Abbie Burgess Became Maine’s Teenage Heroine Saving Her Family and Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in Maine
Matinicus Rock lies about 23 miles from the city of Rockland out in Penobscot Bay, in Maine. It is one of the most remote locations for a lighthouse on the eastern coastline. The lighthouse comprised two towers and a keeper’s building on a windswept rock. It was home to the most famous teenage heroine in Maine’s lighthouse history, Abbie Burgess, who lived with her family in the wooden keeper’s house.
Initially living in Rockport, Maine, the Burgess family first arrived at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in the spring of 1853, when her father, Samuel Burgess, was made the lighthouse’s keeper. Her family also included her mother, an invalid in poor health, three other sisters, Esther, Lydia, Mahala, and her brother Benjy.
Benjy enjoyed the allure of fishing more than staying at the lighthouse and was frequently off on fishing trips. The extra duties fell on Abbie, who willingly learned how to tend and operate the lights of the two towers. She became skilled enough to act as her father’s assistant keeper.
Abbie soon discovered an old logbook kept by previous light keepers and was fascinated by the stories it told about storms and dangers from the sea. She would spend countless hours reading and studying their writings.
Abbie’s first test of her keen senses and awareness of her surroundings involves her mother. Upon studying the logbook and learning about weather patterns on the island, she convinced her family to help change the location of her mother’s room to what she believed was the strongest constructed location of the new keepers’ quarters. A month later, after moving her mother, in December 1855, a great storm hit the rock and swept against the old dwelling containing her mother’s original room, causing some damage to the structure, while only spray hit the windows of her mother’s new location.
Abbie Burgess Saves Matinicus Rock Lighthouse and Her Family
In January of 1856, the lighthouse cutter scheduled for dropping off provisions and medical supplies in September could not make the trip. Keeper Burgess, fearing his family would be trapped over the winter without sufficient food and medical supplies, decided to go to Rockland on the mainland in Maine, about 23 miles away. With her younger brother sent aboard a fishing vessel months earlier, Keeper Burgess hugged Abbie and told her about the dire need to get the necessary provisions. He looked into her eyes and said, “I can depend on you, Abbie.” Burgess hugged the rest of the family, walked out to the boat dock, jumped into his dory, and began the long sail to Rockland. The winds picked up as he left the isolated rock island that morning.
By late afternoon that same day, on January 16, a massive storm began approaching Maine’s Penobscot Bay. By early evening, it had increased in intensity with gale-force winds causing huge waves to crash over the rocks and lighthouse structures on Matinicus Rock. The storm’s ferocity continued for three days. During this time, fearing the keeper’s house may be taking in water and would be weakened by the storm, Abbie moved her mother and sisters to the north lighthouse tower, believing it was the strongest structure and location. The high seas were pounding on the island, causing the tides to rise constantly.
On the fourth day, on the morning of January 19, Matinicus Rock was practically underwater. Abbie waded knee-deep in the freezing water to rescue her pet chickens from their coop. She was very close to them as they provided comfort in helping her to deal with the constant isolation from the mainland, and she was determined to care for them as well. With the chickens safely by the tower, Abbie looked over at the old keeper’s house, where her mother had initially settled in when they first arrived. At that moment, a giant wave crashed over the dwelling. The old home was destroyed this time, and no stone from the foundation was left in place.
The rough, freezing seas and constant pounding storms for the next four weeks made it impossible for anyone to land on the island. It became one of New England’s worst storms of the century. During this time, 17-year-old Abbie kept the lights burning on both towers to guide any mariners and ships in the area while caring for her mother and sisters. There were days when hurricane-force winds would batter the buildings with sleet and snow as Abbie climbed up the stairs of both towers to maintain the lights. She would fill the lanterns, trim the wicks, and clean the many glass components of the Fresnel lenses of each tower. She stood on the watch for any distressed vessels, ensuring the lights continued to burn during the day, especially at night. She took short naps each day to keep her strength together.
Abbie wrote the following regarding the experience: “The new dwelling was flooded, and the windows had to be secured to prevent the violence of the spray from breaking them in. As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher until the light towers were the only endurable places. If they stood, we were saved, otherwise, our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be affected on the rock. During this time, we were without any male family members’ assistance. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, the lights never failed. Under God, I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s.”
About four weeks after he had left for the mainland, Keeper Burgess finally made it back to Matinicus Rock and was elated to find his family alive and well. Abbie had saved her family and kept the lights in both towers burning.
