No other Maine lighthouse is as remote or as far out in the mighty Atlantic as the Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse.
Located twenty miles out to sea from Mount Desert Island, it is slightly over a dozen feet above sea level making it totally exposed to everything that nature can throw at it. In fact, George Putnam, the man who ran our nation’s lighthouses for many years, considered it the most exposed lighthouse in the United States.
However, this most remote of all light stations was once the home to families who lived, laughed, and played on this barren rock in the middle of nowhere. In fact, Shirley Robinson, who now lives in Arizona, a long way from the ocean, has many fond and wonderful memories of life on the “Rock.”
Shirley arrived on Mount Desert Rock in 1928 when she was four years old. Her father George York had been appointed head keeper, and this was to be home for her along with her brother Wilbur and stepmother Helen, a home on a rock surrounded by water with no neighbors, no trees, no stores, no school and not even a blade of grass. When she left the island at age 12 she knew that someday she would return to the place she loved so dearly. However, the wait to return to the island was a long time. In fact, it took her 64 years before she was able to make the trip back to the island she once called home.
In spite of the hardships and dangers, she said they had a good life on the island, a wholesome life, even though it was somewhat sheltered. Not only did she love the island life, so did her father and he was proud to serve his country at this remote island lighthouse. He kept his station so well that he was awarded the Efficiency Star, the highest award given by the U. S. Lighthouse Service.
As a little girl, Shirley remembers the yearly visits of the Flying Santa of the lighthouses and the gifts he brought. As a small child she didn’t believe in Santa’s sleigh and reindeer; after all, Santa flew over their island lighthouse and dropped the presents from an airplane. She recalled getting mostly knit things like a scarf and hat. One year, she got a rag doll and every year there was always a bag of candy for everyone and always books for reading.
Shirley’s mother was a certified schoolteacher so they never lacked for learning and they always had plenty of books, some which were brought by the lighthouse tender. She recalls that she and her brother had regular school hours just like the children on the mainland. In fact, she and her brother were required to take tests that they received from the mainland and then sent back to the mainland to be graded and she always received straight A’s. She remembers when they would pass the tests, the government would send out new schoolbooks and they were required to return the old ones. Shirley believes the one-on-one teacher arrangement helped make her a better student since her stepmother always had plenty of time to teach and answers questions.
She remembers the visits of the lighthouse tender, which came once a month with supplies. However, during one stormy period, it was two months before the tender could reach the island. Although her father tried to catch some fish, the weather was too stormy and the waves too high. As they ran out of supplies, the family lived on bread and molasses. On the day that help arrived, all they had left was some lard. That help came from a local lobsterman named Howard Beal, who apparently was more able to make the trip out to the island than the lighthouse tender that was supposed to bring the supplies.
There was never enough water and additional water had to be brought out on the tender. There was a tiny spring on the island that bubbled up between the rocks, and she and her brother used to drink out of it. When the government found out, they came out to blast in hopes of creating a well. However, the blasting destroyed the vein and all they got was salt water. The spring never came back having been apparently sealed off by the blasting.
A generator supplied electricity and they even had an old floor model radio. Eventually they even got a telephone, which was laid by an underwater cable. However, it wasn’t always reliable.
Playing on the island could be dangerous, but they always seemed to be able to have a makeshift game of baseball, which was actually played with a tennis ball. They had pet roosters and chickens, which had to be moved inside at high tide or the creatures would have been washed away.
With no refrigeration in the early years they relied immensely on what nature had to offer. They always had lots of fish, fish of many different kinds as well as lobster and mussels but never any clams. Whenever her father would see ducks flying toward the lighthouse, he would run for his gun, shooting only enough for dinner.
One time when her father had a vacation, they all left the island in a small peapod that was powered by a “one lung engine.” She remembers that day as her experience with being shipwrecked. Her father decided to stop at Great Duck Island to visit with the keeper. As the boat approached Great Duck Island, the water became rough, and the craft was caught in the seaweed and swamped. Her father ordered everyone to jump in the water and swim to shore just moments before waves smashed the boat on the rocks. Because of that experience, Shirley is afraid to go into the water to this day. She’ll go out on the water in a boat but will not go into the water. That day long ago left a scar of fear. Eventually, the lighthouse tender picked them up and took them to the mainland, and the vacation continued.
After her stepmother suffered a miscarriage because of a lack of medical assistance, her father requested a transfer to a mainland lighthouse. When his request was denied he quit the Lighthouse Service and bought a farm. Shirley said it was a beautiful farm with lots of grass and cows, but she hated it. She wanted her island and the ocean.
When she married, she took a job in the fish business. She said, “it was a cold, dirty and wet job, but I loved every second of it.” It reminded her of her ocean home and so many wonderful memories.
Although she now lives in Arizona, a long way from the ocean, lighthouses are still in her life. She lives in Lake Havasu City, a community which has built a number of wonderful replicas of real lighthouses to line the shores of its beautiful lake. But Shirley’s heart will always be in Maine on her home on the “Rock.”
This story appeared in the
May 2004 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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