Back in 1973 a 22-year-old Coast Guardsman, Lawrence “Terry” Cole, became lighthouse keeper at Maine’s Fort Point Light, a picturesque station in Stockton Springs near the mouth of the Penobscot River. Cole, a Massachusetts native, told a local newspaper at the time, “It’s a once in a lifetime experience.” In Terry Cole’s case, it’s turned out to be a twice in a lifetime experience.
Because of its beautiful and accessible location, Fort Point Light was always a sought-after station for keepers. A total of only four men kept the light from the 1880s into the early 1950s. In 1988 Fort Point Light was automated and the Coast Guard removed their last keeper, Larry Baum.
The property is adjacent to Fort Point State Park, site of Fort Pownall, built in 1759 to guard against the French. After automation the Coast Guard leased the light station to the state of Maine, and the keeper’s house became housing for a park ranger and his family. That ranger turned out to be Terry Cole, who returned for a second stint at his former home. To be back a second time is “a little difficult to believe,” says Cole.
When they moved into the lighthouse for the first time in the spring of 1973, Cole and his wife Jeralyn (Jeri) were raising two young daughters, Melissa and Amanda. One sunny afternoon not long after they arrived, Jeri and Terry suddenly couldn’t find Melissa. Terry remembers what followed. “We frantically looked everywhere. At the time there was no fence along the cliff. We called and yelled and were getting ready to call for help when we saw her marching up the road from the beach. In her hands she held her treasure: pieces of glass. It had been a big thing for us to walk the local beaches hunting for beach glass. It was something we had done together ever since she was a baby. She was very proud that as a big girl she could go to the beach on her own.”
Melissa is now married with two small children, Cassandra and Noah. They spent the summer of 2000 at the lighthouse while their house was being built. According to Terry, Melissa took her children down to collect beach glass almost every day.
Living at such an easily accessible lighthouse sometimes meant strangers coming to the door at all hours of the day and night. Some wanted to use the bathroom, others just wanted to look around the station. Terry Cole recalls one of the more unusual visitors. “One foggy evening we heard a rap at the back door. A woman who appeared to be ‘in her cups’ asked us what key the foghorn was sounding. That was one for the books! During a concert this summer the local historical society had a refreshment stand. The woman in charge brought some other people in the house for a tour. As we talked about the past and the many parties that had been held in the house, she remembered one foggy night a long time ago when she came to the house to ask what key the foghorn was in!”
Another memorable incident from the Coles’ first tour of duty at the lighthouse concerned a visit by an inspection team, remembers Cole. “The inspection team consisted of a full captain, a CWO, an engineer, storekeeper and a YN1 named Murphy. The Coast Guard was big on fire fighting. We had large fire extinguishers in every room. Upstairs in the hallway was a garden hose coiled up on a reel. I had built some sort of box or cabinet to store these in in order to make it look more shipshape. I had to show the engineering inspector that the hose was up to date on its inspection tag, which required that I remove the wooden box that encased it. It was a tight fit and I had to force it back on.
“Shortly after I was in my office in the workroom of the tower when Jeri called excitedly. I rushed in to the dining room to see the Captain standing on our dining room table holding a big bowl from the kitchen to catch the torrent of water that gushed out through the light fixture. The hose upstairs had come apart and water was coming through the ceiling. The warrant officer was standing in the doorway by the light switch and jokingly asked the Captain if he wanted him to turn the light on! I was extremely embarassed but I don’t recall that it had a bad effect on the inspection report. When you sit at the dining room table today you can look up and see the water stain around the light fixture.”
Jeri Cole’s baking prowess played an important part in inspections, says Terry. “What probably saved that inspection and enhanced the many others we had were Jeri’s baked pies. Part of the plan was that the inspectors would come first in to the kitchen and be overwhelmed by the smell of something freshly baking in the oven. When they left, they left full of pie and coffee. We were surprised one time when the First District Commander visited our station. When he entered with his entourage one of the first things he asked about was whether there was pie and coffee.”
The Coles were transferred to Race Point in Massachusetts in 1976. They returned to their old lighthouse home in 1989. Under the Maine Lights Program coordinated by the Island Institute of Rockland, the lighthouse became the property of the State of Maine Bureau of Parks and Land in 1998. The Coles feel more secure under the new arrangement. When the station was leased, says Terry, “We were never sure if we would have to move.”
Keeping an eye on the lighthouse and fort, giving impromptu tours, and maintaining all of the buildings keeps Cole busy in summers. In the offseason, he also works as the archivist in charge of special collections at the Belfast Public Library. He enjoys historic research and has documented much of the light station’s history.
Terry Cole is also an active Coast Guard reservist. He reenlisted at the Rockland Coast Guard Station in 1998.
One of Cole’s biggest thrills is meeting grandchildren and other relatives of former keepers who visit the station. Cole has gathered a substantial collection of photos of the lighthouse through the years along with pictures of keepers and their families. Some of these photos are on display inside the 1890 fog bell tower, which is frequently opened for the public on summer weekends. The bell tower is beautifully preserved and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are plans for improved public access at the lighthouse, including a new eight car parking lot and a handicapped-accessible path to the area around the bell tower.
There are signs on U.S. Route 1 pointing the way to Fort Point State Park and the lighthouse, and a 200-foot pier is available for visitors arriving by boat. For more information on visiting the lighthouse, call (207) 567-3356. Individuals and groups interested in a guided tour of the lighthouse should call ahead for an appointment. Terry Cole also has a slide presentation available for schools and groups.
This story appeared in the
November 2000 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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