Temporary Lighthouse Keeper at Isles of Shoals Light, John Bragg Downs, Involved in a Daring Winter Rescue, Became a National Hero
The Isles of Shoals consist of nine islands split between the Maine and New Hampshire borders about 10 miles away from the mainland. The shoals are rocky islands that spawned a small local fishing community, which soon developed into an important local fishing center for centuries. The shoals also became a safe haven for those that led less productive lives, like Blackbeard the pirate. It was also a haven for tourists, poets, and writers, as it still is today.
The Isles of Shoals’ dangerous location along the coastal shipping route amid New England’s frequent inclement weather caused many shipwrecks. In 1821, a lighthouse was built on one of these rocky islands, White Island, and became known as the Isles of Shoals, or White Island Lighthouse. It helped to protect the many local mariners, shipping traffic that would pass by the islands, vacationers, and those heading into Portsmouth’s busy shipping port.
One of the most famous rescues in the region occurred in March of 1855, not by the present lighthouse keeper at that time, but by a local islander named John Bragg Downs, who agreed to act as temporary keeper while the new keeper was preparing to bring his family from the mainland to the lighthouse. The Downs family had been living near the desolate White Island for generations and was part of a group of families known as the original “shoalers”. John grew up on nearby Appledore Island away from the mainland and enjoyed the view of White Island Lighthouse. He would frequently visit the keepers and learned many of the duties in tending the lighthouse and surrounding buildings. He was a salty man of medium build who was also renowned as one who could always be counted on as a great resource of information, or for any assistance. He was also known to drink a cup full of rum three times a day to maintain his good health.
During the Winter of 1855, the new keeper to Isles of Shoals light, Captain Richard Haley needed to head to the mainland to Massachusetts to make preparations in order to bring his family to live at Isles of Shoals Lighthouse. He decided to ask local “shoaler” John Bragg Downs to stay at the lighthouse and act as its temporary keeper until he returned. Downs gladly accepted the task and also brought a friend to keep him company and act as his assistant while Haley was away. He was comfortable in his new position and its responsibility and enjoyed tending to the lighthouse duties with his friend. Five days into his temporary position, he could see a major storm was brewing.
On the sixth day, the area was hit with a monstrous snowstorm, causing huge waves from the winds and high tide. These waves were sweeping across the islands as the evening progressed. Downs and his friend decided to stay at the keeper’s house to ride out the storm.
Meanwhile, a Russian brig, headed for Salem, Massachusetts with a cargo of tallow and hides got caught in the storm. The captain was unable to see the lighthouse beacon that night in the blinding snow, and believed he was many miles away from the mainland. To his horror, and too late to change course, the vessel was carried by the thrashing waves near the rocks by White Island. One huge wave lifted up the vessel and lodged it between some jagged rocks a short distance from the lighthouse. The captain prepared the crew to be ready in case the vessel started to break apart during the night. There was nothing the crew could do but wait until daybreak and try to ride out the storm.
Just after midnight, there was a calm in the blizzard, and the captain saw the light of the beacon through the snow a short distance from their position. This was a very lucky but very dangerous situation. He knew the vessel may break apart from the pounding waves and all might perish in the freezing seas if they could not get help from the shore.
One of the sailors of the vessel, a large burley man, volunteered to be lowered over the wreck and get help. The captain knew time was precious and told the sailor to make haste. The sailor was lowered over the bow in the night, lit only by the beam of the lighthouse illuminating through the snowfall. He had to time his endeavors, so that as the huge waves would recede, he would try to lunge himself onto a barnacle filled rock, and hold fast as they would wash over him, dragging his skin over the jagged edges. As he slowly made his way to the shore, he became increasingly cut and bruised with each rock he tried to hold to avoid the undertow, and as each frigid wave passed over him. He finally reached a ledge above the waves and started to scramble over the rocks up an incline towards the lighthouse, knowing time was precious for the safety of his comrades. Bruised, bloody, and freezing, he made haste for the keeper’s house where he could see a light inside.
