Libby Island is at the
entrance to Machias Bay, scene of the American Revolution's first naval
battle. Libby is actually two islands connected by a sandbar, with a
total area of 120 acres. The island had been farmed since about
A wooden lighthouse may have been erected as early as
1817, but a new tower was built at the south end of Libby Island by the
federal government in 1822, along with a wood-frame keeper's
The first rubblestone tower fell down a few months after
it was built due to shoddy construction; it was quickly rebuilt.
Libby Island Light in the 19th
U.S. Coast Guard photo
In 1842, Stearns, formerly at Owls Head Light, offered a harsh
picture of the light station for I. W. P. Lewis's important report to
Congress on the Lighthouse Establishment:
On my taking possession of this place, I found the
establishment in a ruinous condition. The lantern of the light-house
was very dirty; I scraped off its floor three buckets of broken glass,
clay, &c . . . There were, and still are, fifty panes of glass
broken in the lantern . . . The lantern shakes very much in a gale of
wind . . .
The roof of the tower is a pavement of soapstone, which
leaks at every joint. The tower was built in the autumn of 1823, and in
April following tumbled down. The present tower was immediately after
erected. The mortar used in its erection was so bad, that the tower has
nearly fallen down a second time . . .
The dwelling-house I occupy is built of brick . . . It is
entirely out of repair and in a very uncomfortable state . . .
The tower's original lamps were replaced by a fourth-order
Fresnel lens in 1855. A new lantern and deck were installed in 1876.
|Libby Island is among the foggiest
locations on the Maine coast. A fog bell gave way to a Daboll fog
trumpet housed in a building erected in 1884. Before the addition of
the fog bell, Libby Island had a single keeper.
The bell required an assistant keeper, so the Lighthouse Board
eventually built two new houses for the keepers and their families. In
1918, the fog signal was sounded for a total of 1,906 hours, the most
of any Maine station.
This U.S. Coast Guard photo
shows the lighthouse and fog signal building
Despite the lighthouse and fog signal, the treacherous
waters continued to claim vessels. In December 1878, the schooner Caledonia
ran into the ledges near Libby Island. The captain, a deckhand, and the
steward were killed.
Only two passengers on the vessel survived to be rescued
from the rigging by a volunteer lifesaving crew.
In a September 1892 storm, Captain John Brown of the
Nova Scotia vessel Princeport tried to take shelter in Machias
Bay and ran into the bar connecting the two Libby Islands. The ship
immediately began to break apart as the crew huddled on the bow. The
keepers from Libby Island arrived and rescued the men, who probably
would have been dead minutes later.
Henry M. Cuskley (right) became keeper of Libby Island
Light in 1903. He later described the 1906 wreck of the three-masted
schooner Ella G. Ells to historian Edward Rowe Snow. All hands
on the schooner were lost except the captain, who drifted ashore on the
roof of the ship's cabin.
Hervey Wass became keeper at Libby Island in 1919. His
son Philmore Wass wrote a book about his years on the island called Lighthouse
in My Life. This delightful book provides a detailed record
of life on an offshore lighthouse station. During this period there
were as many as 20 people living at Libby among the families of the
keeper and two assistants.
Right: Keeper Henry
Cuskley, courtesy of Chuck Petlick.
Many different games, including baseball, were played on the
island. One of Phil Wass's favorite games was called "Grass is Poison."
In this game the children had to walk around the perimeter of the
island without touching any grass. This necessitated a climb down a
50-foot cliff near the lighthouse, without the knowledge of the
parents, of course.
Phil Wass's sister, Hazel, was taught to play piano by the
keeper's wife at their previous station, Whitehead Light, and Keeper
Wass bought a piano for Libby Island. Music could often be heard
drifting from the island. Hazel Wass once gathered the children on
Libby Island and put on a musical revue.
In his book, Phil Wass described his feelings of awe regarding
the lighthouse inspector, Royal Luther. Young Phil sometimes confused
the concepts of God and Luther in his young mind; they were both
all-powerful figures to the lighthouse families. Inspector Luther would
arrive unannounced on the Lighthouse Tender Hibiscus, and the
children would tag along as he met with Keeper Wass and toured the
station. The buildings were always in perfect order, with the entire
family pitching in to make the place sparkle. Young Phil's job was to
polish the brass in the keeper's house.
At the age of 14, Phil Wass was assigned the duty of
collecting information for Robert Thayer Sterling, who was writing his
book, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them.
Phil explored the attic and discovered a box of old records, including
accounts of many shipwrecks. Later all these records went to the
Lighthouse Service office in Portland.
