Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2016-10-02.
Measuring 300 feet by 700 feet and standing 14 feet above sea level, the tiny Boon Island stands more than six miles offshore from York, Maine. On this island stands the Boon Island Lighthouse, the tallest in New England.
Although it is a small island, it still posed big problems for mariners. One of the earliest recorded mishaps was that of the Increase, a coastal trading vessel that wrecked on the island in the summer of 1682. The four survivors spent a month on the island, subsisting on gull's eggs and fish. They were finally rescued by Native Americans.
Although the four saw their survival as a "boon granted from God," the name predates the wreck of the Increase. In fact, the name Boon Island appears in records dating back as early as 1630, therefore it is more likely that the name is derived from a practice where local fisherman would leave barrels of provisions on the island for shipwrecked mariners. Thus, mariners would see the supplies as a "boon."
Survivors of the Nottingham Galley, a British ship that struck the island on December 11, 1710, weren't so lucky. During their three week stay, they had to resort to cannibalism to stay alive. It would still be nearly 90 years before something would be done to mark the island.
Local lighthouse superintendent, Benjamin Lincoln, met with the Boston Marine Society in 1797 to discuss the construction of day mark. It would take two years, but on March 2, 1799, President John Adams approved an act that appropriated $400 for the day mark. In the summer of 1799, an octagonal wooden tower was erected on Boon Island.
The day mark would last a little more than five years before being destroyed during a storm in October 1804. The following year, a stone day mark was erected. Although the day mark served for more than five years, shipwrecks continued to occur.
Finally, in 1811, Superintendent Lincoln recommended a proper lighthouse for Boon Island and an appropriation of $3,000 was made. By winter 1811, a 25-foot-tall tower, topped by an octagonal lantern had been erected. Multiple lamps, suspended by chains, exhibited a fixed white light 32 feet above mean high water.
The job was completed by contractors Thomas Heath and Noah Porter at a cost of $2,527. Noah Porter would go on to erect the lighthouse on Ocracoke Island in 1822 and the Assateague Island Lighthouse in 1833.
Benjamin Wane is listed as the first keeper, but it is unclear if he ever actually served. He turned down the position before ever going out to the island. The second keeper, David Oliver served on the island, but demanded a salary of $500 per year and $30 per month wages for an assistant. When the government refused, he resigned.
In March of 1812, Thomas Hanna was appointed keeper of the Boon Island Lighthouse. After serving a year, Hanna requested a raise of $150 more per year stating that he had faithfully taken care of the light. He soon received a raise of $100, bringing his salary up to $400 / year. He would resign three years later, in May of 1816.
Taking over from Hanna was Eliphalet Grover, a native of York, Maine. Despite lighthouse keeping positions being political appointments at that time, Keeper Grover would serve nearly 23 years at Boon Island, despite many attempts to have him removed. He was replaced by Mark Dennett on May 10, 1839.
By 1831, after being continually assaulted by the Atlantic Ocean, the Boon Island Lighthouse was in such poor condition that it needed to be replaced. And by March of that year, Congress had appropriated $4,000 for its replacement. Seward Merrill was hired as the contractor.
Construction of the tower started on May 31, 1831. When completed, the new tower was 49 feet tall and topped off by an octagonal wrought-iron lantern. Inside the lantern was 12 lamps with 14-inch reflectors. The light was 69 feet above mean high water.
The new Boon Island Lighthouse was placed into operation on July 21, 1831. Soon thereafter, Keeper Grover was ordered to lower the 1811 tower to a height of 12 feet, where it would then be used for wood storage.
In 1843, Congress sent I.W.P. Lewis up and down the East Coast to report on the conditions of the lighthouses. Lewis did not report favorably on the tower:
Tower of rubble masonry, 49 feet high, laid up in bad lime mortar, which has given way to the effects of moisture and frost; base rests upon the uneven surface of a rock; roof of soapstone slabs; tower leaks in all directions; staircase rotten and unsafe to use; window frames and casings also rotten and leaky; walls inside covered with ice in winter and green mould [sic] in summer; whole structure in bad condition.
