Light Station Stories

Lighthouse History

Photo Credit Stephen Joyce Collection

Imagine sailing among unfamiliar ledges and islands of Penobscot Bay with the help of only a chart and a compass. That’s how it was around Swan’s Island until the lighthouse was built on Hockamock Head in 1872. Its familiar shape by day, and light by night, guided boats into Burnt Coat Harbor, well known at the time as a harbor of refuge.

By the 1870s, Burnt Coat Harbor was a busy commercial harbor. Swan’s Island captains were famous for mackerel fishing. The harbor was home to working schooners as well as smaller boats. Many of the smaller boats in the harbor were built on Swan’s Island. Its commercial importance provided plenty of justification for the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s decision to build a light station at Hockamock Head.

The Milan Family

Photo Credit Stephen Joyce Collection

Orrin Milan was a keeper from 1897 – 1931. The Milans, Orrin and Nettie, had two children, Frank and Urla. Both of whom were born in the keeper’s house.

Frank wrote about his escapades as a youngster on Hockamock Head in the early years of the 20th century, walking to school, sledding on the hill, ice skating on the pond, playing baseball with a homemade ball, shipwrecks, picnics, and hauling traps by hand.

Here is one of his stories of mischief with the lighthouse dory:

The boat slip was very steep and quite long. I soon learned that if I greased the ways and slipped the boat hook I could get a fast ride and a beautiful splash when the dory hit the water so whenever my father was away from the station I would practice this pastime. When the tide was extra low the bow of the dory would hit the rocks as it slid into the water. This, of course, didn’t do the dory any great amount of good. In fact, after a few times of this the bottom of the bow wasn’t pretty at all. For several years the Lighthouse tender (I believe it was the Lilac in those days) would have to bring a new dory. The men who brought the new dory always wondered out loud how my father could wear out so many dories. Of course, I never volunteered any information on the subject.

Read More about Frank Milan’s life at the lighthouse in “A Lighthouse Huck Finn.”

The Chandler Family

Photo Credit Stephen Joyce Collection

Roscoe Chandler replaced Orrin Milan as a lighthouse keeper in 1932 and served till 1941. He and his wife, Mary, had nine children and fostered two more. Some of the children were grown by the time Roscoe came to Burnt Coat Harbor, but just the same, it was a big family to feed!

They had two cows, sheep and chickens, and sold extra eggs in the village. The Light House Board provided books for the family to read. Every fall they also received two barrels of flour, a barrel of molasses, a barrel of sugar, and a side of corned beef.

They gathered raspberries and cranberries on Swans Island and nearby islands. They went fishing, and clamming and, lobstering. One of the tales of the Chandlers’ years at Burnt Coat Harbor Light involves a visit by the dreaded Lighthouse Inspector. ‘He wore white gloves and checked over door lintels, behind pictures and so forth.’

In one instance…
“A dozen or more of the family were visiting, creating some disorder, when a ship that looked like the tender was spotted coming into the bay. The cry went up and the cleanup started.”

Find out what happened then, and how Jack, the Irish setter, ended up with his head stuck in a boot.


Photo Credit Stephen Joyce Collection

In the early 1900s, people came to Swan’s Island by steamboat from Rockland. In January 1924, the steamboat Governor Bodwell was coming into Burnt Coat Harbor in a blinding snowstorm. The steamboat missed the channel and struck on Spindle Ledge.

Fortunately, everyone was brought safely to land without loss of life. Though one islander, who gave his jacket to a rescued passenger, later died of pneumonia. The steamboat was written off as a total loss.

Nonetheless, she was raised, towed to Rockland, and completely rebuilt. She continued to serve as the main transportation link to Swan’s Island until 1931 when she caught fire and burned while docked in Burnt Coat Harbor. 

More Swan’s Island Stories

The Little Tower, A Shipwreck, & Some Swan’s Island Heroes The story of the 1883 wreck of the J. W. Sawyer on Black Ledge, the heroic rescue of the stranded men, and the Light-House Board conclusion that the little tower had to go.

John M. Bryan and Donna A. Wiegle, Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station, Swans Island, Maine, reproduced with permission from Chebacco: The Magazine of the Mount Desert Island Historical Society, Vol. VIII (2006-07), pp. 6-21. – Website for the Swan’s Island library. Swan’s Island Historical Society – Website for the Swan’s Island Historical Society. – Online digital photo collection from the Swan’s Island Historical Society – Town website – historical photos and lighthouse stories – Narrative history of Swan’s Island, special exhibits on specific topics of island history, current historical work, stories, and projects. Includes audio and photographs.

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