Forty-four years ago I lived an adventure that few people are able to write about. I was in my early twenties, married, and the mother of a seven-month-old son. I was a Coast Guard wife, and in 1973 we moved to Maine’s Whitehead Light Station. At the time this adventure was looked upon as a hardship, but the appreciation of this unique experience became apparent as I grew older. I lived this event, and feel it’s important to share it. My story is a part of lighthouse history before automation. The uniqueness of my story not only shares the Whitehead Lighthouse experience, but the sequences entailed.
My son’s great grandfather was a former lighthouse keeper of Maine’s Moose Peak Light until 1935. Myron Wilson and his wife, Bernice and their daughters Margaret and Laura lived there many years.
My husband at the time, Roy E. Lenfestey, and I, along with my son Lenny were the last family to leave Whitehead Light Station before it became a stag station in the late fall in 1973.
The skies were gray, and the winds blew on that March 7th early afternoon in 1973 as we parked our green truck filled with our belongings next to the pier at Atwood’s Lobster and began to unload. An open-faced Coast Guard boat sat waiting next to the pier. In the distance across the channel sat Whitehead Light Station, a place we would now call home. We unloaded our truck and placed our belongings into the boat. As we headed to Whitehead Light with our life jackets on, the hoods attached to our warm winter jackets were pulled up onto our heads, and our faces were covered with woolen scarves to protect us from the cold March winds that blew across the channel. The ocean was choppy that bitter cold March day as I held our seven- month-old son close to me to keep him warm. As we headed to Whitehead Light many thoughts crossed my mind. Would I be able to cope with the isolation? And what if there was an emergency and our son needed instant medical care? We would be on an island without doctors or medical care - what would we do?
The winds were blowing gale force as we sailed close to the island that afternoon, and the sea spray slapped into the boat as we approached the boathouse ramp, which was on the right side of the island close to the dock. We then hooked the boat to an electronic pulley which pulled us to the top, and we called the Officer-in-Charge Ron Upton, the head keeper, on the intercom to let him know we had arrived. We stood in the snow outside the boathouse waiting for Ron to pick us up. We were cold from our trip across the channel, and in the distance we could hear the sound of a tractor heading in our direction as we anxiously awaited its arrival. Ron arrived at the boathouse with the tractor. It was equipped with a long flatbed attached to the back. The guys unloaded our items off the boat and onto the flatbed, leaving only enough room at the end for us to sit. Ron turned the tractor around, and off we went up the long narrow path which took us through the woods to the other side of the island to our home. Ron drove the tractor through the woods, and then the tractor pulled us slowly up and down the hill. As we sat in the back on the flatbed, we could see that the long path was coming to an end. We then saw two large houses. The one that Ron lived in was high on the hill on the right. (Sadly, this beautiful structure was demolished by the Coast Guard in the mid-1980s.) The house that we moved into was the duplex below it that sits next to the light tower. Ron slowly drove down the hill, pulling up next to the duplex. Our living quarters were on the left side.
While the men unloaded our belongings into our living quarters, I stood outside next to the duplex gazing at the extraordinary views. Below the duplex, close to the ocean, sat the Whistle House, and on the right side of the duplex was the light tower which stood high so to be seen by all in the Mussel Ridge Channel. The ocean views were in every direction that I looked, and the air that I breathed as I stood there that day smelled like salt.
The Assistant Keeper’s House
The duplex we occupied on White Head Light Station was spacious. There were three rooms downstairs on the first floor and three more with a bathroom on the upper floor. The kitchen faced the hindquarters of the duplex; it was the room we stepped into when we entered our home from the back entrance. Adjacent to the kitchen was a medium-sized living room with built-in bookcases on the wall that faced the kitchen. Bordering the living room was our dining room; it was my favorite room in the duplex. It had two windows that faced the Mussel Ridge Channel, and a third window on the right that offered a view of a rocky ledge, and views of the ocean below it.
The walls throughout the duplex were painted white, and the floors in each room, other than the kitchen, were made of oak. On the upper floor were three bedrooms. Our room was the first room at the top of the stairs. Next to our room in the hall was our son Lenny’s room, then our bathroom, and at the end of the hall facing the ocean sat the third bedroom, our guestroom.
Life On The Island
The first few weeks on the island were quiet and lonesome; nothing was familiar to us other than we as a family, and the personal items that we had carried with us to the island. We had no family or neighbors, other than Ron; and our friends lived on the mainland in other towns. In time, I hoped this loneliness that I felt deep inside would pass. And it did.
The week before April, our habitation on Whitehead changed. Ron’s wife Jan, and their sons, Ron Jr. and Jarrod moved into the house on the hill above us, and a few days later, Butch, Polly and their daughter Corey took up residence in our duplex on the right side.
Now, there were six adults and four children living on Whitehead, and that’s when it began to feel like home. In the evening, we played cards with our neighbors, shared meals, and our children spent time together. We as a group became a family. We stayed on Whitehead Light for two weeks; then we were off the island for a week. There were always two families there at all times. During our time off, we visited family and friends on the mainland, and then, before we would return, we would pick up the supplies that we needed to take back to the island with us.
During the first couple of months on the island, the ocean remained gray. It was windy, cold, and no vessels were in sight. It was lonely looking out my dining room window; each day seemed to be the same. But in May the temperatures began to warm up on Whitehead. The color of the ocean began to change to a deep turquoise blue, and the choppiness of the water began to calm down, and that’s when I saw my first sailboat.
