Seguin Island Lighthouse

Phippsburg, Maine - 1857 (1796**)

Photo of the Seguin Island Lighthouse.
 
 
   

History of the Seguin Island Lighthouse

The 64-acre Seguin Island rises up out of the Atlantic Ocean at the terminus of the Kennebec River. There are several theories on how the island received its name.

One theory is that the name is a corruption of the Indian word sutquin or satquin, which roughly translates to "place where the sea vomits." This is easily explained as the incoming ocean waves crashing against the outgoing waves of the Kennebec River, creating a hazardous bar.

The second theory is that the name originates from an Indian word that meant hump. This theory also makes sense as the island rises more than 100 feet above sea level. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain noted that Seguin Island looked like a giant turtle rising up out of the ocean.

We may never know how the island got its name, however, in 1786 more than fifty local merchants petitioned the General Court of Massachusetts, which at the time Maine was part of Massachusetts, for the creation of a lighthouse on Seguin Island. The lighthouse, they argued, could serve as both a coastal light as well as an entrance light to mark the Kennebec River.

The text of the petition included:

"Island Seguin seems to be designated by Nature for this purpose. If there was a Light upon this Island many Vessels would be saved from Shipwreck, and many Persons preserved from immature Deaths."

By the late 1700s, there were only three lighthouses north of Boston - Cape Ann Lighthouse on Thacher Island, Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Hampshire, and the Portland Head Lighthouse in Maine.

Once approved by President George Washington in 1793, progress began. On February 19, 1794, the state of Massachusetts ceded ten acres on Seguin Island to the federal government and in June of that year, the Commissioner of Revenue, Tench Coxe, sent word to the local lighthouse superintendent in Boston, General Benjamin Lincoln, that he should examine Seguin Island to select the most advantageous spot for the lighthouse.

By the following April, the site was selected and a request was posted in local newspapers. The proposal called for an octagonal wooden lighthouse tower on a stone foundation and a one-story, wood-framed dwelling. The tower was to be 40 feet tall to the base of the lantern and then be topped with a 10-foot-high octagonal iron lantern. The tower was to be 26 feet in diameter at the bottom, tapering to 15 feet at the top.

From what has been written, there was but one response to the request to build the lighthouse complex. When completed in 1795, the cost was $6,000 and the tower stood roughly 50 feet southwest of the current tower.

The first lights used for illumination of the Seguin Island Lighthouse were sixteen oil lamps backed with crude reflectors, which were placed in a circle on a wooden bench in the lantern. The light's characteristic was a fixed white light.

The station's first keeper was John Polereczky, a Hungarian immigrant that fought with the French during the American Revolution. To reward his service, he was given the position of keeper of Seguin Island in March of 1796 with a salary of $200 per year.

Although the Seguin Island Lighthouse wouldn't be operational until the fall of 1796, Keeper Polereczky was allowed to start in March to give him time to cultivate the soil on the island. To clear at least nine acres of trees and bushes, he was paid $150.

Within the first nine months of being on the job, Polerczky twice wrote to Tench Coxe, the Commissioner of Revenue to ask for a raise. Both times his requests were denied and a letter sent to him explaining the benefits of his current position, "plenty of fuel, without expense, upon public land, the opportunity to fish for his family use, or for sale, land for tillage and grass, and for a plentiful garden."

During Keeper Polerczky's tenure, the commonwealth of Massachusetts ceded the remaining portion of Seguin Island to the federal government, which took place on March 8, 1797. Polerczky served at Seguin Island Lighthouse until being replaced by Jonathan Delano during October 1804.

Winslow Lewis installed a new lantern in 1817 and reported that the original wooden tower was in such poor condition that he didn't know if it would stay in place. By 1819, a new stone tower was erected at a cost of $2,248.

The new 1819 lighthouse at Seguin Island was much smaller than the original light. It measured only twenty feet from the base to the lantern and was only 16 feet in diameter at the base, tapering to 13 feet at the top. The lantern from the old tower was to be "well glazed with the best double glass from the Boston manufactory" and placed on the new tower.

In 1825, local superintendent Isaac Ilsley had accused Keeper Delano of improper practices when he noticed that the lighthouse on Seguin Island used more oil than a similar lighthouse at Portland Head. What was also found was that the Delano family had been trading lamp wicks intended for use in the lighthouse for tin. He was fired in March 1825; replaced by John Salter.

