By following a cart-track for a quarter of an
hour one comes to the canal, a stone's throw across, dividing the cape
from the Nubble Rock. On the top of this bare crag the
lighthouse-keeper's dwelling and fog signal stand out bold and sharp
against the blue sky. At the east, a clump of blanched ledges stretches
off... This prospect comprises everything between Cape Ann and Cape
Elizabeth in clear weather, and is every way admirable.
-- Samuel Adams Drake, The Pine Tree Coast,
|The "Nubble" is a small, rocky island a short
distance off the eastern point of Cape Neddick, about two miles north
of the entrance to the York River and York Harbor. In 1602, explorer
Bartholomew Gosnold met with local Indians on the island and dubbed it
A view from
Long Sands Beach in York
The placement of a lighthouse on the Nubble had been
recommended by many local mariners since 1807. An 1837 proposal was
rejected on the grounds that there were already enough lights in the
vicinity. Even after the wreck of the bark Isidore
in 1842, north of the Nubble near Bald Head Cliff, it still took nearly
four more decades before the lighthouse was established. The Isidore,
according to legend, still reappears as a ghost ship with a phantom
appropriated $15,000 for the building of a lighthouse on the Nubble in
1876. The 41-foot cast-iron tower, lined with brick, was first
illuminated on July 1, 1879.
At first, the lighthouse was painted
reddish-brown, showing a fixed red light through a fourth order Fresnel
still exhibits a red light, but the tower has been painted white since
The distinctive red oil house (right) was built in 1902,
and the walkway connecting the lighthouse to the keeper's house was
added in 1911.
The station originally had a fog bell operated by
automatic striking machinery. The skeleton frame bell tower was
replaced in 1911 by a white pyramidal tower, itself torn down in 1961.
For a time, the Nubble's 3,000 pound fog bell
could be heard by the keepers at Boon Island six miles away. The bell
was later replaced by a diaphragm horn.
- U.S. Coast Guard photo
Nathaniel Otterson was the first keeper. His
replacement, Brackett Lewis, formerly assistant keeper of Whaleback
Light, was keeper from 1885 to 1904, the longest stint of any keeper at
the Nubble. While Lewis was keeper, his daughter, Hattie, married
Charles Billings in the lantern room.
The next keeper, William Brooks, previously at
Boon Island and White Island, picked up extra cash by ferrying
sightseers and fishermen to the island for ten cents apiece. This was
not appreciated by Brooks' superiors, and the keeper soon "resigned."
Burke of Portsmouth (right) became keeper in 1912. One of his sons,
Charles Burke, was keeper at Wood Island Light, just up the coast off
Biddeford Pool. James Burke had gone to sea at the age of 14 and
eventually skippered fishing vessels before turning to lighthouse
Like many lighthouse families, the Burkes kept a cow
and chickens on the island. Burke went duck hunting and fishing to
supplement his family’s food supply. Lobsters, crabs, and mussels were
also plentiful near the island.
In a letter to author Clifford
Shattuck, James Burke’s daughter Lucy Glidden Burke Steffen later
recalled other details of life on the Nubble:
all had lots of work to do, as everything had to be immaculate
throughout the house as well as the lighthouse tower. . . . We had lots
of company, weather permitting. Many of my schoolmates used to enjoy
coming over to the Nubble, some just to spend the day, some to spend
the night or possibly to stay for a few days. Sometimes the sea got
rough and they HAD to stay. We had an organ in the living room which I
used to play and we all had such good times singing the old songs. Our
home was a very comfortable six-room house, having a very pleasant
living room, a nice size dining room, a large kitchen with pantry, and
three bedrooms upstairs. But, of course, no bathroom. We had a large
parlor stove which seemed to heat most of the house very well. Even
though a severe storm might be blowing up outside, we were nice and
Keeper James Burke
Courtesy of William O. Thomson
low tide, it was sometimes possible to walk between the Nubble and the
mainland. Lucy recalled being carried piggyback by her father, who
would wear hip boots for the occasion, across the bar. She also
recalled the large numbers of birds that would fly into the tower at
night; the family sometimes had to rake up hundreds of them that lay
dead on the ground in the morning.
James Burke’s second wife died
during his stay at the Nubble, and the government provided a lighthouse
tender to transport the family to Boothbay Harbor for the funeral.
During World War I, the Burkes were joined on the Nubble by military
personnel who kept watch for enemy submarines. The light was dimmed on
some nights and extinguished on others with, the intention of being to
confusing confuse “possible submersibles.”
After he retired in
1919, Burke opened a small fish and bait shop at York Beach. William
Richardson, the next keeper, stayed until 1921. During his relatively
brief stay, Richardson’s son died of croup. Richardson was discharged
for ferrying passengers to the Nubble for a fee.
