As former guardian of the Burnt Island Light, I took it upon myself to research this historic site and to locate the people who called it home. The island’s history really started coming together when former keepers accepted my invitation for a return visit. They came from as far away as Tennessee and Alaska to share their valuable stories, personal photographs, treasured letters, furnishings, and mementos associated with lighthouse living.
However, what about the life and times of earlier keepers? Primary sources in the form of logbooks at the National Archives and letters saved by descendants were key. Those recovered writings will provide you with a snapshot of a 19th century lighthouse keeper – his job, life, and family, plus reveal his personal traits of passion and dedication.
My affection for Keeper James Auld McCobb grew stronger and stronger with every logbook entry I read. A writer far ahead of his time, he expressively described daily tasks, weather, fishing activities, visitors, and even the death of his wife. The following excerpts are a glimpse of a local man whose career began as a young sailor and ended in 1880 as a lighthouse keeper.
Life as a Keeper - James McCobb describes his life at the Burnt Island Light Station in the following letters.
February 1869 - In a letter to daughter Eliza he says: "I was never more contented in my life. 'Tis so much better than anything else I could do, and I should dread so much having to go to sea again."
January 3, 1870 – In a letter to his friend George Beath he says: “Light-Keepers are not allowed to go about as much as they used to go and so I stay home pretty close. I still like the business of keeping the light and taking care of things around me very much. It takes up about one half of my time doing the work about the light and the balance of it in summer work in my garden, catch a few fish, lobsters or something of that sort and so I pass the time off very well. But in the winter, I can do nothing else but tend the light. It is more work in winter than in summer. I have to keep a fire in the lantern every night to keep the oil soft and that adds very much to the work for the stove will smoke more or less, and then I have to keep the works all clean and coal smoke is hard stuff, you know, to get off the paint. The lighthouse board requires everything to be kept as clean as a hound’s tooth.”
Attending the Light - Keeper McCobb often referred to his duties of maintaining a good light.
December 1, 1873 - “Worked about the station according to lighthouse regulations. Trimmed the light as usual at nine o’clock and again at two. Very cold weather and much vapor flying. Vessels are much iced up as they pass the station.”
December 29, 1876 - “Heavy snowstorm set in about sunset. Wind from the northeast blowing quite fresh. At eight in the evening, it had increased to a gale and still increasing until midnight when it blew a perfect hurricane from the east. It dumped snow and some rain accompanied it, making it necessary to be often on the outside of the lantern to wipe off damp snow from the plate glass. Though a dangerous place for one to be on such a night as that, still it was done and the glass kept bright and clear.”
Weather – As a sea captain, James McCobb had developed a keen sense of predicting weather, which often differed from the newly-formed National Weather Service.
October 11, 1879 - “Cool damp day, appearance of heavy easterly storm. Storm signal flying at the harbor first of the day at noon pulled down, still threatening weather. Although, am of the opinion that the storm weather signal is of but little benefit to navigation after all said and done. An old sailor with any gumption at all about him knows more about the weather now than all the weather wise prophets sitting in their offices at home.”
March 31, 1880 – “March is indeed going out like a lion this year, the lamb part of the month we have not had at all. It used to be said that if March came in like a lion it would go out like a lamb, but this year tis lion all through.”
Capsized Vessel – McCobb was required to keep look-out duty and assist mariners when possible.
August 18, 1878 - “Heavy squall of thunder and lightning with rain about four o’clock in the afternoon from the westward. Just before the squall the wind blowing fresh from the southward a sailboat with two young men in her capsized between the station and Southport. One of the young men Frank Decker was drowned, the other Elliot Grover was saved by a boat from Capitol Island. At dark the body of young Decker had not been found though the boat had been raised and taken to Capitol Island.”
Fishing Activity – One of the duties of Keeper McCobb was to count and record vessels passing the station in order to justify the lighthouse’s existence.
September 21, 1874 – “Fleet of 320 sail, mostly fishermen passed out by the light this morning. Clear, fine weather.”
July 19, 1875 - “A large fleet of vessels now seining around and some near this station for mackerel and pogies. Among them one three masted schooner of 300 tons burdened. Everything done about the light to make it useful as possible to seamen.”
Family Death – McCobb reported several visits from Dr. Blossom to attend to his ailing wife prior to her death.
March 22, 1877 - “Wife died this morning about two o’clock of congestion of the lungs and cankers in the throat, stomach and bowels. She had been in feeble health all winter but able to be about the house attending to her work until about two weeks before her death when a cold brought on congestion and then canker which caused her death as above stated. She was carried off to the harbor and buried at the center burying ground in Boothbay on the following Sunday. Her age was fifty three years and four months.” (Might Martha McCobb be the ghostly woman in white bedclothes seen by many of Burnt Island’s keepers?)
Tourists – In the 1854 Instructions for Lighthouse Keepers, it states that the keeper is expected to be polite to strangers. However, after the death of his wife, James McCobb became less tolerant of summer visitors.
September 8, 1877 - “Summer company just leaving for their homes for which we feel truly thankful that the Almighty sends the cool weather to stir them up a little and remind them of home for indeed they do sometimes make me a good deal of trouble about the station.”
July 25, 1880 – “The most boats sailing about the harbor and islands this season we have ever seen from the station, Sunday especially. This God abandoned set of people from the cities and country places make it a general holiday.”
Resignation – Keeper McCobb had determined his goal was to stay for five years. He ended up serving for twelve - a testament to his dedication to mariners.
October 7, 1880 - “The Keeper resigned his position and sent his resignation to the Superintendent of this lighthouse district to the effect soon as his successor can be appointed. Owing to poor health, the keeper does not at all time feel able to do the duties required of him at the station. He feels the importance of a good light in all kinds of weather.”
October 26, 1880 – “Freeman Grover, Jr. takes charge of the station today and James A. McCobb retires.”
A great deal of thanks is owed to Beatrice Lord, Marjorie Blood and Helen Baker, who preserved the legacy of their great-grandfather by sharing stories, saving his letters, and providing his photograph. These documents, along with McCobb’s logbooks, hopefully gave readers a sense of what it was like to be a lighthouse keeper between the years 1868 and 1880.
Teacher course participant Tammy Fereshetian was intrigued with the writings of Keeper McCobb. As a special project, she wrote a Biography of James A. McCobb for use in the interpretive history program at Burnt Island. This document can be found at Lighthouse Education & Nautical Studies’ website: www.lighthouseeducation.org under Keepers’ Klippings.
Science teacher and retired Education Director at the DMR, Elaine Jones has been recognized for her vision, dedication and 30 years of public service. She designed the Maine State Aquarium and acquired/repurposed Burnt Island Light Station, where students, teachers and visitors alike shared hands-on learning through interactive exhibits and living history programs. Her passion for teaching continues as founder of the nonprofit Lighthouse Education & Nautical Studies (LENS).