The Rescue of the Frozen Lovers by Keeper Henry Achorn Near Owls Head Lighthouse in Maine
Owls Head lighthouse marks the entrance to Rockland Harbor and has always been the site of many shipwrecks. Its tower, though only 20 feet tall, is situated over a high rocky cliff making it over 100 feet above water. These rocky formations empty into the ocean, surrounding the area.
One of the most famous bizarre rescues in Maine’s maritime history occurred at Owls Head Light, in Maine, during the winter storm of December 22, 1850. Five vessels went aground in this storm between Rockland Harbor and Spruce Head, which is located about eight miles away. The weather was bitterly cold at temperatures below zero, and the gusting winds cast an icy coating from the waves on any vessels anchored in the harbor. All vessels were inside the harbor as the storm approached, intensifying as the night wore on.
At Jameson’s Point Wharf, near Rockland, a small coasting schooner from Massachusetts was anchored, ready for a morning start for Boston the next morning. The captain had gone ashore, and had not returned that night, leaving Seaman Roger Elliott, the mate, Richard B. Ingraham, and passenger Lydia Dyer, who was also Ingraham’s fiancé, aboard the vessel.
Late in the evening around midnight, the storm came full force into the region as the gusts intensified and the seas began to thrash about. The cables holding the schooner snapped and the heavy winds caused the boat to drift across the harbor towards the rocky shoreline of Owls Head. Ingraham and Elliot tried to control the vessel but the winds were too much for their efforts as the schooner became stuck on an icy ledge just south of Owls Head Lighthouse. It was wedged so tightly that the schooner did not sink as it filled with water, leaving the deck exposed just above the waves that would constantly break over it.
With no help in sight, or any signals of distress to send, the three frightened survivors covered themselves from head to foot with large woolen blankets creating a form of cocoon to try to fend off the icy spray and somehow stay dry. Ingraham placed Lydia Dyer first on the blanket, as he placed himself next to her, then Elliot placed himself at the other end next to Ingraham. They huddled together on the deck and waited, hoping help would arrive as they could barely see the light emanating from the lighthouse.
The tide was coming in and rising, as the frigid waves continued to break over the deck, forming an icy coating on anything they touched. The hours passed and the evening wore on with no help in sight. All three could feel themselves weakening as they were starting to succumb to exposure, while the gusting winds and freezing surf continued to pound the vessel. Their woolen blankets were becoming an icy tomb inches thick as Ingraham and Dyer were slipping into unconsciousness from the additional weight.
The intensity of the surf was also becoming too much for the schooner as it started to slowly break apart from the waves constantly washing over her. Fearing that the couple may have already perished, or were very close to death, Seaman Elliot knew that if he could not find help soon, they would all certainly freeze to death. He assured the couple that he would find help and be back for them, but they did not hear him.
It was just before daybreak and the tide was starting to retreat. Elliot tried to hack his way out of his side of the ice-covered blanket using his sheath knife. He continued to chop away until he finally managed to free himself from its frozen grasp. He jumped off the wreck into the frigid waters, as the waves continued to thrash him around. Slowly and carefully, he would grab hold onto a slippery rock and wait for the waves to recede, and then scramble onto another group of rocks as the waves came over him. He would then hold on, as the undetow would start to draw back, and start off again. His hands and feet bloodied from being slammed onto the rocks.
Finally, he managed to get close enough to climb over the ice-covered rocks using his hands and knees to the shoreline. He knew he had to keep moving in the bitter chill or he would freeze to death. He climbed up through snowdrifts up the hilly terrain towards the direction of the lighthouse. Nearly overcome with exhaustion and exposure from the freezing cold, he reached the road to Owls Head Lighthouse. Luckily, Keeper Henry Achorn just happened to be riding by in his sleigh, worried about possible wrecks from the storm. He quickly brought the exhausted Elliott to the keeper’s house. Overcome with hypothermia, he told the keeper about Richard Ingraham and Lydia Dyer still on the schooner. Keeper Achorn quickly rounded up a group of neighbors and they headed to the shoreline, following Elliot’s footprints in the snow. They finally sighted the wreck, wedged on the rocks a short distance away from shore.
The waves and winds were starting to subside a little allowing the keeper and his crew to eventually reach the wreck. There they found both Ingraham and Dyer clinging together inside the blankets under the thick coating of ice. It looked from all appearances that the couple had perished, but Keeper Achorn believed he could feel a faint pulse in each, and was determined to bring them back to the keeper’s house and revive them. The men carefully hacked off whatever ice they could from the blanket then brought Ingraham and Dyer onto the lifeboat. They carefully placed them in the sleigh and quickly brought the couple inside to the warm kitchen of the keeper’s house.
While keeping the pair in cold water just above freezing to slowly bring their temperature up, they removed their clothing and any ice on their bodies. They then covered them in warm blankets and slowly raised the temperature of the water. Keeper Achorn was convinced they still had to be alive, still feeling what he believed to be a very faint pulse on both victims.
The men took turns massaging and exercising Ingraham and Dyer’s cold, limp, arms and legs. After almost two hours of exercising and massaging limbs, they were astonished to find Lydia Dyer showing signs of life. They kept vigorously on their tasks. Another hour passed and Ingraham miraculously opened his eyes and said, “What is all this? Where are we?”
The following day, Dyer and Ingraham had survived the ordeal and were able to eat a little. It took several weeks before they could get up and walk around. It was many months before they were fully recovered. They married that following June and had four children. Seaman Roger Elliott was never able to recover from exposure trying to save the pair and never went back out to sea. His struggle to stay alive and inform Keeper Achorn resulted in the miraculous rescue of Lydia Dyer and Richard Ingraham, the frozen lovers of Owl’s Head.
The captain of the ill-fated schooner was never found and many believe he may have learned that, either this was his last trip and was to be fired, or he had heard about the wreck while he was ashore and left town to avoid blame.
Exploring Owls Head Lighthouse, in Maine
Owls Head Light State Park provides lots of places to hike along some of the trails along the cliffs and shoreline, and you can walk up to Owls Head Light as well. The lighthouse is situated atop spectacular cliffs with wonderful views of Rockland Harbor and the beacon and is easily accessed by a stairway. Tours may provided inside the tower and keeper’s building by the American Lighthouse Foundation during the summer months, as the keeper’s house is now part of their headquarters.
Visit the Owls Head Transportation Museum showcasing antique autos and planes.
Here are a few photos of Owls Head Lighthouse.
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 even lighthouses you can stay overnight. You’ll also find plenty of stories of shipwrecks and rescues like the one above. Lighthouses and their nearby attractions are divided into regions for all you 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 special 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 all you 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 you can stay overnight. There are also stories of haunted lighthouses in these regions.
You’ll find this story and many others in my book New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues, and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
You can order these books through most any pages on this website, and I’ll be happy to personally sign them and ship them to you anywhere inside the United States. You can also order from the publisher, Schiffer Books, who will ship anywhere globally, and you’ll find them in many fine bookstores.
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