His report didn't speak well of the keeper's dwelling either, citing many of the same complaints he had about the tower. In his report, he did speak of the importance of the light, not only as a coast light and as a point of departure for the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse or Cape Elizabeth lights, but it also marked the dangerous ledges between it and the mainland.
Keeper John Thompson wrote a letter to the local superintendent of lights in November 1849 stating that 1,050 vessels had passed the light during the preceding month. In his letter, he made the case for an upgrade to the power of the light and mentioned that the Boon Island Light was probably the most import light on the East Coast.
The Boon Island Light was inspected in 1850 and once again, found to be leaky. The keeper's dwelling was also recommended for replacement as well. For their replacement, Congress appropriated $25,000 in 1852. Construction of the current granite tower started in June of 1854 and was completed by that September.
The following text appeared in W. B. Franklin's report dated September 28, 1854:
The stone-work of the tower is finished, and the structure is now ready for the reception of the lantern and lighting apparatus, which are to go out immediately. The tower is 118 feet high, and the whole will be finished and the light lighted for the first time near the middle of December next, unless something unforeseen occurs to prevent it.
1855 Boon Island Lighthouse (Courtesy Coast Guard)
In his report, the tower was only listed as 118 feet tall, which was the height of the tower without the lantern. The bronze lantern and iron stairs were fabricated by Ira Winn in a Portland machine shop. Due to the high quality of his work, he is credited for creating the lantern and stairs of many Maine lighthouses, including the lights at Portland Head, Cape Elizabeth, Seguin Island, Pond Island, Whaleback, and many others.
The 1,800 tons of granite for the lighthouse came from a quarry in Biddeford, Maine. The base of the tower is 25 feet and diameter, sloping to a 12-foot diameter at the top. To provide insulation and stability, the inside of the tower is lined with 70,000 bricks.
To complete the Boon Island Light Station, an additional $19,973 was appropriated in 1854. These funds went to procure a second-order Fresnel lens, made by Sautter et Compagnie of Paris, France, and to complete the tower and buildings. The tower was placed into service on January 1, 1855.
Over the years, many changes took place. In 1868, a watch room call bell was installed and the boathouse was renovated. The following year, a new boathouse was built. In 1880, a new floor was installed in the wood house and the roof was re-shingled.
In 1883, the tower was switched over to burn kerosene, commonly called mineral oil. The lard oil lamps were removed and replaced with kerosene lamps that burned much brighter. As kerosene was more volatile, an 11-foot by 15-foot oil house was built in 1887 to safely store the oil away from the tower.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the year 1888 brought many issues to light. The first issue was that of the slender tower. It had a tendency to sway and vibrate in high winds. The second issue that of dampness. The floor was so low that water would frequently enter the tower and the windows didn't open, so there was no ventilation. This left the tower damp most of the time.
The final issue was that of the keeper's dwelling. It was designed for two keepers, but was currently housing three; two of which had families. It was also in poor condition and in need of renovation. And furthermore, the keepers had to store their provisions in the hallways, between the rooms. This was fixed by the addition of a 12-foot by 20-foot supply house.
To remediate the vibration issue, six sets of iron ties with struts attached to the top of the lantern and were anchored to the masonry 40 feet below the watch room deck. To alleviate the dampness, all windows in the tower were replaced by double windows that could open. To stop the water from entering the tower, the floor was raised up 18" with concrete.
To fix the keeper's house, in 1889, the entire exterior granite walls were torn down and rebuilt. At that time, a wood-framed second story was added to the dwelling to supply additional living space.
A brick oil house was built in 1890. The station's cracked 1,200-pound fog bell was recast and placed in a belfry atop the new oil house. It would be rung by hand to answer the signals of passing vessels.
