Digest>Archives> May 2004

EBEN EMERSON

By Iona Desmond

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Presented by the British government To Mr. Eben ...

Keeper of Maine’s Wood Island Light during Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency, joins the ranks of the truly heroic keepers with his saving of the crew of the Edyth Ann in 1865.

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Painting of Wood Island Light, located near ...


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Inside this bottle is the rescue scene at Wood ...

The author is the great great great granddaughter of Eben Emerson.

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Iona Desmond, great, great, great granddaughter ...


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About one o’clock in the morning, on March 16th 1865, with the sound of the surf thundering in his ears, Eben Emerson wearily dragged himself from his sleepless bed. He never slept much when the weather was bad, and this storm was a wild one! It was about time for him to trim the lamp, anyway, not that it could be seen very far in the thick fog swirling around Wood Island on this night. As he finished doing the necessary chores, he went to the door to see if the storm was getting worse.

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As he stood there looking at the white tumbling foam just barely visible through the fog, he suddenly thought he heard a human voice over the roar of the breakers. Someone was in trouble. He hollered out “I’m coming” and ran to get dressed. Within minutes, he was hauling his wherry towards the surf. Within another minute the boat was swamped, and he was rolling over and over in the backwash on the rocky beach.

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Again, he tried to launch his boat and then again, always with the same results. His utmost strength was not great enough to pull the boat through the towering breakers. Bruised, soaked and exhausted, he hurried to the house of his nearest neighbor, a fisherman then living on the island. Together, they launched the wherry and following the direction of the sounds, they pulled through the thick fog and heavy seas. They finally sighted a brig that had run aground on Washburn Ledge. It was undergoing a terrible pounding. The waves were running nearly forty feet high and its decks were awash. They could see and hear the crew, clinging in terror to the ropes. After many unsuccessful attempts, they were finally able to get close enough alongside so that Eben could leap aboard her.

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The crew had tried launching one of its two boats, but it had been immediately swamped. The other was still on the davits and owing to the steep slant of the deck, difficult to get to. At Eben’s command, the terrified crew climbed up into the boat as it hung there. He told the ship’s captain to take his place in the bow, the mate in the stern.

With great difficulty, he made his way through the debris to the rail of the doomed ship. The giant seas were washing across the deck threatening to knock him off his feet. Suddenly, over the roaring of the storm, he again heard a cry of distress. It seemed to be coming from below. He rushed down into the cabin, already filling with water. There he found two terrified white guinea pigs. Hastily he thrust them into his pockets and dashed back up to the deck. His fisherman neighbor was attempting to bring the wherry close enough to take him off the brig. In such heavy seas it had been difficult when both men were rowing. It was nearly impossible with one man alone.

Finally on his tenth attempt, he got within a dozen feet of the brig. It was close enough and Eben, with a tremendous leap, landed safely in the violently tossing wherry. He grabbed for his oars and together he and his neighbor brought their boat as close as they could to the boat containing the crew, which was still hanging in the davits. Tossing them a rope, he ordered them to secure it; thn waited till an extra high sea came. “Cut Loose!” he yelled. Swiftly the brig’s captain and mate cut the ropes and the small boat rode the breaker down.

As the two small boats pulled away, they could see and hear the grounded brig breaking apart under the pounding of the surf; and before they reached land, it had gone to pieces before their eyes. The ship had been loaded with molasses and sugar from Puerto Rico for Portland, consigned to the E. Churchill Co. An account of the rescue can be found in the Union and Journal, Biddeford, Maine, March 31, 1865 (a copy is in the Maine Historical Society on Portland, Maine.)

The heroism he had shown was recognized by the Canadian Government and suitably rewarded with the presentation of a pair of binoculars in a small wood box with an inscribed plaque and the following letter:

“Her Majesty’s Counsul of Portland has reported to my Government the humane and gallant conduct of Mr. Eben Emerson, keeper of the Lighthouse at Wood Island, near that port; who rescued the Master and crew of the British Brig Edyth Ann of Digby in Nova Scotia, from a situation of imminent danger on the night of the 16th of March last. The Edyth Ann had gone on shore near Wood Island and shortly became a total wreck; and had it not been for the timely aid rendered by Mr. Emerson, would probably have perished.” Signed The Honorable W. Hunter

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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