As I was going through some photographs that were recently shared with us by former Coast Guardsman Joseph Hartman, who was stationed at Heron Neck Lighthouse on Green Island near Vinalhaven, Maine from November 1977 to September 1978, it immediately brought back memories of the very first issue of Lighthouse Digest. The headline and front page story in that issue of our newspaper-style publication, as it was in those days, read “Heron Neck Rescue,” with a sub-headline of “Massachusetts Developer to Save Historic Light Station.” That’s when I realized how I could tie in Hartman’s photos for a story on how Heron Neck Lighthouse became the lighthouse that played an integral part in changing modern lighthouse history.
One of the first photos that I noticed in Hartman’s collection was of the lighthouse dog, “Boot,” who was the pet of Coast Guardsman Larry Smart, who was stationed at Heron Neck with Hartman in 1977. Seeing the photo of the dog on the front porch of the keeper’s house reminded me of the famous lighthouse dogs Nemo and Rover owned by Heron Neck Lighthouse keeper Levi Farnham. In the early 1900s, Farnham’s dogs were trained to bark when the fog rolled in, and their barks probably saved a number of mariners. It’s a story we told eleven years ago in the December 1999 issue of Lighthouse Digest. The dogs were eventually replaced by a fog bell and in later years by a modern foghorn.
Although many of the duties of the Coast Guard lighthouse keepers at Heron Neck at Hartman’s time were quite different from the days of the early keepers, many were also the same. Unlike the early keeper who rarely got a day off and lived at the lighthouse with his family, Hartman was stationed at Heron Neck with three other Coast Guardsmen. Family members were not allowed, except maybe for visits. The modern crew rotated duty with two weeks on and one week off.
Lighthouse life for Hartman was a quite a bit different from his previous assignment when he was a crew member of the world renowned Coast Guard barque Eagle. He described life at the lighthouse as often boring, but he kept busy by gardening, watching TV, building models, and studying for advancement. He spent a lot of time in the tower playing his harmonica because the acoustics in the tower were like a concert hall. In recalling his Coast Guard days, Hartman said he was fortunate to have lived two separate romances of the sea: one on a sailing vessel of yesteryear, and the other as a lighthouse keeper.
Most of the photos Hartman took during his tenure at Heron Neck Lighthouse were exterior photos of the lighthouse and of storm damage after a nor‘easter at Christmastime in 1977, which washed the boathouse out into the cove and then back up and onto the shore. That was a storm to remember. However, looking back, he wished he had taken more photos of the interior of the keeper’s house. The only interior photo he has was of “Boot” soundly sleeping on the sofa in the living room of the keeper’s house.
Hartman and the other Coast Guardsmen he was stationed with at Heron Neck never could have possibly imagined that the lighthouse station where they lived would be at the forefront of an event that would change the course of lighthouse history forever.
That event was an electrical fire on April 19, 1989 that swept through the station. Although the tower survived nearly unscathed, the keeper’s house suffered severe damage. When the Coast Guard announced plans to tear down the keeper’s house, there was a public uproar. In fact, the furor was so widespread that it literally jolted the Coast Guard and created a new public awakening toward lighthouse preservation.
At the helm of the revival movement was Peter Ralston of the Island Institute in Rockland, Maine who worked tirelessly to save Heron Neck Lighthouse Station. To make a long story short, Ralston suffered a number of setbacks in his efforts, setbacks that might have left others walking away from being in the forefront to save a lighthouse. Ralston had found a private individual willing to spend his own money to save and restore the keeper’s house at Heron Neck Lighthouse, and eventually the Coast Guard leased the lighthouse to the Island Institute.
Others might have said that they accomplished what they set out to do, and then gone on with their lives, but not Ralston. Instead, Ralston took his learning experience to the next level to save even more lighthouses, which, in itself was more responsibility than a full time job. A book could probably be written about Ralston’s efforts that, with the help of a few others, finally paid off when the Maine Lights Program was created and became federal law in October, 1996. At its conclusion in June of 1998, over two dozen of Maine’s lighthouses were turned over from Coast Guard control to nonprofits and other government entities.
Congress then used the Maine Lights program as its template to pass the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, which set the guidelines for all lighthouses being excessed by the Coast Guard detailing how they would be conveyed to other government entities or qualified nonprofits. If none wanted them, the law then allows excessed lighthouses to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Hartman says he is honored to have once served his country as a lighthouse keeper at the Heron Neck Lighthouse, a lighthouse that, thanks to people like Peter Ralston of the Island Institute, became a national rallying point for lighthouse preservation. Because of Hartman’s recent correspondence with us, we thought it was important to share with you some of his photos and other historical photos relating to the Heron Neck Lighthouse Station where a fire literally changed the course of preservation and lighthouse history.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2011 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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