Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2018

Maine Lighthouse Keeper Arthur B. Mitchell

By Timothy Harrison

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Lighthouse keeper Arthur B. Mitchell in his ...

It took 18 years of being stationed on island lighthouses before Arthur B. Mitchell finally got to be stationed at a mainland lighthouse. But the wait was worth it, and in 1929 Arthur B. Mitchell became the head keeper at Fort Point Lighthouse near Stockton Springs, Maine, a position he held until his retirement in 1952.

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Maine’s Matinicus Rock Lighthouse as it appeared ...

When Arthur Mitchell accepted the position as 2nd assistant keeper of Maine’s remote Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in 1911, he was well familiar with the sea; his father was a ship’s captain and Arthur had often accompanied him on voyages, learning from him. By the age of 26, Arthur Mitchell was the captain of his own ship, the two mast, 79-ton schooner George W. Collins that transported lumber to ports in Long Island Sound and then brought back coal and salt to Maine. Just why he left the sea to become a lighthouse keeper might have had something to do with his marriage to Elizabeth H. Shallow in 1908, and the subsequent birth on January 23, 1910 of their daughter Etta Marie. Also, when he and his wife had travelled by schooner to Massachusetts for their honeymoon, they visited the Plymouth Light Station, where he may have gotten the “lighthouse bug.”

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Another view of Maine’s Matinicus Rock Lighthouse ...

Shortly after his arrival at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse Station, a windswept 32-acre granite island, 18 miles off the mainland, and 25 miles from the nearest port of Rockland, and five miles south of the much larger Matinicus Island, Arthur Mitchell sent for his wife and 22-month-old daughter to live with him out on the barren rocky outpost. In those days there were three other lighthouse families living on the island.

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Early vintage view of Maine’s Whitehead ...

In an effort to enhance their life at Matinicus Rock Lighthouse, Mrs. Mitchell, who loved to play the piano, suggested that it would be nice to have a piano at the lighthouse. This matter was discussed at great length, and it was finally decided that it could be done in spite of the difficultly of simply landing a boat with people and supplies at the lighthouse, let alone a heavy piano. Just how they accomplished this mission is unclear, but a piano did make it out to the island.

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Noted photographer W.H. Ballard, took this photo ...

In 1913, Arthur Mitchell was promoted to 1st assistant keeper, and in 1916 he was promoted again, this time to head keeper. By that time, most people addressed him as Capt. Mitchell, even though there was no such rank in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. It was primarily out of respect for his previous career as the captain of his own ship.

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Lighthouse keeper Arthur B. Mitchell is shown ...

For the first six years that they lived on the island, there was no telephone communication to the mainland. In the event of sickness or other emergency, they had to sail to the mainland or raise the distress flag and hope that it would be spotted by a passing ship. Finally, in 1917, a telephone line opened up communication with the mainland, and the keepers were often on the phone talking with loved ones and friends on shore. Although his wife and daughter rarely left the island during those years, they were not lonely. They had the other lighthouse families, they had a travelling library, and occasionally a travelling school teacher who would spend several weeks at a time on the island.

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The fog bell tower at Maine’s Fort Point ...

In a 1936 interview with reporter Henry Buxton, Arthur Mitchell said, “We were never lonesome because we had plenty to occupy our minds. When we were not attending to our duties at the station, we were lobster fishing. Each of us maintained 80 lobster pots in the summer and 50 in the fall. One June an assistant and I made $200 apiece. That was a banner month. We also maintained, trawl lines, fished for cod, haddock, hake and Pollock.”

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This post card of Fort Point Lighthouse was ...

Mitchell went on to say, “There was no radio in those days, but we were a happy family just the same, passing away the long winter evenings with cards and other games. It has been my experience in lighthouse stations that women object to being penned up on an isolated island more than men. Many wives of keepers miss the social life ashore and become disconnected. In an isolated outside [island] light, children can often cause trouble between the families of keepers. One kid will do something to the other kid and then the trouble starts. However with the coming of the radio and telephone the women folks are much more contented on the outside stations.”

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Vintage post card showing the Wassaumkeag Hotel ...

In 1919, Arthur Mitchell was transferred to become the head keeper of Whitehead Lighthouse, located on an 80-acre island that marks the southwestern entrance to the important Muscle Ridge Channel in Maine’s Penobscot Bay. Life was much better at Whitehead Lighthouse, but it was still on an island. Mitchell said, “We had a school at this station and children from other nearby islands came to attend it. At one point we had as many as 15 pupils.”

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This large shield of the U.S. Light House Service ...

