In January 1857, Benjamin Stinson and 83 citizens of Swan’s Island and Deer Island petitioned Congress for an appropriation for a lighthouse. Some of the family names in that petition—Joyce, Staples, Sprague, Stockbridge—are still found on Swan’s Island today. On Aug. 15, 1872, the first keeper lit the lamp in the new Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station tower.
For 150 years, the light in the tower has guided vessels through the narrow western entrance to Burnt Coat Harbor, a fine, deep harbor, described in old records as a harbor of refuge, a good place to shelter in a storm. The fishing fleet based in Burnt Coat Harbor has changed over the years, but the light tower has continued as a steady presence. Even though today’s lobster boats carry sophisticated navigational equipment, the light remains a beacon and a comfort, and a visible symbol of home.
In 1940 as World War II threatened, lighthouses were taken over by the Coast Guard. As navigational equipment improved and especially after the lights were automated, the Coast Guard began phasing out resident lightkeepers. The last lighthouse family left Swan’s Island, and the keeper’s house fell silent.
The Coast Guard planned more cost saving moves, but islanders rallied to the the lighthouse’s defense. A committee led by Roberta Joyce protested when the Coast Guard sandblasted the tower, removing the white paint. They protested again when the Coast Guard removed the Fresnel lens and substituted a green beacon light on a metal frame. Ultimately, both decisions were reversed, though the Fresnel lens was gone for good.
Thanks to Roberta and her committee, Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station survived. In 1994, the property was transferred to the town of Swan’s Island, requiring it to preserve the historic character of the buildings and make them available for public use. By that time, the keeper’s house had been unoccupied for almost 20 years. Some repairs had been made, but all light station buildings (keeper’s house, tower, bell house, and fuel house) had suffered serious deterioration.
In 1999, the town created a lighthouse committee and commissioned a historic preservation plan that was approved by Maine’s Historic Preservation Commission. It became the road map for the restoration project.
Friends of the Swan’s Island Lighthouse (FOSIL), a nonprofit corporation, was formed to provide financial support to the town. Dozens of contractors worked on the project and local contractors were used when possible. Overall, the project cost about $900,000 plus countless hours of volunteer time. The restoration was completed in 2021, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the light station, celebrated on Aug. 20.
The work was done in stages, beginning with the keeper’s house. The most urgent need was a new roof and structural strengthening. Then the sashes in 20 double-hung windows were removed, restored off site and reinstalled, and the exterior was reclad with new quarter-sawn clapboards.
Inside the house, the original lath and plaster walls were retained where possible or replaced with wallboard, skimcoated to resemble the original. The floors were refinished, the house was rewired and replumbed throughout. Much of the finish painting, inside and out, was done by volunteers.
Now complete, public rooms on the first floor include a history exhibit, an art gallery, and a small gift shop. The upstairs has been converted into a very popular summer rental apartment. Sales from the gift shop and rental from the apartment cover basic maintenance and most operating expenses.
The preservation of the keeper’s house proceeded slowly, year by year, as funds became available, but the restoration of the light tower required a different kind of finance.
The job was estimated at $350,000, and about half that amount was for work on the exterior masonry which required fully enclosed scaffolding. It was difficult to accumulate those funds, and the town committee suffered many disappointments. Finally, they scraped together $170,000, half from a Maritime Heritage grant, which enabled use of the scaffolding and restoration of the exterior masonry.
From 2016 to 2019, with smaller grants and generous gifts, the committee was able to contract work on the tower’s interior masonry, woodwork, metalwork, platform railing, foundation, and stairway windows. Climbing the tower for a grand tour is a fitting finale for a visit to the light station.
Besides the keeper’s house and the light tower, the restoration project included repairs to the bell tower and fuel house and construction of almost two miles of trails around Hockamock Head, the 20-acre town park adjacent to the lighthouse property.
The 150th anniversary celebration was an all-day event, including flag raising, community lunch, storytelling, music, a time capsule, an auction, a birthday cake, and evening fireworks.
Now that the restoration complete, the focus is on future maintenance. FOSIL is working on an endowment that will assure that funds are available for major maintenance without impacting the town budget. For more information on the endowment, visit www.burntcoatharborlight.com.
Eric and Fran Chetwynd are longtime summer residents of Swan’s Island who were deeply involved throughout the Burnt Coat Harbor Light Station restoration project. They recently published Shine On, a text and photographic recounting of the many individuals and institutions whose work, dedication, and generosity made it all happen. It can be purchased for $20 plus $5 for shipping by contacting them at email@example.com. Proceeds fund future maintenance of the light station.