Acting Keeper Downs had been watching for any vessel most of the day and that night but could not see anything in the blinding snowstorm. At about the same time, during a lull in the storm around midnight, he told his friend to catch a quick nap while he prepared something to eat. His assistant could not relax, and watched Downs prepare a small meal while he gazed at the door. The noise of the surf crashing over the rocks could easily be heard from their comfortable dwelling. His friend shouted over the noise “Well, John, what would you think if somebody was to knock at the door just now?” Downs responded, “Think! I should think it must be the devil himself, for no human could land on White Island this night and live.” In almost as if in response, came a loud rap on the door from the outside, startling the two men. They couldn’t believe that so late in the evening during a raging storm, someone or something was trying to get in from the outside. The raps continued and Downs quickly lit his lantern and opened the door. There stood the burly Russian sailor in the darkness, covered in blood from cuts and bruises, like some ghastly figure in the night. His shadow filled the doorway, lit only by Down’s lantern. The man was exhausted, drenched, and freezing from exposure. He cried in broken English, “Brig ashore, sir! Right near the lighthouse tower!” Downs and his assistant tried to remove the sailor’s bloody tattered rags, and then quickly give him warm garments. As they tended to his many cuts to prepare him to join them outside, the sailor told the two rescuers of the stranded wreck.
With the sailor in dry clothes, and covered in bandages, the three men grabbed a line and other equipment and headed over the icy rocks to the shoreline where they found the wreck constantly being pounded by the waves, but still intact. Downs could see that the crewmembers needed to be rescued quickly as the ship could easily break apart from its position on the rocks. He ventured out on an icy rock ledge and tried to throw a line to the rest of the crew on the vessel. After a number of attempts, the line was caught by one of the crew and secured on the wreck.
Downs looked around to find where he could secure the line on his end, and could not find anything from the rocks where they were located. He decided that the only way to anchor the line on shore was to use his own body by tying the line around his waist, and then climbing into a crevice to maintain a hold on his position. He searched in the darkness lit only by the lighthouse and was able to find a deep enough crevice nearby to climb into to gain a foothold while maintaining a firm grasp on the line. He told the Russian sailor and his friend to hold him fast as he braced himself in the freezing winds and icy spray. He them instructed his friend to shout to the crew on the vessel to come down the line one by one towards him.
Most of the fourteen men on the wreck were in fair health as each braved the bitter chill from the winds, the sting of the snow, and the icy spray of the surf. One by one they slowly climbed over the jagged rocks using the line to safety. The last two crew members were failing from exposure to the storm, and as they needed assistance by their crew mates, each nearly became washed off the rocks as their strength was failing. Finally all crew members had made it safely to shore, and the exhausted men started to make their way up the rocky hill through the storm, towards the lighthouse. When they reached the warmth of the little keeper’s house, Downs and his friend cared for them in giving them warm blankets, any clothing they could find, food and spirits. The house was overcrowded with so many individuals as most slept on the floor exhausted from their ordeal.
Days passed as the storm continued, leaving all stranded at the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling without assistance from the mainland, or from the locals on the other islands who were also stranded in their homes, many unaware of the rescue. There were no other residents on White Island except for the occupants of the lighthouse. The food supply was desperately low and Downs feared that with so many mouths to feed they might starve. Finally, the storm subsided and Keeper Haley, who was stranded on the mainland from the storm and worried for the safety of his island friend, sailed back out to White Island and was able to bring provisions to the many hungry unsuspected guests at the lighthouse. When he arrived he provided all with a hearty meal, and the 14 grateful crew members were transported that afternoon to the mainland.
As he was not a government appointed lighthouse keeper, John Bragg Downs never received a medal for risking his life that night, but did win the admiration of his fellow islanders and the locals on the mainland. For many years afterwards, Downs would venture over to White Island to the rocky shore by the lighthouse. He admired the courage and tenacity of the large Russian sailor who made such a perilous attempt in climbing over the barnacle covered rocks, risking his life that night for his comrades where he could have easily been swept out to sea during the storm. Downs would often observe the crevice he used in making himself a human anchor, taking pride in risking his own life to save all 14 crewmen of the Russian brig.
Exploring the Isles of Shoals
White Island (Isles of Shoals) lighthouse can be easily viewed from Star Island. Here visitors can eat at the Victorian Era Oceanic Hotel and explore the island and its timely stone cottages and church, and observe not only the largest monument in New Hampshire, but a massive collection of solar panels on the other side of the island that makes the area dependent only on solar energy. Island Cruises offers tours to the Isles of Shoals Islands and the lighthouse during the summer months, and can set up a lunch ticket for you at the hotel. the vessel is actually the mail boat to the island out of Rye Harbor. It offers daily stopovers to Star Island for a few hours or for the day. Also, during the summer season, Isles of Shoals Steamship Co. provides a narrated history of Isles of Shoals as part of their tour, and has a weekly sunset tour for close up views of the lighthouse. Its great place to spend the day and relax.
My 300-page book, Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions of Southern New England: Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts, provides special 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 and adventures, special parks and museums, and lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of haunted lighthouses. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you weekly and weekend explorers.