Many lighthouse keepers had a dog or some animal to keep them company as they performed their often grueling and tedious tasks. Keeper Thomas Orcutt tended Wood Island lighthouse in Maine from 1886 to 1909. Around 1894, they brought an 8-week old puppy to the lighthouse named Sailor, who was a Scotch Collie mix from a farm in nearby Westbrook, Maine. He became the lighthouse keeper’s constant companion and an eager learner with the keeper’s duties as he watched his master perform with precision.
In foggy weather, the bell was sounded as two strikes in succession to identify the lighthouse station to those captains entering the region and unable to see the lighthouse through the fog. Keeper Orcutt even taught the animal to wait roughly 25 seconds between rings as required by regulations. In fair weather, it was also customary for passing ships to salute the lighthouse keeper with three whistle blasts, to which the keeper would respond by ringing the fog bell.
Orcutt spent many days teaching Sailor all kinds of tricks, including ringing the fog bell when needed, which involved the circumstances necessary that gave the animal the chance to ring the bell. Whenever coastal fog blanketed the area, or when he heard a ship’s whistle blowing, Sailor would eagerly run out of the lighthouse quarters, towards the fog bell, grab the rope in his mouth, and ring it with precision.
One of the first to observe Sailor ringing the bell was Captain Oliver of the Casco Bay Steamship Company when he took an excursion party of several hundred visitors aboard the Forest Green out to Wood Island. As he passed by the lighthouse he gave it a customary three-whistle salute and witnessed the dog running to the fog bell with Keeper Orcutt close behind. Orcutt loosened up the rope to place within the dog’s reach, as Sailor grabbed the rope with his teeth and pulled to ring the bell in response to the ship’s whistle.
As months went by, Sailor would learn to only ring the bell during foggy weather, or in response to ship’s whistles or bells passing by. If a ship blew their whistle, Sailor would automatically run to the fog bell and ring it in response. In foggy weather, Sailor would faithfully stay at his post for hours at a time without leaving or complaining, and ring the bell precisely to identify Wood Island Lighthouse’s location.
Sailor became quite famous to the local mariners over the years as the “Wood Island Dog.” The ships would ring their bells or blow their whistles as they passed by the lighthouse, and then watch as the dog would run over to the bell and ring it in response. It would never be known of the number of countless vessels he helped during dangerous foggy weather from crashing on the rocks on or near the island. The animal was perfectly content to stay alongside Keeper Orcutt while he performed his duties, and was always excited when the opportunity arose to ring the bell. Sailor also was used as a messenger to carry letters and other small articles in his mouth, and was always a tourist attraction for vacationing boaters.
Sailor died of old age in Keeper Orcutt’s arms in 1905. A few months later, Keeper Orcutt, deeply depressed at the loss of his companion, and getting along in years himself, resigned his post at Wood Island lighthouse and passed away shortly afterwards. A true testament to the love he had for his best friend.
Every summer there is a small ferry shuttle by the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse who will take you to Wood Island and tour the lighthouse from Biddeford Pool. It is very inexpensive and provides you with three hours of touring and exploring the island and lighthouse.