Lighthouse History

Photo Credit: Stephen Joyce Collection

Imagine sailing among unfamiliar ledges and islands of Penobscot Bay with the help of only a chart and a compass. That’s the way it was around Swan’s Island, until the lighthouse was built on Hockamock Head in 1872. Its familiar shape by day, and light by night, guided boats into Burnt Coat Harbor, well known at the time as a harbor of refuge. By the 1870s, Burnt Coat Harbor was a busy commercial harbor. Swan’s Island captains were famous for mackerel fishing, and the harbor was home to working schooners as well as smaller boats. Many of the smaller boats in the harbor were built on Swan’s Island. Its commercial importance provided plenty of justification for the US Lighthouse Service’s decision to build a light station at Hockamock Head.

The Milan Family

Photo Credit: Stephen Joyce Collection

Orrin Milan was keeper from 1897 – 1931. The Milans – Orrin and Nettie – had two children, Frank and Urla, both of whom were born in the keeper’s house. Frank wrote about his escapades as a youngster on Hockamock Head in the early years of the 20th century – walking to school, sledding on the hill, ice skating on the pond, playing baseball with a home-made ball, shipwrecks, picnics, and hauling traps by hand. Here is one of his stories — of mischief with the light house dory:

The boat slip was very steep and quite long. I soon learned that if I greased the ways and slipped the boat hook I could get a fast ride and a beautiful splash when the dory hit the water so whenever my father was away from the station I would practice this pastime. …When the tide was extra low the bow of the dory would hit the rocks as it slid into the water. This of course, didn’t do the dory any great amount of good. In fact after a few times of this the bottom of the bow wasn’t pretty at all. For several years the Lighthouse tender (I believe it was the Lilac in those days) would have to bring a new dory. The men who brought the new dory always wondered out loud how my father could wear out so many dories. Of course I never volunteered any information on the subject.

Read More about Frank Milan’s life at the lighthouse in “A Lighthouse Huck Finn.”

The Chandler Family

Photo Credit: Stephen Joyce Collection

Roscoe Chandler replaced Orrin Milan as lighthouse keeper in 1932, and served till 1941. He and Mary Chandler had 9 children, and fostered two more. Some of the children were grown by the time Roscoe came to Burnt Coat Harbor, but just the same, it was a big family to feed!

They had two cows, sheep and chickens, and sold extra eggs in the village. The Light House Board provided books for the family to read; every fall they also received two barrels of flour, a barrel of molasses, a barrel of sugar, and a side of corned beef.

They gathered raspberries and cranberries on Swans Island and nearby islands. They went fishing…and clamming and lobstering…

One of the tales of the Chandlers’ years at Burnt Coat Harbor Light involves a visit by the dreaded Lighthouse Inspector. ‘He wore white gloves and checked over door lintels, behind pictures and so forth.’

In one instance,

“a dozen or more of the family were visiting, creating some disorder, when a ship that looked like the tender was spotted coming into the bay. The cry went up and the cleanup started….”

Find out what happened then, and how Jack, the Irish setter, ended up with his head stuck in a boot…

Shipwrecks

Photo Credit:
Stephen Joyce Collection

In the early 1900s, people came to Swan’s Island by steamboat from Rockland. In January 1924, the steamboat Governor Bodwell was coming into Burnt Coat Harbor in a blinding snowstorm. The steamboat missed the channel and struck on Spindle Ledge. Fortunately, everyone was brought safely to land without loss of life (though one islander, who gave his jacket to a rescued passenger, later died of pneumonia). The steamboat was written off as a total loss, but nonetheless, she was raised, towed to Rockland and completely rebuilt. She continued to serve as the main transportation link to Swan’s Island until 1931, when she caught fire and burned while docked in Burnt Coat Harbor.

Read more about shipwrecks…

More Swan’s Island Stories

The Little Tower, A Shipwreck, & Some Swan’s Island Heroes, The story of the 1883 wreck of the J. W. Sawyer on Black Ledge; the heroic rescue of the stranded men; and the Light-House Board conclusion that the little tower had to go.

John M. Bryan and Donna A. Wiegle, Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, Swans Island, Maine, reproduced with permission from Chebacco: The Magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Vol. VIII (2006-07), pp. 6-21.

http://www.swansislandeducationalsociety.org/ Website for the Swan’s Island library and historical society.

http://sies.pastperfectonline.com/ Online digital photo collection from the Swan’s Island Historical Society

www.swansisland.org Town website – historic photos and stories

http://si.mainememory.net/page/3096/display.html Narrative history of Swan’s Island, special exhibits on specific topics of island history, current historical work and projects. Includes audio and photographs.

What Happened When…

1857 – Swan’s Islanders petitioned Congress for a Light House “near the mouth of the Old Harbor, so called …”

1872 – On August 15, the lights of the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station were lit for the first time. There were two towers and two lights. A boat entering the harbor would line up the lights to find the harbor entrance.

1883 – The light in the smaller tower was discontinued and the tower was later taken down.

1885 –
A boat house was built for the light house dory. A winch and hoisting gear raised it from the water to the boat house.

1895 – The brick oil house was built to hold supplies of kerosene, which fueled the light.

1897 – Orrin Milan took over as Light Keeper. The Milan family lived in the keeper’s house till 1932. Orrin’s son Frank was the “Lighthouse Huck Finn” whose story is on this page.

1911 – The bell tower was built, a tall pyramid with a mechanism for ringing the bell. Weights had to be wound up every six hours. The bell rang as the weights descended.

1932 – Roscoe Chandler took over as Light Keeper. The Chandler family lived in the keeper’s house till 1943.

About 1964 – A road was built over the hill. The boat house was removed and sold as a summer cottage.

About 1965-70 – The mechanical system for ringing the bell was discontinued, and the bell house was cut down to its present shape.

1975 – The last light keeper, Philip Felch, left the keeper’s house when the Coast Guard automated the light. The original 4th order Fresnel lens was removed and replaced with a light on a skeleton tower.

1982-83 – Swan’s Islanders led by Roberta Joyce protested the changes made by the Coast Guard at the light station. As a result of the protests, the tower was repainted, the light tower was relit, and gutting of the keeper’s house was halted.

1988 – The Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station was listed on National Register of Historic Places

1994 – The Light Station was deeded from the Coast Guard to the Town of Swan’s Island.

What Visitors Have To Say

I cannot express the gratitude I have for all of the dedication and hard work that has been given to the restoration of such a beautiful Light House.

- Kathy, July 2, 2017

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

The apartment, the weather, the people, the beach, the trails and especially the views have been exceptional.

- Ted and Carol, August 12, 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 10, 2017

Sunrises and sunsets are stunning, punctuated by the parade of lobster and sail boats.

- Barbara, August 18, 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

Took our weekly vacation on Swans Island, really enjoyed our great times there with our family & friends.

- Edith, April 20, 2016

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

- Mary, July 15, 2017