Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Blizzard at the Cuckolds Light

Cuckolds Light in 2009
As the first major snowstorm of 2011 rages outside my windows here in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, I've been thinking about the days when lighthouse keepers and their families lived at exposed light stations along our coast, enduring the worst nature could throw at them. One story of a winter storm at a New England lighthouse that made a major impression on me was related by Ramon "Kelly" Farrin.

Kelly lived with his wife and infant son at the Cuckolds Light Station on a small rocky island near Boothbay Harbor, Maine,  for about two years, 1969–70. They were the last family to live at the Cuckolds before it became a males-only “stag” station. Entertainment for the Farrins consisted of TV watching, guitar playing, fishing, and walking around the island. Kelly once wrote, "They say lighthouses are romantic, but I do know that this one had quite a reputation concerning the divorce rate. I would say it takes a sturdy relationship to endure that much togetherness. There is no time apart unless the wife goes ashore alone."

During the Farrins’ second winter at the station, a major snowstorm struck the area. At first, Kelly wasn’t overly worried, as the family had weathered other storms and he had no reason to think this one would be any different. His concern grew as the keeper’s’ house creaked and groaned from the wind. In his words:

The keeper's house was demolished in 1977. (U.S. Coast Guard)
When daylight came sometime around 6:30 I got dressed and went out and looked around. . . . A higher than normal tide had been predicted on the evening news so we all figured that the water would be up close to the boathouse. . . . We were getting a little concerned, as we had never experienced wind like this on the island. We really had no accurate way to tell what it was as the old anemometer had broken a long time ago. 

I went out again around 9 o’clock and by now I was getting more concerned as the wind wasn’t lessening and the tide, which had over two more hours to come in before reaching its full height was already washing well over the usual high water mark. It was around this time that the power went out and I started the generator. . . . On the east side of the house the waves were beginning to wash over the seawall and onto the side of the house. Again, this was normal for some of the more intense storms but at high tide, not with close to two hours left to come. 

I went up on the catwalk around the front of the station. . . . From here I could see the whole island was awash except for the house. The waves were now washing across the front lawn (what we called our few blades of grass) and the boathouse was taking a real beating on the northeast side. . . . 

My wife and I returned to our side of the house but I kept going outside to watch the action, sort of going outside and then back up to the tower. Looking down it didn’t seem so bad but the roar from the wind and then the blaring ofr the foghorn made things seem very spooky. . . . 

When the tide finally turned the wind dropped almost as rapidly. It was nearly halfway out before the water stopped hitting the side of the house and boathouse. It took a few weeks but eventually the men from Group South Portland came and rebuilt the boatslip and repaired the damage.

 Kelly Farrin shares many of his memories on his website,

The light was automated in late 1974 and the last keeper was removed. In many ways, I've never been a fan of the automaton and destaffing of light stations. But maybe it's a blessing that people aren't living at some of our lighthouses on days like this.

In May 2006, ownership of the Cuckolds Lighthouse was conveyed to a local nonprofit organization, the Cuckolds Fog Signal and Light Station Council.