During a 1946 walk along the length of Cape Cod that led to the publication of his book A Pilgrim Returns to Cape Cod (newly republished by Commonwealth Editions), historian Edward Rowe Snow interviewed George T. Gustavus, newly retired keeper of Chatham Light Station at the cape’s “elbow.” The 36-year lightkeeping career of “Keeper Gus” had been interrupted by an unthinkable tragedy in New England’s worst storm.
A native of Vinland, Wisconsin, Gustavus joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 18 in 1903. He spent four years on the battleship Iowa, and it was while the vessel was anchored off Rockport, Massachusetts, that he met his wife-to-be, Mabel Norwood. They were married in 1907, and their first child was born the following year. On April 1, 1910, Gustavus entered the Lighthouse Service, and their second child, Helen, was born in Rockport four days later. His first assignment was Tarpaulin Cove Lighthouse on Naushon Island.
The Gustavus family moved often in the Lighthouse Service, spending time at Gloucester’s Eastern Point Light and Thacher Island off Cape Ann, then Cuttyhunk Island at the far western end of the Elizabeth Islands. George and Mabel’s granddaughter Joan Kenworthy (daughter of Helen) says that her mother’s fondest memories were of living on Cuttyhunk in the 1920s, where she and her school-age siblings attended a one-room schoolhouse.
Joan Kenworthy also remembers her mother telling her of the August 1924 wreck of the Wanderer, the last whaling vessel out of New Bedford. The bark was blown into Sow and Pigs Reef near Cuttyhunk in a storm, and Joan’s mother recalled “Keeper Gus” and residents of the island rescuing the crewmen and providing food and shelter.
Another story passed down from the family’s Cuttyhunk years concerns a cow bought by Keeper Gustavus for $100. On a sweltering summer afternoon as thunderstorms were brewing, the keeper set out to bring the animal to shelter. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck and killed the cow and knocked the keeper to the ground. The family had owned the cow for only a week.
Ten children had been born to Mabel and George Gustavus by the time they left Cuttyhunk. Stints at Bird Island (seven years) and Dumpling Rock, both in southeastern Massachusetts, were followed by a transfer to Prudence Island in Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. It was there that the forces of nature would deal the family a terrible blow.
The ferocious winds and waves of the worst hurricane in the recorded history of New England pounded the Prudence Island (known to locals as Sandy Point) Light Station on September 21, 1938. As the storm increased in intensity, a neighboring summer couple named Lynch rushed into the keeper’s dwelling near the lighthouse. A 71-year-old former keeper and neighbor named Martin Thompson also took shelter in the house, telling everyone that he had lived there for 25 years and was sure it could withstand any storm. Also there at the time were Keeper Gustavus, his wife and their youngest son, Edward. They trusted in the judgment of the former keeper and hoped to ride out the storm.
But as George Gustavus told Edward Rowe Snow, those in the dwelling were “caught like rats in a trap” as record-high seas and winds assaulted the area. Down at the entrance to the Narragansett Bay, the cast-iron Whale Rock Lighthouse was completely demolished and Assistant Keeper Walter Eberle was never seen again. In all, nearly 400 people in Rhode Island would die as a result of the hurricane.
“We all rushed upstairs,” Gustavus described to Snow, “when the house broke up we were all thrown into the rushing waters.” Gustavus remembered nothing more until he awoke in a cottage a half-mile from where the lighthouse dwelling had once stood. He was told that he had been swept back near the shore by a wave. A 16-year-old islander named George “Brother” Taber rescued the keeper by extending a piece of wood that Gustavus grabbed with “a death grip.”
As soon as he was able, George Gustavus got the light in the lighthouse going by extending a wire from a nearby facility. Neighbors told him his wife and son were safe. “I knew better,” he told Snow. “They told me the next day how things really stood.” When the Coast Guard cutter Tahoe arrived at Prudence Island after the storm, an officer called to someone on shore, “Where are the dead?” The person replied, “All washed to sea.” It was reported that some island residents had seen those who had been in the keeper’s house clinging to the wreckage as it was swept into the bay.
The body of Mabel Gustavus was found a few days later on a beach near Newport. Their son Edward was never found. The bodies of Martin Thompson and Mr. and Mrs. Lynch were found on the island about a week later.
Ever since they had first entered the Lighthouse Service around the same time, George Gustavus and another keeper named Arthur Small had been good friends. Small even served under Gustavus for a time as an assistant at Thacher Island off Rockport. It was a cruel coincidence that Arthur Small also lost his wife in the Hurricane of 1938. She drowned at New Bedford’s Palmer’s Island while trying to launch a dory to aid her husband, who had been injured while attempting to reach the lighthouse. Small’s wife was also named Mabel.
George Gustavus resumed his lighthouse keeping career at Nobska Light on Cape Cod in 1939. He joined the Coast Guard in 1943 and finished his career at Chatham Light, retiring as a Chief Boatswain’s Mate in October 1945. He told Snow in 1946, “ I guess the world does not owe me much; have to make the best from now on. I was married again in 1943. My wife Edith is my good companion to look after things. The children are all in other parts, I’m grand-daddy quite a number of times.”
This story appeared in the
June 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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