The seas smashed in the boathouse doors which had a 4” x 4” bar across them, then a brace from the center of the bar to the wench, broke both of them, threw the doors and a 130 gallon kerosene tank up to the wench, where they became wedged between the boats, tore off about eight square feet of clapboard from the northeast side of the house, ripped up some of the shingles on the roof and the water came in over the keeper’s and first assistant’s room; also ripped shingles from our coal bunker, took about 80 feet or more of our boat slip, and we cannot use the liberty boat until the slip is repaired. It parted our telephone cable close to the Ledge, and broke the wire rope stay to the masthead. Seas striking the side and roof shook the building so the stove rattled.
A lighthouse was being considered for either Saddleback Ledge or Spoon Island in 1837, when Joseph Smith, Captain in the U.S. Navy strongly recommended that the ledge be selected as the site. After an initial $5,000 was allocated for the project in March 1837, Saddleback Ledge was purchased the following August for $10, and construction began in 1838. In January 1840, architect Alexander Parris wrote on the left corner of the original plans and drawings for Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, now held by the National Archives, that he had personally overseen the construction on Saddleback Ledge and that everything was in complete conformance with the contract. The actual construction was carried out by Gridley J.F. Bryant, who worked with Parris on several buildings in the 1840s. Parris would later be responsible for five more stone lighthouses in Maine and one in New York.
The simple conical tower on Saddleback Ledge, formed of hammered granite and topped by a black, octagonal cast-iron lantern room, contained rooms for the keeper and his family and was built for $15,000, which, while expensive, was considered “economical” by I.W.P Lewis in 1842, given the quality of construction. The lantern room of the 40.6-foot-tall tower originally exhibited the light from ten oil lamps, set in fourteen-inch reflectors, at a focal plane of fifty-two feet above the sea.
Watson Hopkins was hired as the first keeper, and he and his family resided in the tower, which had a living room with a stove, two chambers, and a cellar. Life for the Hopkins family— which included the keeper, his wife and their seven (later eight) children — was miserable, according to a report Watson made in 1842. His annual salary of $450 was the highest in the district but hardly made up for the conditions he had to endure. While the tower was in good shape, with only one leak, there was no vent for their wood-burning stove. The cellar contained two wooden water tanks for water, but one of them leaked, and the copper trough placed around the top of the tower to collect water had been swept away, requiring fresh water to be hauled from Vinalhaven, seven miles away. While Hopkins had been given a small dory, he had to pay freight on all his supplies as his boat was entirely unfit for his exposed location. When wood and provisions did arrive, there was precious little space to store them. The station’s outhouse had been swept away in the first storm after it was built, and the iron railing around the base of the tower didn’t last much longer. All the windows leaked in storms, and the iron shutter fastenings had corroded away.
Getting on and off the ledge was treacherous. In September 1843, one week after Keeper Hopkin’s wife, Abigail, gave birth at the station, she and their new baby, Margaret, attempted to board a boat back to the mainland. Somehow the baby slipped into the surf but was rescued immediately with no lasting problems. To make accessing the ledge safer, a great boom, fitted with a bosun’s chair, was installed on the island in 1885 to swing people over the rocks, hoisting them onshore or onto the deck of a boat. This apparatus did turn the experience into a sort of amusement ride for some, but most greeted it with more apprehension than exhilaration.
An inspector in 1850 found the lantern rusty with broken and cracked panes, and the tower’s foundation undermined, making it “a dangerous placed to live in, in its present condition.” In 1855, the tower received a new lantern, and a fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed the following year. Also in 1855, W. B. Franklin, Inspector for the First District, requested that the salary of all his keepers be raised $100 per year. “I believe that such an increase would cause a better class of men to seek after these places,” wrote Franklin. “They are now too often filled by men who are fit for no business, and who apply for these positions because, even with the small salaries now given, they get more money in a year than they could get in the same time by doing anything else.”
By 1867, a wooden addition had been added to the tower, as in a report that year, it was noted that this structure needed to be repainted. This addition contained a boathouse on the first floor and two rooms for an assistant keeper on the upper floor. The wooden building lasted until about 1960, when the Green Berets blew it up as part of a training exercise. In 1887, a pyramidal skeletal fog bell tower was bolted to the ledge and from it was suspended a 1,000-pound bell, which required hourly hand winding in periods of low visibility.
In the late 1800s, several publications printed a story about a keeper who left his fifteen-year-old son at the light while he made a day trip to the mainland. A horrible storm blew in, preventing the keeper from returning for three entire weeks. Although his son had little food, the lad somehow managed to keep the lights lit every night, which told the keeper that his son was still alive. Finally, the keeper returned with supplies, and his weakened boy was nursed back to full health.
First Assistant Keeper Vurney King was on ten-day shore leave in January 1908 when he received a phone call summoning him back to the station as Marnal Newman, the second assistant, had drowned, and Keeper Jerome Brawn was stranded on the ledge by himself. Twenty-year-old Marnal, who had been in the service for three years, set out from Vinalhaven on January 11 in a small boat to return to the lighthouse and was not heard from again. His boat washed up on Robert Head near Vinalhaven but no trace of Marnal was found.
In 1914, the illuminant was changed from oil to incandescent oil vapor, increasing the power of the light, and at the same time, a fourth-order Fresnel was installed in the lantern room in place of the fifth-order lens.
On January 9, 1919, Keeper Leo Allen responded to a young school girl who wanted to learn about his service as a lighthouse keeper, including his time as an assistant at Saddleback Ledge. Allen wrote in part: the “light was 5th order fixed white light and fog bell [that sounded] every ten seconds. The keepers were three in number and had a furlough every ten days. Their families living on the Maine. I went to this station because the salary is the largest in the District. Stayed here three years.”
One night in 1927 at Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse, the keepers were sitting in the kitchen discussing wars and rumors of wars, “when bang, bang, bang, something came against the window panes.” The keepers “thought another war had started….,” but it turned out this “war’s” casualties were 124 ducks, mostly dead, that had slammed into the lantern windows in the night. Over thirty stunned, but living, ducks were placed inside the boathouse overnight, and the next morning the rejuvenated birds took flight, honking as they went. A ten-pound drake burst through a pane of glass in the lantern room, damaged the lens, and put out the light. The two assistant keepers “worked feverishly, disregarding their own safety, until the beacon was again sending its welcome message across the water.”
Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse was automated in 1954 and is still managed by the U.S. Coast Guard. In 2009, the lighthouse, deemed excess by the Coast Guard, was offered at no cost to eligible entities, including federal, state, and local agencies, non-profit corporations, and educational organizations under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000, but given its remote, inhospitable location, it’s doubtful that any group or individual will take it on as a preservation project. The lighthouse remains an active guide to navigation with a 300-mm light flashing white every six seconds and an automated foghorn that blasts once every ten seconds, when needed.
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