Editor’s note: This column draws from a collection of Maine Coast Fisherman newspapers from the late 1940s through the early 1960s donated to the Island Institute.
Noble and lonely are the beacons that dot our coastline, shining over bustling village and desolate outcropping alike.
The 60 plus lighthouses in Maine have been attracting visitors and repelling ships for decades. Now lights run automatically, and we tend to forget about the people behind the towers.
Yet nestled in a collection of the Maine Coast Fisherman newspaper, among ads for baked beans, lies “Life At The Light Station.” This was a column where Maine lighthouse keepers could write in, documenting their daily activities and creating a vivid picture of what would become their lost practice.
It was the mid-20th century, and the “wickies,” as they were called—because the had to trim the lamp’s wick—were mostly male and preferably married. The rules and regulations for a lighthouse keeper were strict. They were expected to have a clean house and a welcoming air. One woman from Squirrel Point light on the Kennebec River worried that her lighthouse wouldn’t pass inspection due to unmade beds.
The work and stress were constant. When it was foggy, some stations had to hand ring bells every few minutes in lieu of a fog horn. In a winter storm of 1950, a wickie from Pond Island Light, near Popham Beach, said, “I never knew how hard it was to sleep in a life jacket.”
Being a keeper wasn’t all bad.
In 1948, Mohegan’s lighthouse keeper wrote to the Maine Coast Fisherman about how beautiful his marigolds were.
Out on Boon Island, off York, the keeper’s sons adopted a baby seal and a pigeon. His father wrote: “He seems to like oatmeal fairly well … a pet in a place like this is most welcome.”
At Marshall Point Lighthouse in Port Clyde, the highlight of the keeper’s month was going to see a local ball game. Someone delivered a broom to the Owls Head Lighthouse and the wickie wrote back with brimming gratitude.
Every Christmas, Capt. William Wincapaw would fly a helicopter over the stations and drop presents for the keepers. He covered nearly 228 stations in New England, sending comic books and chewing gum down into the thankful hands of the lighthouse people.
Many stations at this time were still running on oil, but with the switch to electric light, people were out of jobs. One woman from Phippsburg went back to her old station, now empty and automatic.
“It’s just pathetic,” she wrote. “The roses have been taken over by weeds.”
Another keeper said that there was “nothing much to do except throw switches.”
What hit me most when reading the “Life At The Light Station” columns over the years was how the keepers responded to their world in such human fashion. Pleasure was taken from simple things, like when the weather was warm, or when “a pretty ship drove past last week.”
The wickies would talk to each other through the letters, asking each other how the new grandchild was doing, or if anyone wanted an extra cat. A general love for people and life shone from the faded pages.
The next time you visit one of these nautical landmarks, take a moment to pause and reflect on the lonely souls who helped it stand today, and “Long live the wickie!”
Dora Thompson of Rockland is a participant in The Working Waterfront/Island Institute’s student journalism program funded by a grant from the Eaton Foundation. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Southern Maine.