Down to the sea

Barbara Dyer: Curtis Island Lighthouse — the sentinel of Camden Harbor

Mon, 03/24/2014 - 2:45pm

CAMDEN — Curtis Island Light has been shining since 1835, when it was built on “Negro Island” by George Galt, of Massachusetts. The light kept many vessels passing by on their course and off the ledges. Keepers lived there and made sure the light was working properly all the time.

Several lighthouses were built over the years, gradually replacing one another. The Curtis Light House and towers were built of rubble but after 1855 they sheathed the tower in wood and later they did the same to the house. The fog bell was rung in response to a fog signal.

Keeper Henry Wiley, who served from 1883 to 1896, reported the hull of Snow Squall was half way between the outer ledge and Curtis Island. It was so far under it was not a menace to navigation, so they removed the spars and all the masts. The cabin and part of the deck came ashore at Dillingham’s Point.

The name of Camden’s “Negro Island” was changed to Curtis Island in 1934, in honor of Cyrus H. K. Curtis, who was a great benefactor to the town.

One duty of the keeper was to maintain: “the Journal of vessels, which pass by or in the vicinity of the light, must be kept according to the form by noting in the proper column, at the close of each day, from the log slate, the number of different classes of vessels which have passed during the preceding 24 hours. A quarterly return must be made to the inspector of the district by filling the blanks on the printed form which will be transmitted to him with other quarterly returns required to be made by the regulations of the Light-House Establishment. By order of the Secretary Light-House Board in Washington.”

A person kindly gave me a record book from Curtis Island kept from 1876 through 1879.

According to the list of keepers, Joshua Bramhall received $480 per year.

Some keepers were removed due to the change of administration in Washington. Others resigned, retired or died on the job.

As well as different light houses over the years, there were also many keepers. The first was H.K.M. Bowers, in 1836. The last Coast Guard keeper to live there was Clifton McKenney, Jr., EM2 until October 1971.

John French, EN2 of Camden, and his family lived there until 1967. During World War II, the keeper was Capt. Myrick R. Morrison, who had six Coast Guardsmen stationed there with him. They kept six hour shifts, as German submarines were along our coast.

All good things come to an end. In 1989, Portland Head Light, Maine’s last manned Coast Guard lighthouse, commissioned by George Washington, became fully automated. It was built in 1791. Camden was fortunate to later become the owner of Curtis Island. It is another picnic area for Camden, and people are chosen to live on it in the summer and maintain it. They get to enjoy the beauty surrounding them on one of the prettiest spots anywhere in the world.


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Barbara F. Dyer has lived in Camden all her life, so far.