Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2015

The Painter’s Helper Redux

By John T (Jack) Graham


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The sailors’ graves by the boat house at Little ...
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

When the good ship Julia Warr left the port of Calais, Maine on that wintry day in December 1897, the crew looked forward to a hard but fast sail down the coast and a night on the town in their next port of call. Little did two of the crew realize that the next land they would touch would be Little River Island, just off the coast of Cutler, Maine, only a relatively few miles from their start. The two men surely didn’t realize that they would stay on this island for eternity.

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Jack Graham on ladder scraping the soffit.
Photo by: Tobi Graham

The Julia Warr, loaded down with lumber, foundered in a mean winter gale, and the hull, floating but capsized, was found months later off the coast of Long Island, New York. Although there has never been official confirmation of the fate of Captain George Warr, nor any of his crew, the bodies of two sailors washed ashore on Little River Island soon thereafter. Their identities have never been determined with certainty, but they are believed to have been crewmen of the Warr. With a brief but solemn ceremony, the two men were buried on the island by then Lighthouse Keeper Roscoe Johnson. One hundred and seventeen years later they lie there still.

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Little River Lighthouse.
Photo by: Kathleen Finnegan

Readers of this magazine may recall an article entitled “The Painter’s Helper” (November-December 2013 issue regarding an incident in the summer of that year when one of those sailors helped to paint the 1881 boathouse at the Little River Light Station. The boathouse sits about forty feet from the sailors’ graves. At that time, the author, a volunteer on the island, was finishing up the painting which had been nearly completed by others. Needless to say, he was surprised, and more than a little incredulous, at the appearance of the skeletal, slightly ghoulish, apparition that offered to help. Good help, especially good painters, being hard to find, the offer was readily accepted and the job was well done.

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Front view of Oil House at Little River Light.
Photo by: Tobi Graham

Returning once again to Little River and its lighthouse in August of 2015, the author found many fix and repair jobs on the work list. Among them were more painting projects. One in particular was to paint all the wood trim on the “Oil House”, another of the light station components. Built in 1905 on orders of the then Light-House Establishment, this small but fireproof structure was constructed some distance from the other station buildings to store what was then a new and highly flammable fuel for the lamp in the light tower. This was kerosene, or “mineral oil” as it was called then, a much more volatile fuel than the whale and lard oils used in previous years. By date, it is the newest building on the island, yet in a sense it is the oldest in that it is made of granite blocks salvaged from the original keeper’s house when that structure was torn down in 1888. The present frame dwelling dates from that year.

While on a ladder, busily scraping layers of old paint from the soffits and trim of the Oil House, I was once again surprised by the not-quite-raspy voice that came from behind me. “Hello again,” it said. “We would like to paint some more too.” Perhaps “surprised” isn’t a strong enough word. When you are on an island, a small island at that – Little River Isand comprises about 16 acres – and you know full well that you and your wife are the only living souls on that island, and an unfamiliar voice speaks to you from behind – no, “surprised” isn’t the right word at all. It was all I could do not to fall off the ladder.

My mind was racing – who could it be? Then I remembered! Could it be “him” again I asked myself? I desperately wanted to turn around and look, and at the same time was hesitant to do so. Maybe I didn’t want to know. The urge to look won out, and just like the last time, I wasn’t quite sure what it was that I looked upon. It wasn’t just “him” either. There were TWO of them this time! They weren’t a pretty sight, but then, what would you or I look like if we had been lying in our graves for one hundred and seventeen years?

“Sure,” I said, with no hesitation at all. “I remember how great a job you did last time.” They smiled – or at least I think they smiled. I got down off my ladder, handed them the scrapers, the cans of paint, and a couple of brushes. “Thanks,” I told them. “I’ll go get some mowing done then.” With that, I high-tailed it back to the house where my wife was on the porch. “You’ll never guess whom I just met – again!” I told her.

The sailor had told me the last time we met that he was a good painter. He didn’t lie. It appears that his shipmate was a good painter too. The next time you are on Little River Island, take a good close look at the old Oil House.

Looks pretty good,

don’t you think?

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 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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