The families at Libby Island supplemented their diet by
catching fish and lobster. Cranberries grew in abundance on the island;
blueberries and raspberries were available on nearby islands. The
keepers also kept a cow and chickens for milk and eggs.
Jasper L. Cheney, an assistant
keeper and later head keeper, lived on Libby Island with his family
from 1933 to 1949. He is seen here with his wife Tryphena, son Roland
and daughter Ella in the 1930s. Courtesy of Ella Cheney Robinson and
In 1933, Jasper L. Cheney arrived as an assistant keeper
under Hervey Wass. His daughter Ella remembered in a 2003 interview
that a swimming hole was created by the men, who dynamited some ledges
so that each incoming tide filled the hole with salt water. "The sun
would warm the cold seawater so we could swim in it. It was a place
where young and old all spent lots of hours cooling off and getting
"The men worked very hard on the island," recalled Ella.
"Every building was kept in A-1 shape always. Painting was an endless
job both inside and out. The foghorn and light were gone over every day
to make sure they were in perfect order. It's odd, but when the foghorn
was running at night and stopped because it ran out of fuel, all three
keepers would awaken and be there in a matter of minutes."
A 1939 article by Richard Hallett in Technology
Review described a visit of the lighthouse tender Ilex to
Libby Island soon after a winter storm:
Libby Island showed the mark of the storm. The
wooden breakwater was stove in. The boathouse, high up on this
high-shouldered island, was half a ruin. . . . Even now seas dropped
aboard the west end of the island with a noise like a cartload of
lumber being upset; and when we neared the slips, we saw that one of
them . . . had been booted clean away.
Libby Island's . . . high crags were hung with
massive icicles, and the wagon tracks leading to the light were lumpy
with brine ice. Even the trees were sheathed in ice to the last twig
and looked half winterkilled. Lobster traps were blown all over the
Island Light after a snowstorm
U.S. Coast Guard photo
U.S. Coast Guard photo by
In 1974, the Fresnel lens was removed and the
lighthouse was automated. Most of the buildings except the lighthouse
tower and fog signal building have been destroyed over the years. Under
the Maine Lights Program, the lighthouse was turned over to the U.S.
Fish and Wildlife Service in 1998.
The Coast Guard completed an overhaul of the tower
in the summer of 2000, including the conversion of the light to solar
power. As part of the restoration the tower was returned to its
original unpainted look. The lighthouse can be seen distantly from the
mainland but is best viewed by private boat.
fourth-order Fresnel lens from Libby Island, manufactured by the
Macbeth Glass Company in Pitssburgh, Pennsylvania, is now at the Maine
Lighthouse Museum in Rockland (right).
The solar array at the left now provides power for the light
U.S. Coast Guard photo by Chris Ledwith
- 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.)
- John McKellar (1822-?); Isaac Sterns (1842-1846); Matthew
Kellar (1846-1850 and 1853-1860); John Grant (1850-1853); James W.
Foster (1860-1871); John C. Ames (1871-1877); Charles A. Drisko
(1877-1883); William H. Drisko (1883-1885); A. M. Drisko (1885-1891);
Danford O. French (1891-1895); Fred W.Morong (1895-1898, also 1910);
Bela W. Proctor (first assistant, 1894-?); Roscoe G. Johnson (second
assistant 1894-?, head keeper 1898-1903); Henry M. Cuskley (1903-1912);
Charles A. Kenney (1905-1912); Hervey H. Wass (1919-1940), Justin Foss
(first assistant, 1919-1932); George Woodward (second assistant,
?-1923); Everett Mitchell (second assistant, c. 1920s); Bernard Small
(second assistant, c. 1920s); James McCloud (second assistant, c.
1930s); John Beal (second assistant, c. 1930s); Gleason W. Colbeth
(first assistant, 1932-1945), Jasper L. Cheney (assistant 1933-1940,
principal keeper 1940-1949), Gene Watts (Coast Guard, 1949), Bill Bybee
(Coast Guard, 1949-1950), Robert W. Brooks (Coast Guard Fireman First
Class, c. 1950-1951); Frank Dernoga (Coast Guard, c. 1952-1954); Roger
Lee Drinkwater (Coast Guard, c. 1958), SN George Morrison (Coast Guard,
1963); EN2 Larry Smith (Coast Guard, c. 1963); Harold Allen (Coast
Guard, c. 1965-1966), Richard "Gary" Craig (Coast Guard, 1966-1967);
Donald Costantino (Coast Guard, 1968-1969), Alan (Skip) Skidmore (Coast
Guard, 1969-1972), Jay Novegrod (Coast Guard, c. 1969-1972)