The Little Tower, A Shipwreck, & Some Swan’s Island Heroes

In old photos of the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, you can see two light towers, the smaller front tower standing about where the bell house is today. What happened to the little tower? It’s a story that begins with a stormy night in March 1883 and a tragic shipwreck.

Late 1800s. Light station with range lights.
Photo Credit: Stephen Joyce Collection

When the light station was built in 1872, the plan was that vessels coming into the harbor would use the two lights as range lights. But someone had miscalculated. Range lights have to be far enough apart so that there is a narrow passage where the two lights line up. The two towers at Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station were too close together. A vessel coming into the harbor could line up the lights and still run into danger.

That is what happened on March 7, 1883. The schooner J. W. Sawyer was returning to Portland from Georges Bank, loaded with fresh fish. Coming in from the east in a thick snowstorm, Captain John Orchard decided to shelter overnight in Burnt Coat Harbor.

At about 8 pm, the captain had the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station range lights exactly lined up, and the schooner was preparing to make a run for the harbor. But she was south of Heron Island amid a cluster of dangerous ledges and soon struck hard on Black Ledge. There were 16 men aboard, and over the next several hours, they struggled to make it from the damaged schooner to the relative safety of the ledge.

A reporter for the Portland Argus newspaper interviewed Captain Orchard and described his ordeal:

In leaving the vessel he was caught by a sea and swept from the rocks under the vessel’s bottom. He came to the surface again, and again reached the rock and was again washed away into the sea. The third time he reached the rock when a sea struck him, throwing him on his back and he was being drifted away. He was sinking but had the presence of mind enough to kick his foot out of the water when it was fortunately seized by one of the men on the rock, and he was dragged up. Three other crew members did not make it to the rocks, and a fourth made it but suffered a broken leg.

The crew had managed to bring one dory up onto the ledge, and on Thursday afternoon four men set out in the dory to row about two miles to Marshall Island. They reached the island and made contact with John Lane, who rowed to Swan’s Island for help. As the Argus reported, “Being in the ice all night” he had “nearly perished when he reached Swan’s Island.” The first Swan’s Islander located was George Hall, who gathered some men for a rescue party. One can only imagine the relief of the men of the Sawyer when they saw their rescuers approaching.

By Friday evening, 48 hours after the wreck, all survivors – the captain and 12 crew members – were safe on Swan’s Island. The Argus reported that Captain Orchard “and the survivors of his crew are filled with gratitude for the kindness shown them by all the good people on Marshal and Swan’s Islands.”

It was not exactly news to Swan’s Islanders that the range lights did not work. As the Light House Inspector’s report on the wreck explained, the lights were not used by those familiar with the harbor, and “only serve as a snare to strangers trying to make use of them – as in the case of the Schooner Sawyer – for if there had been but one light she never would have attempted to enter the harbor on such a stormy night.”

The wreck of the J. W. Sawyer convinced the Lighthouse Board that they should discontinue the lower range light, and the tower went dark in the summer of 1883. For several years thereafter, the little tower remained, unlit, useful only as a daymark. On June 6, 1902, the Board authorized the keeper to remove the unused tower. That, at least, happened quickly. On June 16, 1902, Keeper Orin Milan recorded in his logbook, “The little tower went over about 2 pm.”

Sources

  • Sufferings of Shipwrecked Men, Portland (ME) Argus, March 20, 1883. © New York Times. Available on www.nytimes.com.
  • Keeper’s Log, Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, National Archives RG26, E80
  • Letter dated April 27, 1883, from A.S. Crowninshield, Lighthouse Inspector, 1st District, to Vice Admiral Stephen C. Rowan, USN, Chairman, Lighthouse Board. National Archives RG 26, Lighthouse Service General Correspondence Vol. 559, p. 532.

What Visitors Have To Say

This is our first time to Swan’s Island and the Keeper’s House Apartment….How lucky we are to have found this treasure! We loved our week of peace, nature, and beauty. The shimmering water, the ever-changing sky and clouds, the trails in the woods …made for a restorative week.

- Paul and Bonnie, August 2020

This place quietly, simply, intoxicates you. Senses are full; smell, sights, sounds … yet not enough to overwhelm, just enough to soothe, just enough to make you fully aware of the natural gift Hockamock offers.

- Conrad and Michelle, August 2020

What a perfect holiday!! … Heaven on earth …lobster every night for dinner, fabulous hikes, amazing kayaking, spectacular sunsets…But perhaps the most cherished memory is the kind and lovely people of this island….

- Mary Beth & Michael, Sept. 2020

I have always wanted to stay at a lighthouse and now my dream has come true! The keeper’s quarters and the entire lighthouse park completely exceeded my expectations! Thanks for providing everything my son and I needed for a perfect stay and such amazing hospitality….

- Kristin and Izak, Sept. 2020

What a magic place. Sun and moon glinting off the water. The lighthouse beam in the trees, the sound of a gentle surf when the tide is in. The bell buoy ringing in the channel. Wonderful sunsets.

- Mike and Kathy, September 2019

The view out our window - moonlight on the ocean, porpoises, giant owls - plus the sound of the gong, and the wild berries…truly a special experience.

- Rebecca and Rich, August 2019

The apartment is beautiful. And the view is amazing! We could not have asked for a better vacation. We plan to return!

- Ann and Dave, September 2018

Thank you to ALL who made our stay so wonderful and relaxing. To the Islanders who told of trails to explore, thank you! We look forward to returning to this little piece of heaven on earth.

- Heather and Jamie, September 2018

From the amazing Light Keeper’s House to the beautiful view from the porch of the same, the amazingly friendly people, and our daily hikes along this rugged Maine Coast. Everything was perfect.

- Leesa and Howard, August 2018

Everything is magical! This is one of the best vacations! Ever!

- Ronald and Janet, July 2018

The beauty you offer is immeasurable. The clarity of light, wind, and Downeast character here recharged me.

- Lee, June 2018

What a wonderful place! We were in awe the moment we arrived. What a quiet and peaceful location for a vacation.

- David and Lorie, June 2018

You truly have a treasure perched out here atop the rocks with the vast sea at the doorstep. We watched a bright moon spilling its light onto the water, listening to the music of the waves, and wondering anew at the stars emerging in the dark sky.

- Susan, September 2017

This has been a lifetime experience! The beauty of Swan’s Island can’t be described in words or photographs, for they just don’t do it justice. I look forward to coming back again next year!

- Lacy, September 2017

We just stayed there and it is tremendous. The view and setting are amazing. The quality of the Keeper's house (2nd floor) is excellent. It is fresh, well decorated, and spacious.

- Mary, July 2017

We are fortunate to have traveled to many places in this world, but still contend, by far, this is the prettiest place on earth. Stay in the keeper's house. You will not be disappointed!!!! It is special.

- Spencer, July 2017