In 1837, a 3,639-pound fog bell was added to the station. During times of inclement weather, in response to signals from passing vessels, Keeper Salter was expected to ring the bell by hand. For his troubles, he was paid an extra $100 per year.

By 1843, the 1819 tower was in poor condition. A report by I.W.P. Lewis, Winslow Lewis's nephew, described the lighthouse as being in "bad order," citing inferior mortar, cracked walls, and leaky and decaying woodwork.

Other issues noted "impure" glass in the lantern, the 14 lamps and reflectors were poorly aligned, the keeper's house was leaky and the east end was cracked. Surprisingly, the 1795 keeper's house was listed as "in very good preservation" and being used for storage.

Another issue noted by I.W.P. Lewis was the placement of a fog bell. It was installed in such a way that the full sound couldn't be utilized, rending it useless. Keeper Nathaniel Todd provided a statement regarding the bell stating "vessels can seldom hear it above the surf in ordinary weather, and if blowing fresh, cannot hear it at all."

Prior to the creation of the Lighthouse Board, Stephan Pleasonton, the Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, handled all decisions regarding lighthouses and aids to navigation. This meant that most decisions were looked at from a financial point of view.

The formation of the Lighthouse Board in 1852 moved all auspices of the aids to navigation to a group that understood the business, primarily engineers and personnel from the Navy. The Lighthouse Board streamlined many decisions and fast-tracked many improvements to the nation's lighthouses.

In 1854 a new fog bell with an automatic striking mechanism was installed at Seguin Island Lighthouse. The following year, the Lighthouse Board announced that the lighthouse would be rebuilt and recommended a new first-order Fresnel lens, which would make it Maine's most powerful light.

Congress had appropriated $35,000 to rebuild the station. By 1857, a new 53-foot tall stone tower was constructed out of cut granite blocks. The lantern was outfitted with a nine-foot-tall first-order Fresnel lens. Also constructed at that time was a brick keeper's duplex.

U.S. Coast Guard Archive Photo of the Seguin Island Lighthouse1857 Seguin Island Light (Courtesy USCG)

Although there were issues with the fog bell being heard, its use continued until 1872 when it was replaced by a steam-powered fog signal. Construction started in 1870 on a small building about 25 feet south of the tower to house the equipment and a well to provide the water necessary for the engines. Once completed, the new fog signal operated at intervals of fifty-two seconds, with each blast lasting eight seconds.

Several new buildings were constructed in the late 1870s. A 31-foot by 32-foot, wood-framed building was put up in 1876. One side of the building served as quarters for an assistant keeper, while the other half housed duplicate fog signal equipment. The following year, a 15-foot by 18-foot fuel house for the fog signal was completed.

In 1889, a new 32-foot square brick fog signal building was constructed to house the duplicate fog signal equipment that was housed in the 1876 building. Once the equipment was removed from that structure the vacated space was converted into living space.

After several dry years, the well drilled for the steam fog signal was running dry. To complement the well, in 1890, a rain shed with a large reservoir was added to the station. This allowed rainwater to be used to operate the fog signal.

Bringing supplies to the station was always an issue due to the height of the island. Coal and oil had to be brought up a steep quarter-mile climb. To make the job easier, a tramway system was installed in 1895.

The following entry appeared in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board in 1895:

53. Seguin, off the mouth of the Kennebec River, Maine - A railroad was built connecting the boathouse at the lauding with the signal house. A car was provided and a hoisting engine was set up for hauling up coal and supplies. A platform of heavy planks and timber was built at the boat slip. Extensive repairs were made to the dwellings, outbuildings, and reservoirs.

Rails built atop a trestle were run from the boathouse to the keeper's dwelling up the side of the hill. The keepers were supplied a cart in which to load supplies, which was then pulled up the tracks by a hoisting engine.

The tramway was a source of entertainment for the keepers and many times, they would ride in the cart to get up the hill. This continued on for numerous years until an unfortunate accident in September 1949.

Keeper Daniel Irvine was riding up the hill with his wife, two kids, and their pet dog. Something happened, and the cart reversed and started rolling down the hill. Daniel grabbed his daughter Millie and jumped from the cart. His wife, Joyce, tossed 18-month old Daniel, Jr. to safety, but before she could jump, the cart was moving too fast and was too high above the ground.

