There were 3,137 arrivals of vessels in this river during the year, not counting the steamers which ply daily. The steamers Kennebec, 1,652 tons, and Sagadahoc, 1,413 tons, made ninety-six round trips each from Gardiner to Boston. Other passenger steamers ply on the river from Bath to Augusta, Boothbay and Popham Beach, and intermediate places. The number of passengers carried was 232,150. Seventeen tugs were engaged on the river in towing. Thirty-nine vessels of 32,063 gross tons were built on the river, valued at $50 per gross ton, or say $1,603,150. The vessels arriving will average 450 tons. Some 24 feet draft can be carried to Thwings Point, 6 miles above Bath, 16 feet from Thwings Point to Gardiner, and 8 feet from Gardiner to Augusta. The Kennebec River is kept open by the towboats during the winter from Bath to the sea. Above Bath the buoys are taken up about November 20, and the river is likely to freeze at any time after this date. The ice usually goes out early in April. The river not only has the sea fogs, which extend to Bath, but its own river fog or mist which is dense and at times low down. On dark nights it is sometimes impossible to tell where the water ends and the shore begins. The Light-House Establishment maintains no lights or fog signals in the Kennebec, but the Kennebec Steamboat Company and the towboat companies have united for many years in maintaining lanterns hung on the buoys at turning points or other difficult places. The above facts establish, in the Board’s opinion, the necessity for and advisability of increasing the aids to navigation in the Kennebec River… .
The Lighthouse Board had to repeat this petition in its 1893 and 1894 reports before Congress responded with a $17,000 appropriation on March 2, 1895. By July 1897, title for Perkins Island was obtained, plans and specifications had been prepared, and a contract for constructing the station was agreed upon. A frame dwelling and barn were built on the island along with a wooden, octagonal tower, whose design was identical to those at Doubling Point and Squirrel Point. A lens lantern was placed in the twenty-three-foot-tall tower, where it beamed forth its light at a focal plane of forty-one feet.
A gallery with railing was constructed around the lantern in 1899, allowing the keeper to more easily keep the lantern glass clean. A boat slip was also added that same year, and in 1901 an enclosed wooden boathouse was built on the rocks just below the lighthouse.
On January 15, 1902, a fifth-order Fresnel lens replaced the lens lantern used in the lantern room, greatly increasing the intensity of the light, and later that year, a bell tower, equipped with a 1,000-pound bell, was constructed just south of the tower. The addition of an oil house and outbuilding was noted in the Annual Report of 1906.
Jacob W. Haley was appointed the first keeper of the lighthouse, and his lengthy stay of nearly thirty years far exceeded the service of any subsequent keeper assigned to Perkins Island. In 1916, Keeper Haley was commended for preventing a waterlogged rowboat loaded with lumber from capsizing and for providing dry clothing and refuge to a party that had taken refuge on the island during a heavy thunderstorm. In August 1922, twenty people landed on Perkins Island when their launch caught fire. After the flames were extinguished, Keeper Haley used his personal powerboat to tow the damaged boat and its occupants twenty miles to their destination.
Eugene W. Osgood was the next keeper, and he was recognized for rescuing a man from drowning in June 1931:
A Mr. Libby had attempted to cross the head of a sluiceway in a dam when he was suddenly thrown out of his row boat and immediately caught in the currents and eddies formed by the water rushing through the sluiceway. The light keeper, who had gone to the post office for his mail, happened to be passing by and saw the man struggling in the water. Taking his own boat, the keeper succeeded in reaching the endangered man, but in doing so had to pass through the sluiceway, considered a dangerous undertaking.
Ethel recounted some of the many rescues that she and her husband had participated in over the years. During their tenure at Perkins Island, Keeper Osgood heard a signal bell and cries of help during a fierce storm. Setting out in the station boat, he located a party of nineteen people, whose boat had grounded in the storm, and managed to get them all back to the lighthouse, where Ethel dried them out and fed them. Nobody, including a sick boy on board, suffered greatly from this harrowing experience thanks to the courageous work of Keeper Osgood.
