Digest>Archives> April 2003

Children of Boon Island

By Katherine Bailey


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Posing for a photograph at the Boon Island ...

The winter storm attacked the island like a crazed beast. Mountainous seas, with twenty-foot waves assaulted the keepers’ houses and the light-tower. Their roar was like a jet engine warming for take-off-deafening! Huge granite boulders were hurled across the island. Gusts of wind slammed against the buildings. A window in the keeper’s house shattered; the jagged edge of a boulder protruded through the opening. Sleet and rain poured in. The keeper’s wife stuffed a rug into the hole. Water seeped in between the granite block walls, and came up under the wide board floor. The corner of the house was knocked off its foundation. The Head Lighthouse Keeper took his people into the tower. The nine-foot thick granite block walls muffled the roar of the storm. The refugees breathed more easily. The tower had withstood many Atlantic assaults. How would you like to have lived there?

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For over one hundred and sixty seven years many people lived on Boon Island, including the children and grandchildren of the Boon lighthouse keepers. The Atlantic Ocean surrounded their play. They slept to the roar of waves beating against the rocky shore. Boon’s bright light flashed off and on through their bedroom windows.

Boon Island resembles the top of a super chunky chocolate chip cookie. Like gigantic blocks of chocolate, granite boulders cover the barren ledge. The island is only the length of two football fields, and at its highest point, just 14 feet above the ocean. Boon got its name before a lighthouse was built there. Local fishermen tied barrels of food to the boulders, so sailors shipwrecked in that isolated place could survive until help came. This was a boon, a much-appreciated blessing. So the island was called Boon Island.

The first warning tower was built there in 1799, after many ships had been lost on the dangerous ledges. Three towers were destroyed in storms. The present 137 ft. tower was built 146 years ago. Its light can be seen 19 miles out to sea.

Because it was such a lonely dangerous post, three lighthouse keepers were stationed there. Most of them stayed without their families during the winter, because of the dangerous storms. Families rejoined the men on Boon in the summer. Even in the summer the weather around Boon was tricky. One Fourth of July they got hail enough to make ice cream. What an island!

Eliphalet Grover Jr. came to Boon Island in 1816, when he was only two. One winter such a bad storm hit the island, the three keepers and their families took refuge in the light tower. The Grover’s house was washed away. Scary or what!

Annie Bell came with her parents to live year around on Boon in 1876. She sent a letter to a children’s magazine called The Nursery. She wrote, “Out to sea, on a rock eight miles from the nearest point of land is Boon Island, upon which I have been a prisoner. The island is made of nothing but rocks, without one foot of ground for trees, shrubs, and grass. The broad Atlantic lies before and all around us.”

Even though Annie was lonely on Boon, she understood how important her Dad’s job was. She continued her letter, “The inhabitants of this island consists of eight persons- just the number that entered the ark at the time of the flood. There were three men, the keepers of the light, whose duties are to watch the light all night to warn sailors of danger.”

Shirley Kelley, a much later resident of Boon, had a different point of view: “My sister and I, my two half-brothers, and my mom had to spend winter months in the small town of York Beach, where the older children attended school. I couldn’t wait for summer to come, so I could go back to the lighthouse - as a kid, it was my idea of Paradise!” She said, “There was always something to do on the island. We made kites and flew them anytime, as there was always a breeze coming off the ocean.”

Mary Luther spent her first twelve summers on the island, visiting her grandparents, Her grandfather, Captain William C. Williams served as Head keeper on Boon for twenty-six years. According to an article Mary wrote in 1910, when she visited her grandparents, she found plenty to do. She did chores, and had sewing lessons with her grandmother. She searched tide-pools for shells and starfish. Every day ended with family worship, and bedtime at 8:00 p.m. She wrote “Most every Sunday when it does not rain we have our dinner out on the rocks. My grandma makes lemonade. Then we take our food and lobster with us. We set down on the rocks and eat our lunch.”

Mary’s grandfather put out a lobster pot for each of his grandchildren. When the lobsters caught in the traps were sold, he put the money in each of their bank accounts! A favorite treat of Captain William’s grandchildren was to climb the 167 steps to the top of the light tower with their grandfather. They got to stay exactly thirty minutes. Picture this: Mary roller-skating on the light station’s wooden walkways, out in the Atlantic!

Eva Philbrick’s father was head keeper on Boon from 1913-1918. For fun, he and the other keepers had ice cream eating contests. Eva said, “Sometimes I played alone on the rocks, and when there were a lot of seals, I’d make believe that was my army. When a whale went by, spouting, I’d make believe that was my submarine.” On Sunday nights they listened to records of evangelist Billy Sunday, singer Enrico Caruso, and others, on a wind-up Victrola. Eva loved it.

Boon Island gave Coleman Smith an early start on being a lobsterman! He was eleven when his dad became head keeper on Boon in 1935. His dad set one hundred lobster pots around the island, and was as much at home on the water as on land. Coleman helped tend them. He used a 15 ft. pod (a rowboat with both ends flat), to do the job. His sister Ruth and brothers helped catch fish to bait the traps. At 76, Mr. Smith is still tending lobster traps.

He told me that in those years, fish were plentiful around Boon. Blue backs and mackerel schooled around the island. Seine boats came there from ports as far away as Portland and Gloucester, Massachusetts. Tub-trollers set lines near Boon for cod and haddock. They’d bait, set 20 lines of 150 hooks each, stay overnight, and go home with their catch the next day.

Coleman said that one of the hardest jobs his dad and the other keepers had to do on foggy days was to listen for boat fog horns. When a ship’s horn blew, the keepers had to ring the light station bell by hand to let the boat know where the island was. Coleman spent three winters attending school in Jonesport while living with his grandparents. During that time, his mother and youngest brothers 2-year-old Charles, and 4-year-old Hoyt, were on Boon when a powerful hurricane struck in 1938. Mr. Smith said his mother was terrified that their house would be destroyed. I expressed to Coleman my wonder at the courage it must have taken to serve on Boon. He said simply, “You do the job you start to do.”

He also told me that only green growing on the island were weeds that grew on the ash pile. They used coal stoves to heat the houses, and threw the ashes out. One of Coleman’s fondest memories of Boon is Edward Rowe Snow, being the flying Santa Claus for the island children. He told me the following names of children who spent the summers of 1935-1939 on Boon: Cecil, Bessy, Francis and Macsine Tracy; Herbert McClure; Hoyt, Charles, Filmore, and Ruth Smith. It must have been a busy place! He said, “Every afternoon at 2 p.m., the Friendship Sloop brought tourists to Boon. They had “touring rights” on Boon.

If you would like to see the island, in the summer a tour boat sails out of Portsmouth. Only the light tower, a red-roofed generator house, and solar panels are left on the island. Seagulls and seals are its only inhabitants. The United States Coast Guard has now licensed Boon Island Lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation which will care for the historic structure in the future.

Research courtesy of William O. Thomson, Virginia Woodwell, and Coleman Smith.

This story appeared in the April 2003 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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