Keeper Fairfield Moore
Courtesy of WIlliam O. Thomson
Moore (left), previously at Rockland Breakwater Light, was keeper from
1921 to 1928. The first birth of a child at the Nubble occurred on
August 23, 1923, when Moore’s daughter, Phyllis Moore Searles,
delivered a baby girl.
In July 1926, it was reported that the
fog bell tower was moved about four feet from its foundation by a
powerful storm, leaving it on the brink of a precipice. Moore didn’t
dare sound the bell because he feared that the vibration could plunge
the bell and tower into the sea. Repairs were soon completed.
March 20, 1927, the keeper’s daughter Eva Moore Kimball went into labor
during a severe snowstorm. Keeper Moore rowed across the channel and
picked up a local doctor. The two men returned to the Nubble just in
time for the last seconds of the birth of Eva’s daughter, Barbara.
Barbara Kimball (Finnemore) lived at the lighthouse
until she was six. Her favorite memory was accompanying her grandfather
to the top of the tower to light the lamp.
Moore returned to Rockland Breakwater Light in 1928 and was succeeded
at the Nubble by Edmund Howe, who was had previously been at Great Duck
Island Light. During his tenure, Howe married his housekeeper, Emily
Williams, in the living room of the keeper’s house.
Burke and his family had left their cat behind because he had
come so attached to the Nubble, and the big tabby weighed 19 pounds by
the time Eugene Coleman (right) arrived as keeper in 1930. Sambo
Tonkus, also known as Mr. T, became well known to locals and tourists
alike for his mousing and swimming prowess. Three or four times a day,
he would swim to the mainland to hunt rodents hiding among the rocks.
the Colemans’ stay, the first indoor toilet was installed, and electricity
came to the Nubble in 1938. During World War II, the light
was extinguished and a lookout tower was built on the island. A
contingent of Coast Guardsmen kept a 24-hour eye out for German
U-boats. (This was before hidden
cameras could be employed for the job.)
A U-boat sighted in 1943 just to the east of the Nubble was
subsequently sunk by a depth charge southwest of Boon Island.
The historian Edward Rowe Snow, in his book Famous New England Lighthouses
wrote that on one occasion, Eugene Coleman was rowing across the
channel near the Nubble with his wife, a friend, and a load of
groceries, when the boat capsized. “The dory went over and the keeper
had a busy five minutes, trying to rescue his wife, his friend, and the
groceries,” wrote Snow, “but all ended happily except for minor
injuries to the groceries.”
The lighthouse has
a long history as a tourist destination. In 1930, Coleman
recorded over 1,000 visitors in his guest register, including guests
from 11 nations and 32 states. The Colemans moved on to Nauset
Light on Cape Cod in 1943, and thereafter Coast Guard keepers staffed
the Nubble. It remained a family station.
Eugene Coleman and Sambo Tonkus
Courtesy of WIlliam O.
Winchester riding in the bucket in 1967.
The Coast Guard keeper from 1948 to 1951, Wilbur
Brewster, had a
parrot whose home was a cage in the living room. According to the
lighthouse historian William O. Thomson, the parrot enjoyed carrying on
conversations with visitors. Its favorite phrase was, “I’ll have a cup
The usual way of getting to and from the Nubble
was by boat. For a time, the keepers used a bucket suspended on a line
across the channel to transport supplies. This system, installed in the
1950s, was never
intended for the transport of people.
Around 1967, Coast Guard keeper David Winchester
put his two children in the bucket each morning to send them on their
way to school.
A photographer snapped a picture of seven-year-old
Ricky Winchester in the bucket, and the photo appeared widely in
newspapers. A woman also painted a scene of the boy in the bucket, and
it won the York Harbor Art Show.
The district commander saw the photo in a Boston
paper. An arrangement was made for the child to board on the mainland
during the week. Soon after that, it became policy that families with
school-age children were not sent to the Nubble.
The lantern room in Cape Neddick Light is one of the
most complete in an active Maine lighthouse. Nearly all the original
brass fittings remain. One of the few changes is that red plastic now
encases the light, replacing the original glass used to produce the
light's characteristic red light.
present lens was manufactured in 1891 by F. Barbier in Paris
The fourth-order Fresnel lens is not the
original one, but is an 1891 lens moved from another station in 1928.
The original lens had been damaged in an explosion.
