November 30, 2021

Light keepers preserve tradition > New generation of beacon tenders staying home for holiday

A New Year’s Day habit has become a home for a Port Clyde couple.

Soon after Lee Ann and Thomas Szelog went on their first date in 1987, they decided to celebrate the start of 1988 by watching the sun rise over Plum Island Light in Newburyport, Mass.

In other years, they tried other lighthouses.

By 1990, they got to move into the keeper’s house at Marshall Point Light in midcoast Maine.

“Now we just look out the window,” said Thomas Szelog on Thursday.

But they do go outside, he said, to watch the seals and sea birds.

“It’s a nice peaceful way to start the new year,” said Lee Ann Szelog.

They’re not alone.

As the 20th century ends — and with it the era of manned lighthouses — a new generation has emerged that lives around the now-automated lighthouses, treating them with pride and cultivating a sense of history.

The Szelogs — Lee Ann, 39, and Thomas, 42 — arrived at Marshall Point Light almost by chance. It started when the town of St. George, which was leasing the keeper’s dwelling from the U.S. Coast Guard, and the St. George Historical Society, which planned a museum there, were searching for tenants to live in an upstairs apartment.

Lee Ann Szelog, assistant vice president of marketing for Camden National Bank, became involved in the Marshall Point Lighthouse Restoration Committee and soon discovered the group was looking for caretakers. She wrote a two-page letter explaining why the couple would make the best keepers for the light.

“It was one of those things of being in the right place at the right time,” she said.

Being a lighthouse keeper was never an easy job, whether lighting a wick on an oil lamp or flipping an electrical switch powered from a diesel generator. There were always the elements: harsh winters, gale-force winds and isolated locations that took their toll on keepers and their families.

In 1718, George Worthylake, first keeper at Boston Light, his wife and daughter, and two men drowned when their small boat capsized as they were returning to the lighthouse at Little Brewster Island off Boston.

Until 1939, lighthouses were operated by the U.S. Lighthouse Service. As technology improved, so did the lifestyles of keepers — to the point where eventually keepers were no longer cost-efficient. One by one the lighthouses were automated and unmanned. Most were abandoned in the 1980s, according to Shore Village Museum curator Robert Davis.

All lighthouses but Boston Light have been automated and unmanned by the Coast Guard. Many have been transferred to nonprofit groups and are cared for by private residents.

The Coast Guard still maintains operation of the lights.

Marshall Point Light was automated in 1971. Although the Szelogs have little official responsibility for the grounds and light, they tend it all as though it were their own. They have even successfully relit the light via telephone instructions from the Coast Guard when the light lost power.

When lighthouses were first automated, most keepers’ dwellings were left abandoned and began to deteriorate. Then efforts to encourage nonprofit groups to take ownership grew, especially through such programs as the Maine Lights Program.

The new keepers share a sense of weather, responsibility and keeping watch.

Lawrence “Terry” Cole, 49, and Jeralyn Cole, 47, served as official lighthouse keepers for three years at Fort Point Light in Stockton Springs when Terry was in the Coast Guard. For the past 11 years, they have been caretakers for the state Bureau of Parks and Lands, which now has the deed to the property.

“It’s a little mind-boggling to have the opportunity to do it twice,” he said.

One of their daughters even got married at Fort Point Light.

“This place means so much to us,” Jeralyn Cole said. “There’s no place else we’d like to be [as the next century begins.]”

They, too, will celebrate 2000 at their home. The couple have outside jobs, but are responsible for keeping the grounds and giving tours to the public at the lighthouse.

Cole admits that his lighthouse keeping while in the Coast Guard was not quite the same as the work done by the old “wickies” who manned the oil lantern beacons during the U.S. Lighthouse Service days.

“I just flipped a switch,” he said.

But Vinalhaven Town Manager Susan Lessard has truly experienced the demands of lighthouse living.

Lessard interviewed for her job seven years ago, not knowing until she arrived on the island — roughly 15 miles from Rockland — that one of the benefits was housing at Brown’s Head Light. The lighthouse marks the entrance to Fox Islands Thorofare.

The town leased it from the Coast Guard after it was automated in 1987 and eventually got the deed through the Maine Lights Program.

“It’s a job responsibility as well as a place to live,” she said.

Lessard, 43, mows the lawn, trims and plants flowers on the 6 acres of land that surround the keeper’s dwelling in a remote section of the island.

In winter, she has had to chip ice that forms around the house to gain access to her home. Draining an above-ground heating fuel hose, as well as water lines that still fill 1,000-gallon cistern tanks inside the home are part of the town manager’s job, neither of which is an easy task in gripping, cold winds.

But the 150-year-old dwelling offers a magnificent, 270-degree view of the water that can’t be beat, she said.

“The fact I’m not Coast Guard doesn’t mean I don’t worry less,” Lessard said. “You get proprietary and attached.”

“Whether I go out and light a lamp,” she said, does not make her any less a keeper.

“I feel responsible for it. … I feel a part of its history,” she said.

Lessard plans to celebrate the new year right at home.

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