Photo courtesy of Maine Coast Sanctuaries
ABIGAIL BURGESS GRANT
“Keep the Lights Burning
Most teachers have been exposed to Abbie Burgess the heroine Lighthouse Keeper whose story has been read by countless schoolchildren. It is a pleasure to be able to say that Abbie is a descendant of Thomas & Dorothy Burgess of Plymouth Massachusetts. The following information was taken from a book called “The Lighthouses of New England” written by Edward Rowe Snow.
" It was in the spring of 1853 that Abbie Burgess received her first view of Matinicus Rock, the island that was to be her only home for many years, when her father moved out to the island as keeper of the light. Accompanying Keeper Burgess were his invalid wife, four girls and a boy. Abbie discovered the old log book kept by previous lightkeepers and was fascinated by the stories it told.
The old log book with its items about storms and dangers from the sea proved absorbing reading for the young light-house heroine. Many winter nights when the thin summer oil would burn poorly in the below-zero temperature, Abbie would have to sit up all night nursing the wicks along, and she would study the log book by the hour. Abbie began to wonder whether any storms such as those mentioned in the book could possibly sweep the ledge while she was there, for she knew that her invalid mother was steadily growing weaker and could not be moved during a gale if the lighthouse was destroyed as that of 1839 had been.
She studied the situation carefully and changed her mother's room from the old building to what she believed was the strongest part of the new structure, a chamber just in back of the higher of the two lighthouse towers. A month after the change had been made, in December 1855, a great storm hit the rock and swept against the old dwelling, but only spray hit the windows of her mother's new bedroom. Abbie felt that her decision had been a wise one.
The following month, January 1856, Keeper Burgess was forced to go to Rockland to purchase supplies and food. He said farewell in the usual fashion to his wife, but he took Abbie aside and told her that only extreme necessity prompted his trip; the lighthouse cutter had not made its regular September call and it was dangerous to let the winter trap them at the island without sufficient provisions. "I can depend on you, Abbie," were his last words as he slid the dory down over the slippery rocks and jumped in for his long sail to Rockland, twenty-five miles away.
Abbie and the children watched their father's sail from the top of the lighthouse until it vanished in the distance. Almost before they sat down to lunch, however, the wind veered to northeast, and the first signs of a bad storm began.
Her younger brother had left the rock months before and was then aboard a fishing vessel in the Bay Chaleur, so Abbie was alone at the light with her helpless mother and the younger girls of the family. For three days the storm increased in intensity, and in the early morning hours of the fourth day Abbie was startled by several great billows that roared right across the island and battered against the heavy granite building itself.
With the coming of dawn that terrible morning of January 19, 1856, Abbie looked over at the old dwelling house where her mother had been living before Abbie decided to move her to the new building. The old home had been totally destroyed, and not a stone of the foundation was still in place. Abbie shivered when she thought what would have happened to her mother in the other building, the timbers of which were even then being scattered all around Penobscot Bay. Abbie continues the story herself:
"The new dwelling was flooded and the windows had to be secured to prevent the violence of the spray from breaking them in. As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the light-towers. If they stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings, and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. During this time we were without the assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father's. "You know the hens were our only companions. Becoming convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: 'I must try to save them.' She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but I was none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at the window, exclaimed:'Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming!' "That wave destroyed the old dwelling and swept the Rock....The sea is never still, and when agitated, its roar shuts out every other sound, even drowning our voices."
Her father returned several days later and the lighthouse keeper thankfully greeted his wife and children. Abbie was praised again and again for her heroism.
In 1857 Abbie was left with her brother on the rock during a storm, again when the father was on the mainland securing provisions. During a lull in the gale, her brother started away for food in a small skiff. Neither he nor his father came back for the next twenty-one days, during which time the family was reduced to a daily diet of one cup of corn meal mush and an egg. Finally father and son returned with plenty of food, but they found Abbie exhausted from worry about them, for she feared that both had drowned. (Note: It was her efforts in keeping both her family safe and the lights burning during this storm, that Abbie became known as a heroine. Remember she was only a teenager at the time.)
Abbie remained on the island for many years and eventually married the son of the next keeper. Her story has become permanently linked with lighthouses in Maine. Even after she and her husband, Isaac Grant, left the island for other lighthouses, Matinicus Light held a special place in her heart. In 1891 she wrote...
“Sometimes I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more. It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself. When we had care of the old lard-oil lamps on Matinicus Rock, they were more difficult to tend than these lamps are... Many nights I have watched the lights ...and then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail. In all these years I always put the lamps in order in the morning and I let them at sunset. These old lamps...on Matinicus Rock... I often dream of them. When I dream of them it always seems to me that I have been away a long while, and I am hurrying toward the Rock to light the lamps there before sunset....I feel a great more worried in my dreams than when I am awake. I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my sould after it has left ths worn out body! If I ever have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon.”
It is very interesting to note that Edward Rowe Snow made Abbie’s last wish come true. He arranged for a miniature replica of a Lighthouse to to be placed at the foot of Abbie’s grave in the Forest Hill Cemetery in South Thomaston, near Spruce Head and near the Whitehead Light in Maine.
If you are interested in knowing the connection of Abbie
Burgess to Thomas Burgess (The Pilgrim) click here:
ABBIE BURGESS GRANT
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