Swan’s Island Woman Recalls Days of Shipwrecks
From a Newspaper Clipping
Mr. Elof Bernstorff lived for a time at Minturn on Swan’s Island and wrote articles for newspapers. The following is from such an undated article from some local paper.
There’s something about a Maine woman which gives you the feeling of indestructibility. Like the state itself, she stands rugged under tender blue skies, filled with the music of sea and forest, strongly beautiful, ageless. Add to this a spark of dry humor, and you have Mrs. Nettie Milan, reputedly the oldest resident of Swan’s Island.
No one knew how many candles to put on Mrs. Milan’s birthday cake. Someone with more temerity than we asked, “How old are you, Nettie?”
“What do you mean, old?” The bright gray-blue eyes snapped behind their glasses, and Nettie’s mouth slanted into a dry smile.
And right she is, for her mind is young and gay. In this comfortable little sitting-room filled with the aroma of fresh coffee and cake, crowded by momentoes of a full life, we lingered after the others had gone, hoping for a deeper glimpse into the remarkable personality which for years has set the social pace of Swan’s Island.
“How lonely you must have been during your 34 years on Burnt Coat Light!” we said.
“Nonsense!” The frail, long-fingered hands poured two more cups of coffee, “I was never lonely in my life. Too much going on!”
Little by little, she took us back through the years, pausing now and then to lose herself in sort of a reverie. Her slender figure was as straight as young spruce. Her expressive hands toying with the silver as if she were laying out the pattern of her life.
At such moments, the room seemed filled with the rushing winds of Hockamock Head, surf pounding against the ledges, schooners running aground, and men struggling in the breakers. All through it, we felt the indomitable courage of the Maine woman whose charms and vivacity had captured the hearts of her many neighbors and held them these many years.
Nettie Saunders came from Down East. She was born in Eastport, and later her family moved to Calais. Orin Milan was assistant light-keeper on Mt. Desert Rock when they were married. Five years later, they came to Swan’s Island. They had two children, Frank and Urla.
As she recalled the days on Mt. Desert Rock, a faint shudder trembled through Nettie’s frail body. One day, for instance, she stood on the shore and watched Captain Milan struggle with death in the boiling water. C. W. Thurston, an assistant light-keeper, attempted to leave Mt. Desert Rock in a small boat that capsized, throwing him into the breakers.
Not able to swim, the strong undertow threw him against the rocks until he became unconscious. Captain Milan rowed into the breakers but was unable to reach the helpless man. The captain went ashore and tried to catch the body as the sea hurled it onto the shore.
The second attempt succeeded. With the help of the woman at the station, he dragged the man to safety. Thurston had been in the water fifteen minutes. It took two hours to bring him back to life.
Nettie remembers the New Years’ night the British schooner Prohibition went aground. “It was a cold and pleasant night.” She said, “Except for the wind. The Prohibition sailed out of Yarmouth, N. S., and trying to get into Burnt Coat Harbor, missed her stays and had to anchor off the Sou’west point of Harbor Island. It was blowing a moderate gale. She rode it out for about two hours when the starboard chain parted and she dragged to within a ship’s length of Scrag Island where she brought up and dragged ashore. Orin and two seamen started out in a dory to rescue the crew, but when they got there the six men were out on the island. They’d have had to stay there all night at two below zero if the dory hadn’t brought them home to warm beds. My, but they were grateful! I don’t know how many days it took the tugs from Rockland to work her off.”
Her words, terse and factual, nevertheless painted the picture for us. A picture of looming black water swirling into white combs as the tide pushed it over the rocks of a disabled schooner like a fly caught in syrup, tossed by the heaving sea which lifted her over the ledges. The dory nosed through the water, its oars dripping silver in the moonlight. The strong woman watched from the kerosene lit tower while the men took the shivering crew off the rocky shelterless island, dry clothing and hot coffee waiting in the warm kitchen below.
Nettie Milan remembers, too, the night the Rockland Steamer caught fire at the steamboat wharf. The slanting smile came out again as she said, “The crew was up to the Odd Fellows Hall. Everyone left the dance, and the boys all in their Sunday clothes, hauled her off while she was burning.” Then soberly, “She dies right there in the harbor.”
Yet, sitting there behind her coffee table, the deep waves of her grey hair caught neatly in a net. Her skin was as clear as it must have been in her youth. This remarkable woman showed no sign of the austerity of her life.
Others tell us she has the happy faculty of laughing at her own mistakes and misadventures. Even after her husband’s death and losing the big house he built for her, she was happy to move into the snug little house near the harbor where you can sit at her window with Orin’s ancient binoculars. On parting, Nettie Milan handed us her scrapbook.
“If you find any way of figuring out how old I am,” she said, her mouth taking that downward quirk, “I’ll thank you to keep it to yourself!”
The book, yellow and cracking with age, goes back more than 50 years. All dates were carefully deleted. Clearly through its pages walks the straight little figure of a Maine woman with immeasurable fortitude, moving gayly from one event to another.
There are programs from parties, plays, and dances. Records of visits and visitors, friends from Maine to Texas, even one who narrowly missed death during the San Francisco earthquake. There are birth, weddings, deaths, accidents, hurricanes, heavy partings, and deep sorrow.
Then, we remembered that Nettie Milan had been a newspaper correspondent for Swan‘s Island at one time, president of the Ladies’ Aid for 35 years, and avidly listened to world news on her radio when we left, never mentioned a neighbor by name. She told us she detests gossip.
“There’s so much good in the worst of us,” she quoted, “and so much bad in the best of us, that it behooves none of us to speak ill of the rest of us!”