Much has been written about Abbie Burgess, some of which is not correct, from a lack of knowledge and lack of conceptual understanding of life and light keeping in her early years, but especially from her fifteen years spent at Maine’s Whitehead Light Station.
Whitehead Lighthouse Station was a significant change in Abbie’s life from her many years living on barren Matinicus Rock Lighthouse. There was now farm land and spruce forest and new people to become acquainted with and become friends with. Plus there were more opportunities to access the mainland’s stores, to join a church, and to participate in various community activities.
Since there were so many newspaper accounts written about Abbie’s life at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, I was inspired to compose this letter in a way that I believe Abbie’s husband, Isaac Grant, would have written about her to one of those newspapers of the time regarding her life at Whitehead Lighthouse. It is based on my knowledge of the Grants, the island, the history of Maine’s Spruce Head community, and from entries in lighthouse keeper Horace Norton’s journals. Incidentally, my house on the island at Rocky Hill Point is the Grant house, built by Isaac Grant on the land he purchased from Horace Norton.
Mr. Fillmore B. Pottfield
The Limerock Gazette
15 Water St.
Mrs. Grant and I, Isaac Grant, her faithful husband were honored by your recent article describing our life at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse. Therefore, it is my humble desire to share with you, sir, my recollections of our life together at Whitehead Light Station and of our final years.
As you may know, I received notice of appointment to the position of keeper of the Whitehead lighthouse in April, 1875 to replace keeper Hezikiah Long. On the twelfth day of May we arrived at Whitehead on board the steamer Iris under the capable command of Capt. E. B. Johnson.
It was considerable improvement on our arrival at Whitehead to unload our belongings directly from the deck of the steamer to the stone wharf, quite unlike the many trips to the tender from the Matinicus Rock launchway to load our possessions on the Iris that same morning. And island resident and life-saving station keeper Horace Norton, who, with horse and cart, carried our belongings to the lighthouse dwelling, and then with Mrs. Norton made us welcome at what was to be our home for fifteen years.
Mrs. Grant and I and our four children were anxious to organize our household and to begin acquainting ourselves with our new island home. However, we soon received news of the untimely death of Mrs. Grant’s father on May 16. Mrs. Grant left forthwith to go to Vinalhaven to attend to her widowed mother, Mrs. Burgess.
Keeper Long acquainted me with the Whitehead station and then departed on May 15. Miss Abbie Long, his daughter and assistant keeper, remained as my assistant until Mrs. Grant returned to the island with Mrs. Burgess at the end of May. On June 2, Miss Long resigned her assistant keeper position and Mrs. Grant was appointed in her place.
We had been at Whitehead Lighthouse but for one year when our daughter Mellie became very ill and, with Mrs. Grant, went to the mainland for many weeks to regain her health. Knot Perry came from Matinicus Rock to serve as assistant during Mrs. Grant’s absence. He was accompanied by his wife, my dear sister Deborah, who helped with the children.
The abundance of fertile soil and lush vegetation at Whitehead did favorably suit Mrs. Grant after having lived on the barren Matinicus Rock for twenty-two years. We were no longer isolated and could make frequent journeys to the mainland close by across the protected harbor. And likewise, our children, when the chores were done, and often accompanied by new island friends, would explore and learn of the wondrous new things that this new island home offered for their pleasure and entertainment. During long periods of fog it was refreshing to go to the other side of the island to the Norton home to seek temporary relief from the incessant, albeit essential, noise emanating from the steam fog whistle.
Lighthouse duties at Whitehead were in some ways more challenging than at the Rock, there now being only I and my dear wife to attend to the needs of the light in the tower and the fog whistle steam boilers. In short time, our son Francis was to become an able assistant, and daughter Mellie became her mother’s able assistant keeper of the household and of our young Mary and baby Harris. Horace Norton was most helpful. I often engaged him to haul coal for the steam boilers and to help build and repair roads from the wharf to the whistle houses. We constructed a shelter for the family cow beside the tower. We had ample locations for the family hens where they were protected during storms, unlike at Matinicus Rock where we lost many birds during strong gales.
Son Francis soon became interested in the island life-saving station, and when of age, he became an able surf-man on Horace Norton’s crew. Francis severely froze his feet in the course of a mission in the surfboat in mid-winter. He was laid up and Keeper Norton, at risk of reprimand, took his place on watch and shore patrol for ten days.
Horace Norton resigned in 1882 and Freeman Shea was appointed life-saving keeper. In August of that year, Shea’s son Will, a friend of Francis, and an alternate surf-man was run down in his wherry by the steamship Penobscot and drowned in the channel just off our whistle house.
The Norton house was a community gathering place and after the Nortons left the island in November of 1885, our community life changed. Gone were the Sunday visits to the Norton home or their visits to our home at the lighthouse. Mrs. Grant and Mrs. Norton had become close friends since our arrival at Whitehead ten years before. And the Norton children were companions of our children.
I purchased six acres of land at Rocky Hill Point from Norton to help him with his financial obligations and I agreed to serve as his agent on the island after his departure. Son Francis bought one-half acre from me and built a small house. He was now married and living in Hyde Park, Mass. and hoped to use it for a summer cottage. My first grandchild, Roger Isaac, was born in 1889. I later sold my land to Keeper Elmer Reed in 1915.
I must say I am pleased and honored by the kind words of Clara Norton, daughter of Horace Norton. She spoke highly of me as her teacher when recalling her childhood on Whitehead and her schooling at the keeper’s house. Our daughter Melvina also was a teacher for the island children, and she later completed teacher training at Gorham Normal School in January, 1886.But to our great sorrow, she was soon taken ill and died on March 28, 1886 at age 22.
In 1890, for reasons of her declining health, Mrs. Grant and I resigned our positions with the Lighthouse Service and moved to Marlborough, Mass. to live with Mrs. Grant’s sister and her husband. I later purchased a house and land in that town. While there, her mother, Mrs. Burgess, died at Vinalhaven in August, 1891 at age 85.
Mrs. Grant, much more than I, longed for the lighthouse life we left behind. Though not one to complain, living inland away from the sea did not serve her well. We returned to Maine, to South Portland. I once again entered the service as keeper of the Lighthouse Service Lamp Shop on Central Wharf in Portland. Our youngest child, Harris, became keeper of the nearby Spring Point Light. Harris was married to Charlotte Elwell, daughter of former Whitehead surfman Herbert Ellwell, later keeper of the Burnt Island Life Saving Station.
I once returned to Whitehead on the steamer Geranium in 1900 at the behest of the Lighthouse Service and with Horace Norton. We journeyed there to identify the line between the lighthouse property and the part of Whitehead that was formerly Norton land and now lands of Sumner Kimball and the heirs of Judge Alexander McCue
My dear wife Abbie, the mother of our fine children and my always dependable assistant keeper, died at South Portland on June 16, 1892, at age 53. I buried her at Spruce Head beside daughter Mellie at the Forest Hill burying ground on a small hill outside the village and from where one can hear the mournful sound of the Whitehead fog horn. Our youngest son Harris joined his mother and sister there in 1916.
Mr. Pottfield, my dear sir, I thank you for patiently listening to my humble account. There is more I could say but for now I must close.
Your obedient servant,
[In 1918 at the age of 84, Isaac Grant joined his wife, his oldest daughter and his youngest son at that small hill near Spruce Head Village, this too, his final resting-place.]
This story appeared in the
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