The tower was attached to a one-and-one-half-story, wood-frame keeper’s dwelling. An unusual aspect of this lighthouse is that the square tower is round on the inside, with a round spiral stairway. (Thanks to Chip Ross for the heads up on this!) The only other Maine lighthouse that fits this description is Fort Point Light in Stockton Springs.
When Samuel fell ill in early 1874, Melissa tended the light while caring for her husband and children. Samuel Holden died at the end of March 1874. A letter from the local lighthouse superintendent recommended the appointment of Melissa Holden as keeper: “During the sickness of her husband, Mrs. Holden tended this light for about two months to the entire satisfaction of the public. She is strongly recommended as a capable and efficient woman every way competent to take charge of the station. She has five children dependent on her for support, and her husband was the owner of a homestead which is mortgaged for a small amount.”
Melissa Colby Holden won the appointment. A few stories survive about the feisty woman’s lighthouse keeping days. The custom at that time was to keep the place settings on the fully set dining table covered with a cloth between meals, and Melissa also kept a loaded pistol under the cloth. If a stranger landed at the island, she stayed near the table and the concealed weapon. “I never had to use the gun,” she later said, proudly. It was reported, however, that she once emptied a chamber pot on the heads of some unlucky intruders.
During her stay, the fuel for the light was changed from lard oil to kerosene. Melissa Holden remained keeper for only a little more than two years; James A. Morris succeeded her in 1876. After remarriage and four more children, Melissa died in Stonington in 1920 at the age of 76.
A wood-frame fog bell tower was added to the station in October 1884, with its automatic striking machinery sounding a double blow every 15 seconds. One keeper later jokingly claimed that he “had to work twice as hard as any other keeper on the coast of Maine” to produce the double blow. The bell tower was painted red until June 1921, when it was painted white. Other changes included the addition of a boathouse (1877), and an oil house (1895).
For years, mail deliveries to Mark Island were rather complicated. A storekeeper in Rockland would give newspapers and the mail to the captain of some vessel heading east. When the vessel approached Mark Island, the bundle would be tossed into the water. The keeper would swiftly row out to retrieve the package.
John Purington was keeper from 1912 to 1916, when he “swapped” light stations with Allen Carter Holt at Nash Island. Holt’s wife had home-schooled their children on Nash Island, but when they moved to Mark Island the children attended Stonington High School. They boarded in town during the winter, but often traveled back and forth to the island in fall and spring via on the keeper’s motorized dory. The children, Carl and Louise, later recalled passing their time on the island by beachcombing, playing cards, and reading aloud.
This letter written on February 2, 1918, by Keeper Allen Holt, explains that he had extinguished the light because the
shipping channels had been closed due to ice. The ice broke up and he re-established the light on February 8. (National Archives)
Elmer Conary was keeper for several years from the 1920s to 1935. A 1929 article by Harry Buxton called Conary “one of the most efficient keepers in the lighthouse service of the United States.” The article mentioned that Conary and his wife, Gertrude, had great success growing potatoes and canning wild strawberries.
According to the story, the keeper and his wife split the work at the light station “on a fifty-fifty basis, which should furnish food for thought for some of our modern married couples.” Elmer did some of the cooking and housework, and Gertrude frequently helped with painting and odd jobs. She also made rugs and quilts and home- schooled their youngest daughter, Alice. On occasion, when her husband was ill, Gertrude Conary filled in as keeper.
Alvah Robinson, a native of Harrington, Maine, was keeper from 1936 to 1945. The book Anchor to Windward by Edwin Valentine Mitchell described a visit of the vessel Sunbeam to Mark Island, circa 1939. The Sunbeam visited lighthouses and other locations along the coast on behalf of the Maine Seacoast Mission, bringing literature and supplies to people in remote places.
On December 15, 1997, the Maine Lighthouse Selection Committee, formed to oversee the transfer of 35 Maine lighthouses under the Maine Lights Program, announced that Deer Island Thorofare Light would be turned over by the Coast Guard to the Island Heritage Trust.
Dr. Ken Crowell and his wife, Marnie Reed Crowell, have done a great deal to further the preservation of the lighthouse on Mark Island. Dr. Crowell is a professor emeritus of biology at St. Lawrence University in New York; the Crowells first became familiar with Mark Island over 30 years ago when they studied mice populations on the island. Marnie Reed Crowell has written a booklet on the history of Deer Island Thorofare Light.
The Island Heritage Trust held a celebratory dinner on March 14, 1998, and the guest of honor was Ralph Stanley Andrews, Sr., keeper of the lighthouse in the 1940s. About 30 descendants of the lighthouse's keepers attended the event. Memorabilia was displayed and items were auctioned to help pay for the upkeep of the lighthouse.
The Island Heritage Trust plans to maintain the island as a wildlife refuge. Mark Island's birds include bald eagles and nesting eider ducks.
The lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. It can be seen distantly from the mainland and a somewhat better view is available from a sightseeing cruise from Stonington offered by the Isle au Haut Company. Stonington is worth a visit as one of the most unspoiled fishing villages in Maine.
For more information or to donate to the upkeep of Deer Island Thorofare Light, contact:
Special thanks to Marnie Reed Crowell for her assistance with this history.
Thomas Colby Small (1857-1861); Paul Thurlow (1861-1864); Levi Babbidge (1864-1868); Samuel E. Holden (1868-1874); Melissa Colby Holden (1874-1876); James A. Morris (1876-1881); Charles A. Gott (1881-1887); Howard M. Gilley (1887-1896); Will C. Tapley (1896-1905); Charles B. Stanley (1905-?); John Purington (1912-1916); Allen Carter Holt (1916-c. 1920); Henry Smith (?); Stanley Kimball (19??-?); Elmer E. Conary (c. 1929-1935); Joseph Muise (1935-36); Alvah Robinson (1936-1945); Ralph Stanley Andrews, Sr. (Coast Guard, 1945-1948); Irving Hines (Coast Guard, 1948-?); Joe Friend (Coast Guard, 1953-?); James McPherson (Coast Guard, 195?-?); Richard Kwapiszewski (Coast Guard, c. 1953-1958).