In May of 1929, Arthur Mitchell was appointed head keeper at Fort Point Lighthouse near Stockton Springs, Maine. Referring to the fact that Fort Point Light Station was on ground that was hooked more firmly to more ground, he said, “We like it here because it is on the mainland.” Although Fort Point Lighthouse was less than four miles from Stockton Springs, for the first eleven years that they lived there the roads were not plowed in the wintertime. After the snow fell, they felt like they were living on a different continent. Also, there was no electricity at Fort Point Lighthouse.

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Fort Point Lighthouse keeper Arthur B. Mitchell ...

In 1939 when the U.S. Lighthouse Service was dissolved, Arthur B. Mitchell elected to stay on as a uniformed civilian lighthouse keeper rather than join as a military keeper. Arthur Mitchell’s grandson, Arthur E. Curtis, said that his grandfather always took the required vacation, but he never went far from the lighthouse, electing to stay at a cottage called “Sunland,” a short distance from the lighthouse, where he could keep a close watch on things. He didn’t think that the Coast Guard keepers who were sent as his temporary fill-ins were very careful or attentive to duty.

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The side entry door of the keeper’s house at Fort ...
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

Arthur E. Curtis has many fond memories of spending his summers with his grandparents at Fort Point Lighthouse. There was always one rule that he was never allowed to break: he was to never, ever, touch anything brass at the light station, especially on the lens.

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Arthur B. Mitchell and his wife Elizabeth ...

To supplement their food supply, there was a chicken pen with a neat little hen house with a row of nests where the hens laid their eggs. Capt. Mitchell also maintained a small vegetable garden, and he would brag about how he always had the earliest sweet pea blossoms in the area.

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In the dark uniforms are Maine lighthouse keepers ...

Occasionally, keeper Mitchell would let his grandson raise the flag in the morning. One day a boatman who had been passing the lighthouse came by and asked the keeper if everything was all right. It seems that grandson, Arthur Curtis, had hoisted the flag upside down, a signal of distress.

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Fort Point Lighthouse in Stockton Springs with ...
Photo by: Laura Lee Clark

On the 4th of July, the family would usually have a lobster feed on the beach near the sand bar. Grandson Arthur Curtis recalled that, for that special day, his grandfather would usually close the gate at the entrance so no one else could get on the beach and they would have it to themselves.

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Fort Point Lighthouse in Stockton Springs is now ...
Photo by: Lou Kellenberger

When Henry Buxton, a reporter for the Bangor Daily News, visited Fort Point Lighthouse, In his November 21, 1936 column “Henry Buxton Says,” he wrote, “With a fine background of sturdy seafaring folks, and a shipmaster himself for many years, Captain Mitchell is a splendid example of the best in Maine lighthouse keepers. There is no more immaculate kept station from one end of the Maine coast to the other. I have visited lighthouses from Maine to Florida and never saw one that shone and scintillated like this Fort Point Light.”

Newspaper reporter Elmer S. Ingalls, who went to visit keeper Arthur Mitchell in 1952, wrote a few months before Capt. Mitchell’s retirement, “After having established themselves as part of Waldo County, the Mitchell family didn’t object to the fact that they had to light the kerosene lights every night while neighbors up the road not too far merely had to turn a switch for all the illumination they needed. They didn’t even kick, as a matter of fact, when the captain came down with lame feet one winter and had to climb the tower stairs on his hands and knees to start the light. Mrs. Mitchell is a veteran at this lighthouse business but she couldn’t start the incandescent oil vapor lamp that had been installed in the lantern in 1935. She did go up every morning, however, and turn it off, thus saving the captain a trip that was sheer torture.”

In the 1952 newspaper story, reporter Ingalls wrote about a man named “Clarence Castells who moved to the Point and he wanted electricity. Furthermore, he wanted the Mitchells at Fort Point Lighthouse to also have it. As a matter of fact, he had the poles run right up to the front door of the lighthouse. The Mitchells had the pole in their front yard for many months before they could get the Coast Guard headquarters to give their approval to the proposition that Fort Point Light was to be equipped with electric lights. The government agencies move slowly in recognizing these new-fangled ideas. But they have it now.”

Had there not been a mistake in Mitchell’s birth records, he would have retired at the age of 70, before the electricity arrived at the lighthouse. However, because of that mistake, he stayed on as the lighthouse keeper until he was 71 before he could actually retire in 1952. He only had electricity for his last three months as the keeper of Fort Point Lighthouse. But he always was able to brag that not only did he get an extra year to live at the lighthouse, but he also got an extra year’s pay out of the government.

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2018 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.

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