Vinalhaven is a large (eight miles long) island in the middle of Penobscot Bay, about 13 miles east of Rockland. It's part of a group called the Fox Islands, after the grey foxes that once lived there in abundance. Vinalhaven was named for John Vinal, who lobbied the Massachusetts legislature (Maine was then part of Massachusetts) to incorporate the island as a town in 1789.
Vinalhaven today is a center for fishing and lobstering, with a year-round population of 1,300 that swells to 6,000 in the summer. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Vinalhaven developed a thriving granite industry. It was the busy fishing industry and passenger-cargo shipping that led Congress and President Andrew Jackson to appropriate $4,000 for the establishment of Brown's Head Light at the island's northwest corner in 1832 to help guide mariners through the western entrance to the Fox Islands Thorofare.
Jeremiah Berry of East Thomaston, Maine, built the original rubblestone tower -- about 22 feet tall to the base of the octagonal wrought iron lantern- -- and a rubblestone dwelling for $1800. The first keeper, David Wooster of North Haven, served until his death at the age of 61 in 1841. Browns Head was always a family station with one keeper.
The original keeper's house was in disrepair by 1857. A new 1 1/2-story wood-frame house was constructed, connected by a covered passageway to a cylindrical brick tower. Also in 1857, a fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the tower and a bell tower with a 1,000-pound fog bell was added. In 1902, the fifth-order lens was replaced by a fourth-order Fresnel lens. The lens remains in service today.
Benjamin Eldridge Burgess, who was raised on Matinicus Island, became keeper in 1867. He was still in charge 37 years later, at the age of 80, when the Boston Globe published an article about him. He had married his second wife in the station's parlor, and had raised seven children. He also brought up three grandchildren after their mother died. Three daughters of Keeper Burgess had died in one four-year period. The article described the "exquisite neatness and order" of the light station and called Burgess "a good man, a good servant of Uncle Sam, and a saver of countless lives."
Under the Coast Guard, Browns Head remained a family station with one keeper. Ernest DeRaps, the Coast Guard keeper in 1961-62, recalled in his book Lighthouse Keeping that the dwelling was so close to the water that storms often sent spray flying against the second floor windows. Getting the children to school was sometimes a challenge. During one snowstorm, DeRaps tied the end of a rope around himself and the other end around the waist of his six-year-old son, Tommy, so he wouldn't be blown away as they walked through two feet of snow to the station truck.
In 1973, Gail Baxter, wife of Coast Guard Keeper John Baxter, gave birth to the couple's fourth child, Stephen, at the lighthouse. Stephen Baxter was reportedly the first (and last) baby born at the lighthouse under Coast Guard control.
Among the last Coast Guard keepers was Charles Lawson, a native of Beaufort, South Carolina, who lived at the lighthouse with his wife, Valerie, and their two sons. Valerie Lawson told the Boston Globe:
In 1987, Brown's Head Light became one of the last lighthouses in Maine to be automated. The bell tower was destroyed by the Coast Guard; the bell is now displayed by the Vinalhaven Historical Society.
Brown's Head Light is the residence of Vinalhaven's town manager. For a number of years, the resident "keeper" was Sue Lessard. Her first big surprise after moving in was the wail of the station's fog horn. "I thought I was being attacked by God knows what," she told the Portland Press-Herald. For one three-week stretch in July 1996, the fog horn sounded nonstop. Lessard later said she barely noticed the sound after a while.
Lessard's contract with the town called for her to maintain the lighthouse property. She mowed the lawn, shoveled the snow and pumped water into the three cisterns. Sometimes in winter she had to use an ax to chop away ice from the deck so she could enter the house. "It's my watch on the light," she said,"and I want to make sure I take good care of it."
Under the Maine Lights Program, established by congressional legislation in 1996, the lighthouse buildings were transferred to the Town of Vinalhaven in 1998, while the light itself is maintained by the Coast Guard.
In early 2001, Sue Lessard left for the mainland to become town manager of Hampden. The present town manager of Vinalhaven still lives at the lighthouse.
Vinalhaven can be reached by the Maine State Ferry from Rockland, and the lighthouse grounds are open to the public. Visitors should, of course, respect the privacy of the occupants.
Keepers: David Wooster (1832-1841); John Calderwood (1841-1843); Howland Dyer (1843-1864); William Thomas (1864-1865); Peleg Thomas (1865-1867); Benjamin Eldridge Burgess (1867-1905); Charles Burgess (1905-1910); Alonzo Morong (c. 1928); Ernest V. Talbot (c. 1935); Merrill Poor (Coast Guard, 1945-1957), Ernest DeRaps (Coast Guard, 1961-1962); John Baxter (August 1972-July 1976), Charles Lawson (Coast Guard, c. 1970s)