Hiking on Whitehead became a daily adventure for me. I woke early each morning, fed my son, and off we went to go exploring unfamiliar areas on the island. The long narrow paths on Whitehead took us into the woods, or close to the ocean. There were ducks and seagulls on the island, and on the right side of Whitehead was a boy’s camp which was occupied during the summer months only. Wonderful ocean views were in every direction that I walked, and the rocky ledges that embellished the perimeter were strikingly beautiful. Whitehead Light was breath-taking.
The month of June was a busy month for us on the island; my parents and two siblings from Florida came to visit. Then came friends. We grilled outside, hiked, and did all the fun things that one does during the summer months in Maine, and what joy it was to share our life on the island with each of them.
July was a difficult month on Whitehead; this was the month that the “unwelcome neighbor” revealed its face - the fog horn! In the first week of July, the fog rolled onto the island early one afternoon while my son was napping in his crib. All of a sudden, I heard this dreadfully loud sound which was harsh enough to shake our living quarters. I then heard a horrifying cry from the upper floor It was our son, and the very loud sound woke him up from his nap and had frightened him. I hurried up the stairs to the upper floor to console him, when another blast from the horn took place, and he began to cry once again. This happened the entire afternoon, until he finally surrendered to it. The fog horn blew day and night for weeks that July, and the sound of that dreadful blow became a way of life on Whitehead. It was a sound we never got used to, but we learned to adapt.
Late in the afternoon of July 11th, our son, who was learning to walk, took a fall. The fear that I had the day we moved to the island was now taking place: What if there were an emergency, and our son needed instant medical care; we’d be on an island with no doctors, and what would we do?”
The blood was pouring out of our son’s mouth from the fall, and his injury would not stop bleeding. I applied ice on the area, and compressed it in hopes the bleeding would cease, but it continued. The fog was thick that afternoon, and the winds were blowing hard. I knew our son needed medical attention, but how would we leave the island? We called our pediatrician, Dr. Howard, and explained to him what was taking place; he told us that our son needed medical care now, and to bring him to his office. We called Ron, the head lighthouse keeper, and he immediately made arrangements from land for us to be picked up. I quickly pulled things together that windy, foggy afternoon; we put on our rain gear and grabbed an overnight bag just in case we were stranded for the night. Ron pulled the tractor next to our duplex, and we sat on the back of the open faced trailer in the wind and misting fog, as we traveled the path that took us to the boathouse to meet the emergency boat. Thankfully, the boat arrived shortly after we did.
A Perilous Journey
The seas ran high and the visibility was zero when we stepped into the lobster boat that late afternoon and heading to land. The trip was rough, but because of the skill of the local boat captain, we arrived safely. The owner of the lobster boat told us that he would wait at the dock for our return trip back to the island. We quickly, but safely, drove to Rockland and arrived at Dr. Howard’s office before he closed. He examined our son’s injury and found that the cord connected to his upper lip had severed when he fell, and it needed to be cauterized to stop the bleeding. I held our son while the doctor did the procedure; it was painful, but needed to be done. We then drove back to the dock to board the lobster boat for our return trip to the island. We were thankful that a lobster man cared enough to risk his life for us that foggy afternoon in such rough seas. He cared enough to come to the island to pick us up, and take us back. I have often thought about him throughout the years, and I am forever grateful!
Weather and Fire
In the first week of August I woke early one morning to a ray of sunshine in our room on the upper floor. The fog on the island had vanished, and now the sun was shining. The temperatures on the island were hot, but the breeze from the ocean made it cooler, even though it was quite humid. The month of August offered an array of thunderstorms on Whitehead, and some were violent. One evening while we were sitting on the couch watching the evening news, a frightful thunderstorm took place. The thunder was deafening, and the huge bolts of lightning struck the ground unrestrained around us. Suddenly, there was an ear-piercing crash outside our duplex in the direction of the Whistle house. We both got up off the couch to look out the window in our dining room, and we saw flames. The Whistle House had been struck by lightning and it was on fire! The men hurried to the Whistle House with fire extinguishers in hand to put the fire out. And they succeeded.
In September, things changed on the island. That month we learned that Whitehead Light Station would become a stag station. The news was disappointing because the wives and the children would have to move off the island and to the mainland, and only the men would remain at Whitehead Light. The next few weeks were busy for all of us. We needed to find rentals, pack up our personal belongings, and make plans for a separate life without our husbands. Jan and her two sons left the island the first of October, followed by Polly and her daughter. Then I left with my son a week later. I was the last women to live on Whitehead Light Station, and our son was the last child.
It’s been forty-four years now since I called Whitehead Light Station my home. It was a “once upon a time moment, and a lifetime ago.” I was young back then, and the isolation that I felt deep inside was indescribable. I ask myself today, “If I lived at Whitehead Light Station now, would I live this unique experience differently?” What a difference it would have made back then, if we lived with today’s technology. If we only had a computer and digital camera on that island back then! I think about all the beautiful photographs with accompanying stories that I could have shared. Yes, my experience living on Whitehead Light would be a lot different if I lived there today.
In 1973 the lighthouses became stag station and then in the 1980’s they were sadly automated, which changed the lighthouse history forever. The era of the Coast Guard lighthouse keepers came to an end. The stories of the family life at the lighthouses are but a memory and the Coast Guard keepers and their wives from that era are now in their sixties or older. They are a dying breed. The keepers and their stories are an important part of lighthouse history in what seems like only yesterday, but yet so long ago. Their stories need to be told and preserved for future generations.
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2017 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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