52 Slices
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Minot’s Ledge Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Minot’s Ledge Light, off the southeastern chop of Boston Bay, is one of the world’s most famous lighthouses and one of the great engineering feats in marine construction. But the light that stands there today is not the one that stood there in 1847, built by Captain W. H. Swift. That was destroyed in a terrible storm in 1851, only three years after it had been built with awful hardships. Here, briefly, is the story.

Minot’s Rocks, also called Cohasset Ledges, have been the terror of seamen and the cause of countless wrecks. In nine years, forty vessels were wrecked on Minot’s Rocks and from six of these wrecks, there were no survivors. These devilish ledges are exposed only at three-quarters ebb tide. So sailing vessels bound with the wind heavy at the northeast were liable to be driven east of Boston Light, and too often were driven upon the submerged Minot’s Rocks.

Captain Swift began the hard job of building a lighthouse there in 1847. He had to erect his beacon on a small granite rock in open sea, only about three feet above the water; at dead low tide, the exposed surface was no more than twenty-five square feet; the rest of the time the ledge was submerged.

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Petit Manan Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Petit Manan is shortened in speech to “Titmanan,” and sometimes Anglo-Saxonized and abbreviated further to “Titman.” Petit Manan Light is beautiful and graceful, and the tallest lighthouse in Maine after Boon Island. From high-water mark to the top of the lantern is 123 feet. (Boon Island Light is 137 feet high.)

The light, authorized by President James Monroe, was first built in 1817. There is little available information about the light and its keepers in its earliest years; but by the time it was fourteen, it was in real trouble.

The auditor of the Treasury in charge of lighthouses was Stephen Pleasonton, and in 1831 he wrote an upbraiding letter to John Chandler, superintendent of lights for Maine:

Petit Manan … is stated to be in “Very Bad Condition” indeed—built of worse materials than Desert Light—the lantern is in good working order, but otherwise the place is positively dirty; dwelling house much out of repair and leaking badly; the keeper has gone off, being tired of his state of independence and left his wife in charge of the whole concern …You will cause the necessary repairs to be made: and if the keeper has actually left the establishment to his wife, another appointment will be recommended.”

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Portland Lightships

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Once there were 122 lightships in the United States. Today there are none. The era of stalwart lightships is gone forever. Yet the memory, the nostalgia, and the love of lightships live on.

Lightships live in the long memories of old immigrants heading from Europe to a new life in the New World. The first foretaste of their new world was the lightship that signaled they were at long last coming to their American harbor. Lightships live in the memories of mariners, to whom these special marks signaled the safe end of a long voyage. And lightships live in the memories—not always fond ones—of the men who served aboard these bouncing tethered sentinels of our coast.

Portland had a series of four lightships for seventy-two years, from 1903 until 1975, when the last Portland lightship was replaced by an automated, crewless, large navigational buoy.

Portland’s first lightship came on station March 7, 1903, anchored in seabed selected by divers six miles east-southeast of Cape Elizabeth. This lightship, Number 74 in the annals of the Lighthouse Service, was three years late in reporting for duty. This delay was due, first, to delays in the shipyard that built her, the Parkersburg Iron Works in Virginia, and second, because no sooner had she been launched than she went hard aground in the James River.

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Avery Rock Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

On the chart, Avery Rock Light sits at the south entrance to Machias Bay. Clearly it is little, but it doesn’t look frightening. But frightening it was to Connie Small, who as a twenty-two-year-old bride came to live here in 1922 with her lightkeeper husband, Elson Small.

I met Connie Small when she was eighty-three, chipper, pretty, and looking sixty-three, in the living room of her garden apartment in Kittery. From the day she married at age twenty, Connie Small lived and raised her family on lighthouse stations. Yet details of life on Avery Rock sprung vividly to her mind even sixty years after she moved there. “Avery Rock,” she said, “is one of the roughest light stations in the nation, though on the chart it may not look it.”

The light stands on a quarter-acre of barren rock, battered by some of the worst seas and gales in the North Atlantic. Because the ledge called Avery Rock is so small, the light and the lightkeeper’s house were both under the same roof. The light tower simply jutted up out of the roof of the keeper’s house like a big finger pointed to heaven.

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Ram Island Ledge Light

Caldwell, Bill Down East Books ePub

Open the chart of Casco Bay, and you can count about a hundred aids to navigation. When I first came into Casco Bay from Down East on Steer Clear, the number of buoys and lights made the approaches to Portland look the way Times Square looks to a visitor from a small town in Kansas: scary.

These traffic signals of the sea are danger warnings. Accidents had taken their toll too often before these warning signals were in place. Every light along the coast of Maine was paid for dearly and in advance by the wrecks of ships and the drowning of sailors before that light was built.

Take Ram Island Ledge Light, for example. To incoming boats, this light is a checkpoint, a routine mark coming into Portland Harbor from the east. But it hasn’t been there long by lighthouse standards. It was built in 1905, when Teddy Roosevelt was president, and is one of the last lighthouses built on the Maine coast.

The light is made from Maine granite and towers seventy-seven feet above the ledge. Its beam is visible seventeen miles away. The dangers it signals are the death-trap ledges that stretch out from Ram Island. At high water, these ledges are covered and invisible; without a light on the ledge, many a mariner had been tempted to pass too close to Ram Island, for it looked as though the water there was deep and safe. Many ships and men perished before the light was built.

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