The great blizzard of February 6-7, 1978,
washed out the Nubble's boathouse, which was replaced by the present
The Nubble Light has probably appeared on more
postcards, calendars, and other souvenirs than any other New England
lighthouse, with the possible exception of Portland Head Light. In
1977, when NASA sent Voyager II into space to photograph the outer
solar system, it was also loaded with artifacts designed to teach
possible extraterrestrial civilizations about our planet. One of the
images it carried was a picture of the Nubble Light.
on the gallery railing are miniature lighthouses.
|The light was automated in 1987 and the last
Coast Guard keeper, Russell Ahlgren, was removed. Brenda Ahlgren
wrote down her thoughts about leaving the island:
our last night on the island we went for one last walk. We sat back on
the rocks with Christopher between us and just watched the glow from
that beautiful tall white tower and listened to the familiar drone of
the horn we had come to enjoy. We felt that in its own special way the
light was saying goodbye to family life on the island. As we sat there
thinking back over our special adventure there was no way to hold back
A crowd of more than
300 spectators witnessed the automation ceremonies on July 13 in dense
fog. The station was leased to the town of York in 1989.
Russell and Brenda
Ahlgren with their son, Chris, circa 1987.
Courtesy of William O. Thomson.
When the town took over, more than 300
unsolicited applications were received from people wanting to be
live-in caretakers. The keeper's house remains unoccupied because of
water and sewer issues.
In 1989, the town received a grant from the
Maine Historic Preservation Committee for restoration work on the
keeper's house. Two second story windows were removed and replaced by a
larger window resembling the one originally installed.
In November 1997, the people of York voted
overwhelmingly to allow the town's selectmen to "adopt" the lighthouse.
Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute, the
lighthouse officially became the property of the town in 1998.
welcome center at
||Parks and Recreation Director Mike Sullivan
once said, "The park is absolutely jam packed every day. Part of the
allure of Nubble Light is its mystical nature. You can't quite get
there. You can almost reach it but you can't get there." Because
it's easily reached by a drive
of just a few minutes from popular York Beach, Sohier Park across from
the Nubble is today visited by hundreds of thousands of people annually.
Sohier Park, incidentally, is named for William Davis Sohier,
a lawyer from Boston who gave the land to the town of
York in 1929. His father had bought the land for the fine duck hunting.
One of the most popular events of the year on the
southern Maine coast is the annual Lighting of the Nubble, when the
lighthouse and other buildings are illuminated with Christmas lights.
The late November event is accompanied by holiday music and never fails
to draw a large crowd.
One of the Nubble's tireless volunteers, Verna
Rundlett, originated a "Christmas in July" event, giving summer
visitors a chance to view the station decorated just as it is at
Christmastime. She also supervised the building of a welcome center at
Sohier Park. The building, open seasonally, houses a gift shop and
In 2001, the Sohier Park Committee installed a
$7,000 fire alarm system at Sohier Park and spent $14,000 for a
120-foot ramp and dock on the Nubble.
The foundation of the lighthouse was also painted
and regrouted, and the walkway to the lighthouse was replaced.
Much more work has teken place in recent years, both on the Nubble and
at Sohier Park. The lighthouse tower and keeper's house were repainted
in the summer of
2010 (right and below). The painter in charge of the work was Gordon
Lindquist (seen below).
Besides being easily viewed from Sohier Park, Cape
Neddick Light can be seen from an excursion boat
leaving Perkins Cove in Ogunquit, and from
occasional lighthouse cruises leaving Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
above, the band Nickel
Creek shot a music video at the Nubble Light in
For more information, or to help with the
preservation of the Cape Neddick "Nubble" Light, contact:
of Nubble Light
186 York Street
York, ME 03909
- Keepers: (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 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.)
- Leander White (1879 - was reassigned before lighthouse was
established); Simon Leighton (1879 - resigned due to illness);
Nathaniel Otterson (1879-1885); Brackett Lewis (1885-1904); William M.
Brooks (1904-1912); James Burke (1912-1919); William Richardson
(1919-1921); Fairfield Moore (1921-1928); Edmund Howe (1928-1930);
Truman J. Lathrop (1930); Eugene Coleman (1930-1943) ; Oscar M. "Tiny"
Sparrow (Coast Guard, 1940s); Wilbur Brewster (Coast Guard, 1948-1951);
Irving T. Sparrow (Coast Guard, 1951-?); Bruce Reed (Coast Guard, c.
late 1950s); Boyd L. Davis (Coast Guard, c. 1950s); John Johnson (Coast
Guard, c, 1961); Leo R. Midgett (Coast Guard, c. 1964); Allan E. Wilson
(Coast Guard, c. 1960s); Alfred Paul Chadwick (Coast Guard, c. 1967);
David K. Winchester (Coast Guard); Arnold P. Chadwick (Coast Guard);
Lindsay C. Rome (Coast Guard); Daniel J. Fries (Coast Guard); Michael
Carbino (Coast Guard); Michael Hackett (Coast Guard, 1973-1975);
Richard Harrison (Coast Guard, 1975-1977); Ronald O'Brien (Coast Guard,
1977-1979); John Terry (Coast Guard, c. 1984); Robert French (Coast
Guard, 1984-1986); Russell Ahlgren (Coast Guard, ?-1987)