Back in August my boyfriend told me that his friend, Steve, who runs a home repair and improvement business, was bidding on a job to paint Maine’s West Quoddy Head lighthouse. “If he gets the job,” Mitch said, “He wants me to work with him.” “Are you going to do it?” I asked. “Are you kidding?” he replied. “I wouldn’t miss it. That’s an adventure!” I was excited for him. After all, how many people get the chance to paint a lighthouse? Well, several weeks later, Steve won the bid and they went to work.
West Quoddy Head Light in Lubec, Maine, is the easternmost lighthouse in the continental United States. Go any further east and you are in the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. Campobello Island (the famed summer retreat of Franklin Delano Roosevelt) and Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada, are clearly visible (on days without fog, of course) from the grounds of the lighthouse, and the waters around West Quoddy Head abound with whales, seals, gulls, ducks and lobster pots. From a navigational standpoint, Grand Manan Channel is treacherous, with high winds, dense fog, often white-capped swells and a weather system of its very own, which seems to elude meteorological instrumentation. Which is precisely why West Quoddy Head Light is painted in red and white bands. The tower’s two predecessors, were all white and proved not as visible. The red bands were added with the third tower’s construction in 1858, and maintained ever since. Over time, the elements wear down the bands’ brightness, obstructing visibility to some degree. Hence, the job of painting the lighthouse tower is an important one.
Steve Hendricks is known around Lubec as The House Doctor, (as the sign on the door of his truck says.) Mitch tells him that he should now call himself the Lighthouse Doctor. Indeed, Hendricks must go about this job with patience and care, as a doctor would with a human patient. Painting the lighthouse requires working with and around the elements, often quite inhospitable to exterior painting. And, as the top portions of the tower are 40 feet above the ground, very high ladders and a swinging bosun’s chair operated by a winch on Steve’s truck are needed. But Steve and his crew, which includes Mitch Halper and Brian Goodman, are all careful, seasoned workers for whom safety is a priority.
Work on the lighthouse began September 15. Mitch and I have the great fortune to live less than three miles from West Quoddy Head. So just about each day, I bring Mitch his lunch at work and watch the progress.
The crew began with a pressure wash, which took three days to complete. The next step was to scrape the bricks and then seal them with caulking. This took only one day. Then they conditioned the bricks and applied a sealer. Finally, it was time for priming and painting. This part of the job took up the bulk of the four weeks because each band received three coats. The white bands were primed in white, then given two coats of a highly rubberized paint. The red portions were primed in gray, and if you didn’t know better, you might have thought the tower was being given a whole new look. Volunteers in the lighthouse’s visitor’s center have teased each other about how nice the tower looks now in gray and white. But of course, anyone who believed it was soon told the truth. Of course, the tower will remain red and white. No other colors are as visible in a heavy fog. And besides, the red and white banded tower is a thing of beauty and has made West Quoddy Head Light one of the most sought-after images for photographs and paintings, including the covers of The Saturday Evening Post (Sept., 1945) and Woman’s Day (June, 1948).
There is a steady stream of visitors to the easternmost lighthouse these days, and the sight of the painting crew adds to the touristic scene. Mitch comments jokingly that he and Steve and Brian are the three most photographed men in America for the last few weeks, as one after another tourist watches and photographs them swinging from the bosun’s chair just below the light portion of the tower and atop the 40-foot ladders.
The final coats of paint were started on September 28. The crew works steadily on completing the work. The weather is growing chilly. Autumn comes earlier to Lubec than almost anywhere else, and the wind can bite your skin, even though the sun still give some warmth. Steve watches the weather carefully so that he will know to work on clear dry days. Painting is not feasible in fog or rain, yet there is concern about the onset of very cold weather in which paint cannot dry properly. However, the weather gods proved to be in the crew’s favor, and a stretch of Indian summer allows the job to be finished up with relative ease.
The tower is shiny and beautiful in her new coat, and that gives reason for pride for those who worked so hard on her. Finishing the job is both a relief and a cause for sadness. There is a wonderful camaraderie between the three men and the laughter never ceases as long as they are together. What is more, Mitch and I are leaving for our winter home in Florida, and we will miss West Quoddy Head and her lighthouse terribly until the following spring when we return.
Steve and Mitch and Brian all loved working on this job. “This is the best job I’ve ever come to,” Steve says with great enthusiasm. For them, it was more of a vacation (at least most of the time) and they relished being able to go to work in one of the most beautiful spots, on one of the most beautiful lighthouses in the United States.
West Quoddy Head Light tower has not had a new coat of paint in many years. Exactly how many years, nobody knows. Local lore ranges anywhere from seven to 15. But no matter, the lighthouse tower was worn and beaten from years of high winds and freezing rains. Yet now, she is bedecked in fresh bands of red and white, ready once again to guide sailors around her foggy, treacherous shores.
This story appeared in the
November 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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