Decommissioned in 1958, Nash Island Lighthouse became to fishermen and people who could see it from shore a constant point of reference, enduring, its spirit alight with fortitude and cheer. Our group, the Friends of Nash Island Light, is working to preserve this small but vital part of our local culture.
Jenny Purington Cirone grew up with eight brothers and sisters on 16-acre Nash Island, two miles off the Maine coastal village of South Addison. Her father, John Purington, was the keeper of the Nash Island lighthouse and fog signal from 1916 to 1935, by which time Jenny had married and moved ashore. A lighted buoy 1/4-mile to the west replaced the light in 1982, many years after the Coast Guard had burned the dwelling, barn, and outbuildings and automated the lighthouse, which then presided alone with Jenny’s island sheep and gulls.
Jenny continued to maintain a flock of about 200 sheep (descendants of those she grew up with) on Nash and adjacent islands, and in the 1990s she expressed concern to friends about the deteriorating condition of the Nash Light. Coincidentally, the Island Institute had started the Maine Lights Program, which led to legislation designed to transfer ownership of lighthouses to non-profit organizations dedicated to restoring and maintaining them. When Ed Greaves, a resident of South Addison, learned of Jenny’s concern he asked the Institute to persuade the Coast Guard to add Nash Island Light to the list of lighthouses available under the program. The Friends of Nash Island Light (FNIL) formed spontaneously and soon the group took title to the relatively small but stately tower. It was an eleventh-hour, somewhat magical rescue of a neglected, taken-for-granted, 160 year-old lifesaver.
FNIL had two years under its contract with the government to show evidence of work in restoring and preserving the lighthouse. They acted immediately by contacting my son, Gray, and me; masons experienced in brick and stone restoration. We live just six miles by water from Nash Island and accepted the job with pleasure. It was our first lighthouse and first project offshore and initially we relied heavily upon an excellent handbook published by the National Park Service, the Coast Guard and the Department of Defense. Work began in July 1998.
Although there is a mooring now, at the time that work started the mooring at Nash had been lost and there was no pier or means of landing a boat properly, if it all. In the old days there was a dock equipped with a winch and tracks for hauling vessels over the rocky beach, as there still is in some boat yards. There was also a boardwalk running up to the house from the beach to facilitate carrying the 75-pound bags of coal for heat and cans of oil for the light. But all that is long gone. We were considering building a temporary landing when Donna Kausen, who with Jenny and friends has cared for the island sheep for years, called and volunteered to show us her landing drill. The only suitable spot to unload is on the north side of Nash so it is necessary to have southerly winds and it helps to be on the high half of the flood tide. Standing in her 20-foot skiff, Donna fended off the rocks with an oar and passed pipe scaffolding as she could, while we slipped and splashed back and forth to dry beach. Then she anchored her skiff, rowed ashore in the dinghy we had towed, and we began lugging material up the 1/4-mile to the light over terrain deeply sculpted and tufted by arabesque meanderings of sheep.
From the rocky beach to the light. Back and forth. For the next five months, if it was possible to land on the island, there wasn’t a time when something wasn’t hauled by hand, to or from the light; cement, mortar, sand, fresh water, brick, shingles, windows, lumber, paint, hardware, and food. The grassy mounded sheep-work eliminated the use of carts or wheelbarrows. This process, by necessity, quickly became sport; one of us rapidly unloading heavy material (much of which could not get wet), one person waist deep, legs windmilling on weedy rocks; then plodding up to the light as if on the last stretch of a mountain conquest, surrealistically surrounded by glistening ocean and irate gulls.
So it was an accomplishment finally to begin work on the lighthouse, and restful. Our job was to repair the slight structural damage, scrape off all the crust of salt, old paint and lichen, repoint the bricks and seal the entire building with three coats of a “breathable” whitewash of lime and mortar. Lastly, we were to replace four of the eight windows in the lantern and paint the cupola—a special rust resistant paint, specks of which were on my glasses six months later. It was a pleasure to be high in the scaffolding (a security line tied to it and embracing the light), gazing out into the sea’s infinity and upward into the deeps of the sky. Fishing boats that appeared to be of the same ethereal substance passed in the distance. There were only the constant elemental, merging sounds of wind, surf and birds. Unconsciously we heard the music of the surf (at times like the human voice), that of the ebb and flood, the most clearly marked change of music occurring during the first hour of a rising tide. At times working up so high, the wind, racing clouds and snowy spray combined to cause a kind of blue delirium and it was necessary to climb down and walk around for a while.
Each day had its particular physiognomy and weather, even the foggy ones. It was impossible not to feel absorbed by the character and qualities of those days. Sometimes we would see the fog rolling toward us like white muslin and quickly prepare to leave. Once in the fog we missed the narrow entrance to Eastern Harbor by 1/2-mile and found ourselves a few feet from ledges. Another time the fog moved in so thick and fast we felt bound in tape and decided to wait it out. It passed through and we launched in the clear dark with stars piping under the booming wind and surf. It was moonless and we had no running lights or compass light, but we could make out the dark column behind us and knew if we kept it behind our left shoulder we were okay. Besides, on that night there were little phosphorescent lamps flashing for a second in the water.
Among the many talented, enthusiastic members of FNIL is the filmmaker Michel Chalufour, who has made a half-hour video about the lighthouse and about Jenny Cirone called “Jenny’s Island Life.” Now 90, Jenny remembers a life out on Nash that we only got a taste of. Michel combined interviews with Jenny with film he shot of the island over the last 28 years, and also included old still photographs from Purington albums. The film presents a personal history, with a sense of the past and present on a preternaturally beautiful island.
In an effort to raise funds for future maintenance, the Friends of Nash Island Light has also published a poster reproduced from a black and white photo taken by Gifford Ewing in 2000. The poster is available for $25, postage paid. The video “Jenny’s Island Life” is also available for $25. Payment can be sent to: Friends of Nash Island Light, RR 1, Box 490, Addison, Maine 04606.
This story appeared in the
June 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
All contents copyright © 1995-2018 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.