The issue of housing for the keepers came up again in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1891:
58. Boon Inland, seacoast of Maine - There are at this station one keeper and two assistants, and but two sets of quarters in one double dwelling. The second assistant keeper has to board either with the family of the keeper or with that of the first assistant keeper. This forced arrangement is unsatisfactory to all, and is quite unfavorable to the retention of a second assistant of the needed qualifications. The station is isolated and exposed, the tower is tall, and this second-order light is an important one. A third dwelling, which is urgently needed, it is estimated can be built for $3,400. It is therefore recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made therefor.
The same entry was reiterated in each subsequent Annual Report through 1904. On April 28 that year, Congress had finally appropriated $4,000 for the dwelling, and by 1905, a one-and-one-half-story, wood-framed, six-room dwelling was added for the principal keeper and his family.
In 1906, the color of the tower was changed from gray to white.
Although the Boon Island Light Station was one of the most important stations along the East Coast, its fog signal was never upgraded from the hand-operated bell. Captain R. D. Evans of the Lighthouse Board filed a complaint stating that he could not hear the bell while passing the station in October of 1897.
This led the Lighthouse Board to recommend an upgraded fog signal for Boon Island at a cost of $10,000. This request was repeated in the Board's annual reports yearly from 1901 through 1909, but it was never approved by Congress. The station wouldn't get a proper fog horn until 1959.
The Boon Island Lighthouse was electrified in 1931, which brought the candlepower up to 75,000, making it the most powerful light between Cape Elizabeth and the Graves Light in Boston.
Being at such an exposed spot in the Atlantic Ocean meant that the Boon Island Lighthouse was hit by a great number of storms. Powerful waves would sweep over the island. Numerous times over the years, the keeper's dwelling was flooded with seawater, resulting in broken windows and doors, and allowing boulders to enter it.
During one particular storm in 1888, every person on the island had to take refuge at the top of the tower for three days until the storm passed. During another storm in January 1898, winds blew at 75 to 100 miles per hour for nearly 24 hours, encasing the entire island in ice.
But those all pale in comparison to the great blizzard of 1978. The storm struck on February 6 and flooded the keeper's house with five feet of seawater. The powerful waves scatted the massive boulders around the island like they were tiny pebbles.
The two Coast Guard keepers sought refuge in the lighthouse and were rescued the following day by helicopter. It was estimated that $100,000 in damage was done by the storm. Although the station wasn't scheduled for automation until 1980, it was automated by the end of 1978. Rather than repair the damage to the keeper's dwelling, it was burned to the ground in 1981.
The second-order Fresnel lens was removed from the tower in 1993 and replaced by a more maintenance-friendly modern optic. The lens was stored at a Coast Guard facility until April 2000, when it was put on display at the Kittery Historical and Naval Museum.
That same year, the Coast Guard licensed the lighthouse to the American Lighthouse Foundation. In 2012, it was announced that the lighthouse would be made available to any qualified entity under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000.
When no qualified group came forward, the U.S. General Services Administration placed the Boon Island Lighthouse up for auction, making it available to the public. The winning bidder, chosen in October 2014, was Arthur P. Girard, a Portland real estate developer, with a bid of $78,000. Girard had previously bid on the Ram Island Lighthouse in 2010, but lost it in a coin toss.
By December 2014, Girard had sold the property to Boon Island LLC, registered in Wilmington, Delaware for $119,673. Although it is unclear who the new owner is, it is said that they are interested in lighthouses, and have significant assets in which to fund a restoration.
Note: The lighthouse is private property, please respect this and do not trespass.
Directions: This lighthouse sits about 6 miles off shore from York Beach, Maine. A distant view is available from the Cape Neddick Lighthouse. But the best view would be from one of the cruises located in the area.
Access: The lighthouse is currently owned by Boon Island LLC. The lighthouse and grounds are closed.View more Boon Island Lighthouse pictures