In 1922 Keeper Arthur A. Small, a native of Brockton, Massachusetts, became keeper at Palmer’s Island Lighthouse in New Bedford, moving there with his wife Mabel and two sons from Boston Harbor’s Narrows (“Bug”) Light. Known to many as Captain Small, he was a well-traveled seaman who had first gone to sea on a Maine fishing schooner at the age of 14 and had traveled around the world in 1907-09 in President Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet of battleships. Arthur Small was one of three brothers who served as lighthouse keepers — Tom and Judson were the others. The Small brothers were intimately acquainted with the dangers of life at sea. Arthur had once saved his brother Tom from drowning after his sailboat had capsized near Bug Light, and Tom was the keeper at Bug Light when it burned down in 1929.
Arthur Small was also a gifted artist of sailing ships and harbor scenes, praised for his attention to detail. According to Mary Jean Blasdale’s book Artists of New Bedford, Small started painting on scraps of sail as a hobby during his years at sea, and he later took classes to sharpen his skills. Historian Edward Rowe Snow wrote in Lighthouses of New England that Arthur Small was “probably the greatest painter who was ever in the lighthouse service... and he is known throughout New England as the artist-lighthouse keeper.”
Small was a member of the Mariners’ Club, which met for conversation and chowder at the Peirce and Kilburn Shipyard in Fairhaven just across the Acushnet River from New Bedford. A number of Small’s paintings were displayed in the area where the club met. Helen Paradis of New Bedford says that prior to 1938 her late aunt, Helen Cyr, along with her cousin Olive, would often visit the shipyard. Olive’s father worked at the shipyard and was well acquainted with Arthur Small.
Eventually the two young women were invited for a rowboat ride to Palmer’s Island. Helen Cyr was a budding artist, and she received tutoring and encouragement from the lighthouse keeper. He also presented her with a small pastel painting of a sailboat. “She treasured that picture always,” says Helen Paradis, who now owns the painting. “Auntie always said rowing over to the island was a thrill,” she recalls. “He told her she had great talent and to never ignore it. She didn’t. And she painted all her life. I believe his painting was as great a passion to him as his love of the ocean and his job as a lightkeeper.”
Edward Rowe Snow quoted Arthur Small’s description of the importance of Palmer’s Island Light to the commerce of New Bedford Harbor, saying that without the proper functioning of the light and fog bell, “all the city would be seriously crippled.”
But Keeper Small downplayed the so-called heroism of keepers. “Whenever they say anything about a lighthouse keeper,” he once said, “they always act as if he were some kind of hero. We’re not heroes. Here I am on this island, perfectly safe, working and painting pictures, while you wander around in New Bedford, crossing streets with automobiles and trolley cars whizzing by, just missing you by a few feet. Why, you people take more chances in a week than I do in ten years.” But he would go on to disprove his own words.
On September 20, 1938, Mabel Small took part in one of her regular activities, a sewing circle in Fairhaven. One of the other women there saw Mrs. Small looking anxiously out at the water. The woman asked what was wrong, and Mabel Small replied that the seas were rough and she feared that Arthur would not be able to row over from Palmer’s Island to pick her up. But her husband was waiting at the landing at the usual time, and Mabel shouted, “See you girls next week!” as she headed home to Palmer’s Island.
The very next day, a ferocious hurricane took the area by surprise as it battered the south-facing coast. During the afternoon of the storm 53-year-old Arthur Small attempted to walk the 350 feet from the house to the lighthouse on Palmer’s Island. He left his wife at the oil house, which he considered to be relatively safe as it was on the island’s highest point.
As he struggled to reach the tower, Keeper Small was struck by a large wave and was swept underwater. He managed to swim back to safety. He looked back and saw his wife attempting to launch a rowboat to come to his aid. As Mabel Small tried to launch the boat a tremendous wave destroyed the boathouse, and Arthur Small lost sight of his wife.
Keeper Small later said, “I was hurt and she knew it. Seeing the wave hit the boathouse was about the last thing I remember. I must have been hit by a piece of timber and knocked unconscious. I came to some hours later, but all I remember was that I was in the middle of some wreckage... Then I must have lost my sense again, for I remember nothing more.”
Somehow Arthur Small kept the light burning through the night. The morning after the hurricane, two friends of the Smalls had rowed to the island. They took Arthur Small to a local hospital under police escort. They had first contacted the Lighthouse Service for permission, as no keeper was to leave his post until relieved “if he is able to walk.” Three days after the storm, Commissioner Harold D. King of the Bureau of Lighthouses called Arthur Small’s performance during the storm “one of the most outstanding cases of loyalty and devotion that has come to the attention of this office.”
Mabel Small had not survived. Her body was later found and identified in Fairhaven. Many of Keeper Small’s paintings were lost in the hurricane along with his large library of several hundred books. His wife had their savings of about $7,500 in her possession when she drowned, and this was also lost.
A few miles away in Rhode Island during the same hurricane, Keeper George Gustavus of Prudence Island Lighthouse had lost his wife and son. Arthur Small and George Gustavus had known each other for years, as they entered the Lighthouse Service around the same time and served together as keepers at Thacher Island, Massachusetts. Both of the keeper’s wives who died in the storm were named Mabel, and the two men recuperated after the hurricane in adjacent beds at the Chelsea Marine Hospital.
Arthur Small asked for no compensation for his paintings, but in his official report he assigned a value of $75 to his library and $100 to his records and notes on sailing ships, “the result of thirty years’ work and used for reference in painting the history of sailing ships, a spare-time hobby.” After an extended leave that included time in Panama, Small became keeper at Hospital Point Light in Beverly, Massachusetts in 1939. During World War II he maintained a shore patrol in the area and had to check Derby Wharf and Fort Pickering lights in Salem in addition to Hospital Point Light.
When Arthur Small died in 1958, he was honored by the Coast Guard with a burial at Arlington National Cemetery. A plaque honoring Arthur and Mabel Small can be seen today on the Fairhaven side of the harbor at Fort Phoenix.
This story appeared in the
August 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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