Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, January 11, 2018
Lighthouse is part of a century of Isle au Haut history
Restoration project to begin this year
by Anne Berleant
An iconic image of the Maine coast, lighthouses once warned ships of rocky shorelines and helped with navigation. Now they attract tourists and local residents as symbols of a town’s history. But as they age, lighthouses require costly repairs and, overseen by the State Office of Historical Preservation, restorations must adhere to strict architectural standards.
The Isle au Haut Lighthouse at Robinson Point stands as a 40-foot-tall case in point. But, given its architecture and historical significance, who would want to see the 110-year-old lighthouse slowly fall back into disrepair?
Not Jeff Burke, who chairs the Isle au Haut Lighthouse Committee and published The Lighthouse & Me, History, Memoir, & Imagination in 2017, with proceeds earmarked for the restoration project. Together with a $15,000 matching grant from seasonal residents, the Friends of Isle au Haut Lighthouse raised over $50,000 in the last two months, for a total $140,000 towards the restoration project.
Built of brick on a granite base, with a wooden walkway leading to its entrance, the lighthouse saw its first keeper, Frank Holbrook, move in on Christmas Eve 1907 from the Matinicus Lighthouse.
“When the sun dipped low across the bay and crept behind the Camden Hills, the first keeper at the new lighthouse lifted his 11-year-old daughter, Esther, high enough so she could light the wick,” Burke writes in The Lighthouse & Me.
Burke visited Esther 81 years later in 1998 at a Rockland senior citizen residence center where a framed photo of the lighthouse hung on one of her apartment’s walls.
“Thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” she told Burke of her arrival on Isle au Haut after living her first decade on Matinicus Rock.
She married into the Robinson family, after watching her future husband, William Robinson, build the walkways at the lighthouse station. Future owners and dwellers of the station would be Robinson descendants, including swordfish boat captain and novelist Linda Greenlaw.
But first, in 1922, Harry Smith and his family took over the station, moving to Isle au Haut from the Rockland Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse for the difficult years of Prohibition, when bootleggers ran rum and whiskey by land and sea.
“As the outermost ring of defense, it was the thousands of islands and small coastal harbors that were expected to repel the assault of armadas of whiskey-laden vessels,” Burke writes.
Smith stayed until 1933. In 1934 the lighthouse became automated and a keeper was no longer needed.
Changing of the lighthouse guard
In urging the lighthouse be built, a 1906 Congressional Record stated:
“Isle au Haut Harbor is the best harbor convenient to these fishing grounds, and is so convenient in distance and has such good holding ground and is so well sheltered…A light-station with a fog-bell, struck by machinery, would guide fishermen into this harbor when they could not find it without such aid.”
In 1910, the nation’s 1,200 lighthouses, previously run buy the U.S. Lighthouse Board that “functioned with tight discipline regarding their mission, like generals supervising a battlefield,” Burke writes, moved under the regulation of the new, and more progressive, United States Lighthouse Service.
But, in 1934, with the nation in the midst of the Great Depression, the Service closed the Isle au Haut Lighthouse. By then, the light was run by acetylene lamps instead of a smoky kerosene lantern, and the fog bell was removed, and had disappeared.
In 1939, with hostilities growing in Europe, the U.S. Coastguard assumed responsibility for all lighthouses and maintained control of the Isle au Haut Lighthouse for nearly 50 years.
During that time, the gas lamps at the island’s lighthouse were replaced by a battery-powered light “not unlike a 50-foot flashlight,” Burke writes. But with the keeper’s house empty, there was no one to keep watch, and sometimes “the lighthouse stood unlit, a dead-black silhouette against a starry sky.”
When the Burke’s bought the lighthouse station in 1986 to convert to an inn, the lighthouse, still government-owned, was blocked off by a chain-link fence.
“I became obsessed with the ragged tower looming in my front yard,” Burke writes.
In 1996, the Maine Lights Bill was passed, sponsored by then-Senator Olympia Snowe, with the towers to be deeded to organizations chosen by a committee. Burke thought the Town of Isle au Haut should apply for ownership of its tower.
But not everyone on the island agreed. “This seemingly innocent campaign led to a two-year island civil war, an earthquake of ugliness that pitted neighbor against neighbor,” Burke writes.
“The Lighthouse war” had nothing to do with the lighthouse, Burke writes. “Still, there was no doubt everyone wanted to save the Lighthouse, in one form or another.”
On September 9, 1998, Isle au Haut citizens voted at a special town meeting to accept the title to the light house.
The following summer, in 1999, the Isle au Lighthouse was restored by professionals, paid for by voluntary donations to the town’s Lighthouse Fund.
Nineteen years later, the town still supports its lighthouse, as shown by the outpouring of funds for the latest restoration. Bid packages for the first phase are being prepared now, and recent fundraising was so successful that more work can be done than originally planned, Burke said. The final phase, estimated to cost $100,000, will require more fundraising.
To restore the lighthouse in a manner true to its 1907 origins means re-hanging a fog bell, correcting major structural issues, replacing rusted interior steel support girders, masonry work at the base, restoring deteriorating brick work, repairing the lantern room, and strengthening the bridge to the tower.
The Burke’s sold the Keeper’s House Inn in 2013 to Marshall Chapman, who today serves alongside Burke on the lighthouse committee.
The lighthouse, Burke writes, has changed his life. “I am a man who always wanted to make a difference. … The lighthouse, which shines for so many, will always be my beacon.”