Digest>Archives> December 2001

Keeper’s Miserable Life at Saddleback Ledge Light

By Jeremy D'Entremont

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An early photo of Saddleback Ledge Light, Maine ...

Writer C. L. Knight once described Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, one of the most remote and barren of all Maine lighthouse locations:

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Saddleback Back Ledge Light in the 19th century ...

“Saddleback pokes its way up though the water quite precipitously for 25 to 30 feet — a rock shaped something like its name and just large enough for the station it supports. Against it the sea rages on all sides.”

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Saddleback Ledge Light from a photograph taken by ...

Saddleback Ledge is between Vinalhaven and Isle au Haut at the southern end of Isle au Haut Bay, at the southern entrance to the East Penobscot Bay. Designed by noted architect and engineer Alexander Parris (1780-1852), it was an expensive lighthouse for its time at $15,000.

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In 1885, a derrick with a swinging arm was added ...

The high expense of the tower appears to have been justified. Engineer I. W. P. Lewis, highly critical of many lighthouses in his 1842 survey, called Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse the “most economical and durable structure that came under my observation.”

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This daguerreotype shows young Smith Hopkins, son ...

In the early days, the four-room keeper’s quarters were inside the tower. Incredibly, the tower was home for many years not only to the keepers themselves but their families as well.

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Saddleback Ledge Light in the winter of 1949-50.
Photo by: Roger B. Williams

The first keeper of the light was Watson Y. Hopkins (1800-1885). He painted a dismal picture of the living conditions at the lighthouse in I. W. P. Lewis’ report:

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This photograph of a painting of Saddleback ...

“I was appointed keeper of this light, December, 1839, upon a salary of $450. I live with my family in the tower, which is the only building on the ledge. The tower is in good repair, excepting a leak in the deck on the east side, and the want of any ventilator to the kitchen smoke pipe. I am obliged to bring my water from shore, a distance of seven miles. There are two tanks, made of pinewood, placed in the cellar, one of which is tight and the other leaky. The lantern leaks on the east side, and sweats badly when shut close. We are badly off for room to stow wood and provisions. I have been allowed a boat, but she is entirely unfit for this place, being nothing more than a small dory. I am obliged to pay freight on my supplies, on account of not having a suitable sailboat to bring them with myself. My family consists of nine persons. There is a living room and two chambers in the tower, besides a cellar. The copper spout carried round the tower to catch rainwater has been so injured by the surf, that it is no longer of any use. The iron railing, which was secured to the rock around the tower, has been all swept away; also, the privy, which was carried away the first storm after its erection. The windows all leak in storms, the shutters having no rebates in the stonework. The fastenings of all the shutters are iron, and have corroded away.”

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Saddleback Ledge Light, Maine as it appears ...

In 1842, Keeper Hopkins was living in the lighthouse with his pregnant wife, Abigail, and seven children: 19-year-old John, 17-year-old Martha, 14-year-old Winslow, 11-year-old Smith, eight-year-old Henry, five-year-old Sally, and two-year-old Maria.

In September 1843, Abigail Hopkins gave birth to a baby girl at the station. A week later a boat came to Saddleback to take the mother and daughter to the mainland. During the transfer to the boat, the baby was dropped briefly into the icy waves. She was quickly plucked out of the water before any serious harm was done. The girl, Margaret Roberts Hopkins later married William Kitteridge, a Civil War veteran. She lived to the ripe old age of 86.

An attached wooden building was eventually added at Saddleback Ledge. The lower floor of the building was a boathouse, and two rooms for keepers were located on the second floor. The new dwelling hardly represented the height of luxury, but it must have been a palace compared to what Keeper Hopkins and his family endured. The wooden keeper’s dwelling was blown up as a Green Beret assault exercise sometime around 1960. The sturdy tower remains, apparently impervious to the elements.

When Keeper Watson Y. Hopkins left the Lighthouse Service, he bought land and built a home on Arey’s Neck in Vinalhaven, within sight of Saddleback Ledge. A painting of Keeper Hopkins hung for years in a home in Vinalhaven, and a photograph of the painting was taken in 1969. What happened to the painting after that is unknown. A descendant of Keeper Hopkins, Margo Burns, is trying to locate the original painting and would appreciate any information concerning its whereabouts. You can email Ms. Burns at margo@ogram.org.

This story appeared in the December 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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