt P.
Smith (1935-1942); F. A. Rumery (assistant, c. 1933-?); E. Stockbridge,
assistant (c. 1935); Charles U. Gardner (Coast Guard relief keeper, c,
1942-1943); John H. Morris (Coast Guard, c. 1945); Ted Guice (Coast
Guard assistant, c. 1945); ? Watts (Coast Guard, c. 1953); Kendrick
Capon (Coast Guard, 1951-1953); Jerry Russell (Coast Guard, c. 1954);
Harold L. Roberts (Coast Guard, 1956); Leonard John "Moon" Mullen
(Coast Guard, 1958-1961); Robert Brann (c. 1958); Ron Schultz (1959);
Dave Wells (Coast Guard, 1966); Arthur D. Blackburn (Coast Guard,
1965-1967); August "Gus" Pfister (Coast Guard,
1967-1968); Robert Edwards (Coast Guard officer in charge, c.
1970-1973); Bob Roberts (Coast Guard, 1971-1972); Garth Clough (Coast
Guard, c. 1970-1972); Thomas J. Lee (Coast Guard, July 1970 to October
1971); Richard Heon (Coast Guard, early 1970s); Stephen Garsznksi
(Coast Guard, c. 1972); Fred Kendall (Coast
Guard, 1973-1975); Jack W. Straley (Feb. 1977-Feb. 1978); William Ripka