Another Storm, Another Test…
The following year, in 1857, she was again tested and proved her heroism. She was left with her brother on the rock during another storm, again when their father needed to go to the mainland to secure provisions. During a lull in the gale, her brother went off looking for food in a small skiff. Neither her brother nor her father returned for the next twenty-one days, during which time the family had little food and was reduced to eating one cup of cornmeal mush and an egg each day to survive. Abbie and the girls feared their father and brother perished in the storm.
Finally, after three weeks, both father and son returned with plenty of food, but they found Abbie exhausted from worrying about them, fearing that both had drowned. During this time, while they were gone, Abbie tended to her sisters and mother’s well-being and all the lighthouse duties of both towers to guide any approaching ships. Her tenacity and determination won her great praise from the locals on the mainland, who referred to her as the teenage heroine of Matinicus Rock Light.
Abbie Marries the Son of Keeper John Grant
Abbie helped her father with many of his duties so he could supplement the family income by lobstering, which some believe may have cost him his position as keeper, as additional income to government pay was frowned upon in those days. Abbie’s father decided to retire from his position in 1861 and persuaded a friend of the family, Captain John Grant, to take the position as the next keeper. While Abbie stayed on to help train Grant, a romance quickly developed between Abbie and the new keeper’s son, Isaac Grant, who was the assistant keeper of the lighthouse.
A year later, they were married, and Abbie was also officially appointed assistant keeper. The couple had four children, Francis, Melvina, Mary Louise, and Harris. All were born on Matinicus Rock before Isaac Grant’s appointment to Whitehead Lighthouse in Maine in 1875, where she remained with him as assistant keeper for another 15 years. Abbie had stayed at Matinicus Rock lighthouse for a total of 22 years.
In Remembrance…Honoring the Legacy of Abbie Burgess
In her last days, she wrote a moving letter revealing her love of lighthouses: “Sometimes I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more. It almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself…….I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn-out body! If ever I have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or a beacon.”
She died in 1892 at the age of 53 with a request to leave something about Matinicus Rock Lighthouse placed on her grave. Years later, in 1945, historian Edward Rowe Snow, also known as the “Flying Santa,” honored her. In a quiet ceremony of organized historians and townsfolk, a metal replica of the Matinicus Rock Lighthouse was placed over her grave. She had spent 37 of her 53 years tending lighthouses.
The U.S. Coast Guard honored her by naming a Keeper Class buoy tender, the Abbie Burgess (WLM-553).
Exploring Matinicus Island and Viewing Matinicus Rock Lighthouse
To truly understand this story, take a trip to Matinicus Island, stay overnight for a few days, and then take the final five-mile trip from the island out to the lighthouse to get a real sense of the isolation of these remote locations. It was one of the most rewarding experiences I encountered.
Matinicus Island lies 18 miles from the mainland and provides a quiet sanctuary for those visitors who want a truly isolated island experience. Residents of the island are fishermen and lobstermen, decedents of families who have claimed the area as home to one of the cleanest and most pure fishing grounds in the world.
Maine State Ferry Service ferries passengers to Matinicus Island only a few times a month, but if you want a rustic vacation away from technology, there are a few bed and breakfast places to stay. Plan to stay for almost a week and really take in the beauty around this place. Matinicus Island is about five miles away from Matinicus Rock and the famous lighthouse.
To view Matinicus Rock lighthouse, you need to get to Matinicus Island first and then take a boat out to Matinicus Rock. Contact George Tarkleson of Matinicus Excursions at (207) 691-9030. Instead of the Maine State Ferry, he can take you from the mainland at Rockland to Matinicus Island and provides service to get you to Matinicus Rock Light, now a wildlife sanctuary that is not open to the public for exploration, where you can also view puffins and all kinds of birds during the summer months. I took his trip to both Matinicus Island and the lighthouse, where he provided a naturalist view of the area, in a very comfortable custom-made boat for the trip. It was a great trip and a chance to reconnect with life before technology.
Here are some of my favorite photos of Matinicus Rock lighthouse.
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My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 92 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore. These include whale-watching excursions, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours, adventures, unique parks and museums, and even lighthouses where you can stay overnight. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. You’ll also find plenty of stories of hauntings around lighthouses.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Northern New England: New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont, provides memorable human interest stories from each of the 76 lighthouses, along with plenty of indoor and outdoor coastal attractions you can explore and tours. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for weekly and weekend explorers. Attractions and tours also include whale watching tours, lighthouse tours, windjammer sailing tours and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses where you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
Included are more details of the challenges Abbie Burgess faced when keeping the lights burning and saving her family during the storm, along with over 50 other stories in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues & Other Tales. This image-rich book also contains vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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