Cliff and Shirley Morong served as substitute keepers at Perkins Island for just over a month in early 1941, after Keeper Ruel W. Powers fell ill and was taken ashore to the hospital. The dwelling’s furnace was out when they arrived, so the only heat source was the Atlantic stove in the kitchen. Shirley described the station in an article:
The house was nice with pleasant rooms, hardwood floors, and a nice basement. The shed and other outbuildings were kept in good condition, scrubbed and painted. The lighthouse tower was just a few feet from the front of the house and the interior was varnished and everything, including all brass containers and even the dustpan, was kept polished. The toilet was at one end of the shed quite a distance from the house and reached by a wooden walk starting at the back door.
On real cold days Cliff kept a lighted lantern in the privy to melt the frost from the seat. We also appreciated the little bit of heat it furnished after bucking wind and snow to reach our destination….
Some nights, there would be a snowstorm and Cliff would have to start the bell. The bell machinery was located in a pyramid wooden tower on the shore a short distance from the house and reached by a wooden walk built over the rocks with a railing on each side. It was pretty miserable walking down with the cold wind and snow beating at him and trying to carry a lantern or flashlight and keep hold of the railing so that his feet wouldn’t slide out from under him all at the same time.
The bell machine consisted of a large spool shaped cylinder upon which a long cable was wound by means of a hand crank. When set in motion, the mechanism would cause the attached hammer to strike the large bell on the outside of the tower through an opening in the wall every few seconds depending on the character of the station.
With modern conveniences lacking, Keeper Skolfield tried to compensate in other ways. In his free time, he managed to transform the station’s acreage into what a reporter in 1955 called a “miniature paradise.”
First, he evened out the landscape, smoothened the many humps and holes in the ground into a generally mild configuration of the terrain which now would easily be taken for a country club golf course. Then he built a bulkhead of heavy pieces of granite to keep his ‘front yard’ level Next, he built a picket fence at the edge of the precipice to guard personnel and visitors from tumbling down the sheer rocky wall into the whirling waters below. When this was done, he started a long-term project of building up large patches of flower garden around the house and vegetable gardens higher up on the ridge of the island.
After Keeper Skolfield transferred to Squirrel Island in 1955, coastguardsmen were assigned to Perkins Island until the station as automated in 1959. All structures at the station were transferred to the State of Maine in the 1960s, except for the lighthouse, which remained an active aid to navigation under the care of the Coast Guard.
While the lighthouse received regular upkeep, the fog bell tower and keeper’s dwelling gradually fell into disrepair, and at some point the boathouse was either removed or destroyed. In 2000, a portion of the roof over the front porch of the keeper’s dwelling had collapsed, and the chimney appeared ready to topple over. The fog bell tower, however, did receive a thorough restoration that year thanks to funding by the Maine Department of Conservation and a New Century Program Preservation Grant.
The American Lighthouse Foundation signed a long-term license with the Coast Guard in 2000, assuming responsibility for maintenance of Perkins Island Lighthouse. Three years later, Friends of Perkins Island Lighthouse (FPIL), a chapter of the lighthouse foundation, was formed to help preserve the lighthouse. Although the keeper’s dwelling is controlled by the state, FPIL obtained permission to shingle the most damaged portion of the roof, rebuild the front entryway, and paint the dwelling.
Due to a generous $45,000 gift by local residents Tom and Jaana Sheehan, a crew from J.B. Leslie Company spent eight weeks on the island during the fall of 2014 restoring and painting the exterior of the dwelling.
Thanks to enthusiastic FPIL members, who have raised funds and provided needed manpower, the long-term preservation of the historic structures on Perkins Island seems to be a sure thing.
Head Keepers: Jacob W. Haley (1898 – 1927), Eugene W. Osgood (1928 – 1935), Ruel Walter Powers (1935 – 1941), Clifton S. Morong (1941), Eugene W. Osgood (1941 – 1946), Clarence A. Skolfield (1946 – 1955), Anthony Fargnoli (1956), Robert Morong (1957).