|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
-- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast,
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.
In recent 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
|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
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.
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
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
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," remembered Capon.
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
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
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 Lighthouse
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 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.)
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);
(assistant, 1868); Luther Amazeen (assistant 1868-1870); Nathan White
Jr. (assistant c. 1870-1873); Alfred J. Leavitt (1874-1886); Leander
(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