Monday, December 31, 2012

The Best of 2012: The Keeper of Stories: The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter

The Keeper of Stories
The Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter
By Doug Mills
“There is neither tree nor shrub and hardly a blade of grass on The Rock. The surface is rough and irregular and resembles a confused pile of loose stone. Portions of The Rock are frequently swept over by the waves which move the huge boulders into new positions.” The Lighthouse Board’s 1891 Annual Report.

    Located nearly 18 miles out to sea, Matinicus Rock may well be the most inhospitable place on the coast of Maine. The Matinicus Rock light station was established in 1827. By 1831 its first keeper was too ill to continue and soon died. The second keeper also died after only a short time on The Rock. During a winter storm in 1842 Keeper Abbott and his family needed to seek shelter in the attic of the keepers house as waves swept over the island and through the first floor of the house.

    In 1853 Samuel Burgess became keeper at “The Rock”. He brought with him his handicapped wife and several of their ten children including 14 year old Abbie. Abbie soon learned the duties of the lightstation.
    One January morning in 1856 burgess had to sail to Rockland, some 25 miles away, for much needed supplies. He left Abbie to care for her mother and younger sisters as well as keeping the light. Burgess had no way of knowing a monster storm was bearing down on the Gulf of Maine. By afternoon the sky had turned black and the wind began to blow. The storm continued to strengthen through the long night. The morning came with a howling gale and the waves crashing over the entire island. Another sleepless night only to find, the next morning, the waves threatening to wash the keepers house into the crashing sea. Abbie moved her mother and sisters into the north lighthouse tower, then waded through knee deep water to save the chickens. A short time after she arrived back in the safety of the north tower a giant wave crashed over the island completely destroying the old keepers house!
    Day after day going about her duties as the winds howled and the waves crashed over the island. Watching for her fathers small boat returning from the mainland. Hours turn into days, days turn into weeks, weeks turn into nearly a month and still no sign of that sail on the horizon, no sign of her fathers return.
Abbie later wrote of those days, “As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the light towers. If they stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not I had no misgivings, and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. During this time we were without the assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.”
After four long weeks of fearing the worst, Burgess was able to make it back to “The Rock”.   The sea had finally calmed down enough for him to land on the rocky island. Imagine his joy to find his family well and that the lights had never once gone out!

Once again in 1857 while burgess was in Rockland for supplies, foul winter weather kept him from returning for three weeks.

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