As the cart continued to gain speed, the wheels eventually came off the tracks. Still continuing down the tracks, the cart eventually came to a violent stop at the bottom. After the dust had settled, Joyce Irvine had suffered a broken leg and their dog had been killed. From that point on, the Coast Guard prohibited passengers from riding in the cart.

The station was converted to electricity in the 1950s, when electric generators were installed. As a backup, the kerosene-fueled incandescent oil vapor lamps were kept on hand.

After the keepers' families left, the station became males-only in 1963. This would last until the station was automated in 1985 and the crew reassigned. Although the station, like many other lighthouses, has many ghost stories associated with it, there is one specifically tied to the automation.

A crew arrived with orders to empty the dwellings of the furniture. After loading most of the furniture on the boat, as it was late, the crew spent the night in the keeper's house. That night, the officer-in-charge was awoken by a ghostly figure pleading, "Don't take my furniture. Please leave my home alone!"

The next day, when the crew went to leave, the chain holding the boat broke, the engine stopped, and the boat sank with all the furniture.

After automation, the future of the Seguin Island Lighthouse was uncertain. In 1986, a group of concerned citizens, led by Anne Webster, founded the Friends of Seguin Island Light Station and in 1989, the group had secured a 10-year lease on the property. In February 1998, under the Maine Lights Program, the group took ownership of the station.

The group used grants and donations to finance the restoration of the keeper's house. To keep vandals at bay, caretakers have lived at the station every summer since 1990. Every year, the group picks a volunteer couple to be the caretakers for the summer season. For more information on applying, please check the Friends of Seguin Island Light Station page.

In 1998, the Coast Guard had announced that they were removing the massive first-order Fresnel lens from the lantern due to the maintenance costs associated with the 17,000-foot undersea power cable. Instead, the classic lens would be replaced with a modern solar-powered plastic optic.

The Friends of Seguin Island fought to keep Maine's only operating first-order Fresnel lens at the lighthouse. The Coast Guard had offered to leave the inactive lens in the lantern, and instead erect a solar-powered mast light nearby. But this wasn't good enough for the group.

The group sought to convince the Coast Guard to not only leave the lens in the lantern, but also leave it operational. With that, the group started a petition drive collecting more than 7,200 signatures. It was announced in March of 2000 that the Coast Guard had agreed to leave the lens in operation in the lighthouse.

An inspection in May of 2005 found the lens in poor condition due to constant expansion and contraction from temperature swings. The following year, the Coast Guard awarded a restoration contract to the Lighthouse Lamp Shop, which repaired several prisms, cleaned the lens's frame and lens itself, removed corrosive contaminants, and polished the lens. The work was completed in June of 2007.

Today, the lighthouse is still operational and under the watchful eye of the Friends of Seguin Island Light Station. For the adventurous type, you can apply to be the next caretaker of the light. If that isn't for you, you can still visit the island, the lighthouse, and gaze at Maine's only operational first-order Fresnel lens.

Reference:

  1. Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
  2. "Seguin Light Station, Maine," Jeremy D'Entremont, The Keeper's Log, Spring 2013.
  3. The Lighthouses of Maine: Kennebec River to the Midcoast, Jeremy D'Entremont, July 9, 2013.
  4. Friends of Seguin Island Light. website.

Directions: This lighthouse sits on Seguin Island, about 1.5 miles south of the Kennebec River. The best views are from the water, however, distant views are possible from Popham Beach.

The Maine Maritime Museum has several lighthouse cruises that pass the Seguin Island Lighthouse. To get to Seguin Island, please check the Charters to Seguin page.

Access: The lighthouse is owned by the Friends of Seguin Island Light. Grounds open, tower open from Memorial Day through Labor Day.

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Tower Information
Tower Height: 53.00'
Focal Plane: 186'
Active Aid to Navigation: Deactivated (y)
*Latitude: 43.708 N
*Longitude: -69.758 W
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* Please note that all GPS coordinates are approximated and are meant to put you in the vicinity of the lighthouse, not for navigation purposes.

** This year denotes a station date. This is the year that a lighthouse was first reported in the vicinity or at that location.

All photographs and information on this site is copyright © 2016 Bryan Penberthy unless otherwise specified. No content may be used without written permission. Any questions or comments, please email me.