Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2017-01-31.
Although lighthouses had been established on Seguin Island and Pond Island, near the mouth of the Kennebec River, they did little to help vessels once they were in the river. In 1898, the Lighthouse Board erected the Perkins Island Lighthouse, to help vessels navigate the river.
To make the point for a lighthouse on Perkins Island, the Lighthouse Board stated several facts regarding the Kennebec River. During the year 1892, there were 3,137 arrivals of vessels that year, not counting the daily steamer traffic. That year, the steamers Kennebec and Sagadahoc made 96 round trips each from Gardiner, Maine to Boston, Massachusetts. The Board stated that the number of passengers carried was 232,150.
Although private companies had maintained lights at turning points in the river, the Lighthouse Board went on to recommend several new lights be established:
The Light-House Establishment maintains no lights or fog signals in the Kennebec, but the Kennebec Steamboat Company and the towboat companies have united for many years in maintaining lanterns hung on the buoys at turning points or other difficult places. The above facts establish, in the Board's opinion, the necessity for and advisability of increasing the aids to navigation in the Kennebec River, and it recommends the establishment of the following named lights:
On the southwest point of Perkins island a fixed red lens-lantern light, with a white sector to the northward and a fog bell struck by machinery, at an estimated cost of $5,700.
The Lighthouse Board went on to recommend three other lighthouses also be established at that time (Squirrel Point, Doubling Point, and Ames Ledge), and recommended that all four could be constructed for $16,725.
The same entries were repeated in 1893 and 1894, however, in 1894, the following was added:
The Board now recommends that an appropriation be made of the amount named, and, pending acquisition of title to the sites for the lights, that the Board be authorized to lease the land needed for the sites. If this is done possession can be had almost immediately. It may take two years or more to acquire title by purchase.
In that entry, the Lighthouse Board sought permission to lease the land needed for the lights, which would allow construction to start immediately. The following year, on Mach 3, 1895, Congress appropriated $17,000 for the projects.
Perkins Island Light circa 1956 (Courtesy C.G.)
The plan to lease the sites was most likely never approved as entries in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for the years 1896 and 1897 make reference to the title being "nearly ready" and the title being acquired.
In 1897, a contract was made with J.B. White of Auburn, Maine to construct the station. White erected a one-and one-half-story wood-frame dwelling, a wood-frame barn, and a 23-foot octagonal wooden lighthouse tower. The cellar of the dwelling housed a 2,350-gallon cistern, which provided water for the keeper and his family.
A little was done in each of the subsequent years to "finish" the station. In 1899, a gallery and railing were added around the lantern. Also at that time, a boat slip was added and a concrete floor was laid in the cellar of the dwelling.
On July 10, 1899, a white sector was placed in the lantern. Two years later, a boathouse was built and the barn was moved closer to the dwelling.
When the light was initially established in 1897, a lens lantern provided light. In 1902, the lens lantern was replaced with a fifth-order Fresnel lens, which increased the intensity of the light. That same year, a bell tower was built to house a 1,000-pound fog bell, establishing a fog signal at the station.
The final additions to the station were an oil house to store kerosene and another outbuilding in 1906.
The first keeper appointed at the Perkins Island Lighthouse was Jacob W. Haley. Keeper Haley served at the station from its inception in 1897 until 1927. During his tenure, he performed several rescues including saving a man in a waterlogged rowboat, filled with lumber. Keeper Haley not only saved the man and the boat, but the lumber as well. He was recognized again in 1920 for his assistance in floating a boat which had run on a ledge.
Prior to taking over at the Perkins Island Lighthouse in 1928, Eugene W. Osgood served at various other stations, including Halfway Rock Lighthouse, Manana Fog Signal Station, and the Isle of Shoals Lighthouse, near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Throughout his tenure at these remote stations, Osgood risked his life to help others.
While serving at the Perkins Island Lighthouse, Keeper Osgood left the station on June 16, 1931 to pick up his mail in Phippsburg. Osgood happened to spot a man struggling in the currents of a sluiceway. The man had been thrown out of his rowboat as he was trying to cross the sluiceway of a dam. Osgood was able to reach the man and pull him to safety. This rescue earned Osgood an official commendation from the Secretary of Commerce.
On another occasion, the Osgood Family took in a party of 19 when their boat ran aground during a thunderstorm. Shortly after their boat grounded, the party heard the fog bell from the nearby Perkins Island Lighthouse and began calling for help. Keeper Osgood heard their cries for help and went to their rescue. After transporting the large party to the lighthouse, Mrs. Osgood dried their clothes and fed the hungry group.
The lighthouse was automated in 1959. At that time, the light's characteristic was changed from fixed red to a red flash every two and a half seconds. In the 1960s, the Coast Guard transferred ownership of the property, with the exception of the tower, to the State of Maine.
At that time, the fog bell was removed, and replaced with a diaphragm horn, which sounded a three second blast every 30 seconds, 24 hours a day. This replacement drew many complaints, prompting the Coast Guard to modify it. Today, the restored fog bell is on the grounds of the Georgetown Central School, in Georgetown, Maine.
In 1979, the Coast Guard removed the fifth-order Fresnel lens, and replaced it with a modern 250-millimeter optic.
Although the State of Maine had plans to turn the island into a park, access improvements were never made and the plans never realized. Over the years, the buildings fell into disrepair.
In 2000, the American Lighthouse Foundation (ALF) was granted a long-term license from the Coast Guard to take over the care of the Perkins Island Lighthouse tower. During their initial inspection, they found the lighthouse in good condition given the care provided by the Coast Guard over the years.
However, they found the other ancillary buildings in poor condition. They noted that the keeper's dwelling needed a new roof, a portion of the roof over the front porch had already collapsed, the chimney was ready to collapse, and the bell tower was severely deteriorated.
That same year, the State of Maine started restoring the historic bell tower at the Perkins Island Lighthouse, which is one of just a handful of such structures left in existence. The project was divided into three stages, which included shingle removal, sill and structure preparation, and re-shingling.
In 2003, the American Lighthouse Foundation formed the Friends of Perkins Island Light (FPIL), a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation.
In 2013, local Georgetown residents Tom and Jaana Sheehan wanted to do something to help the dilapidated keeper's dwelling before it was too late. As the State of Maine's Bureau of Parks and Lands didn't have the money to rehabilitate the crumbling structure, the Sheehan's said that they would fund it, if there was a way they could provide the funds.
During the spring of 2014, the American Lighthouse Foundation and Maine's Bureau of Parks and Lands had worked out an agreement that enabled the ALF to accept the Sheehan's $45,000 donation and manage the restoration project on behalf of the Bureau of Parks and Lands.
Once the ALF received approval of the work from the Maine Historic Preservation Commission and the Bureau of Parks and Lands, they contracted with the J.B. Leslie Company. The restoration work started on September 8 and was concluded by November 5, 2014.
Due to the Sheehan's generous gift and the work they were able to fund for the Perkins Island Lighthouse restoration, the American Lighthouse Foundation awarded Tom and Jaana Sheehan the 2016 "Keeper of the Light" award.
Directions: The lighthouse sits on Perkins Island, therefore the best views are from the water. We took a lighthouse cruise offered by the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, Maine that went past many lights on the Kennebec River.
Access: The Coast Guard owns the tower, but it is leased to the American Lighthouse Foundation. The dwelling and other buildings are owned by the State of Maine. Grounds open, tower and dwelling closed.View more Perkins Island Lighthouse pictures