History of the LightEagle Island Lighthouse, since 1838
Lighting the Light (1837-1838)
Eagle Island Light Station, circa 1859, before the keeper’s house was painted white.
Credit: National Archives
In March of 1837, the United States Congress allocated $5000 for the construction of Eagle Island Light, just one of 17 lighthouses built in Maine over a 15-year period. The light station was built on a six-acre parcel on the northeast corner of Eagle Island, a point of land visible up and down East Penobscot Bay. The impetus for building lighthouses like Eagle was the increase in shipping coming and going from Bangor up the Penobscot River, much of it logging schooners. The Eagle Island Light tower is a 25-foot structure made of granite block on the outside, brick on the inside and rubblestone between. The lantern room on top is octagonal and made of wrought iron. John Spear was Eagle Island Light’s first lightkeeper, receiving an annual salary of $350. A rough stone building was his residence at the Light. In late September of 1838, a full year and a half since the congressional funding was authorized, Spear activated light.
Improving on the Start (1857-1913)
Howard T. Ball with wife Lucy and three of their nine children.
Credit: Maine Lighthouse Museum
In 1857, the original light was largely reconstructed. A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed which made the light visible for 16.5 miles. The light now stood 105 feet above sea level. The old stone stairway was replaced by the cast iron steps of 22 steps. Whale oil and lard were the primary sources of fuel for the light, giving way in 1877 to kerosene. To provide an alternative to the north facing “lighthouse” beach for accessing the Light, a 76-step wooden stairway was built up the cliffside on the eastern side. A wooden house with four bedrooms and workshop replaced the original stone building as the light keeper’s house. The workshop also served as indoor connection to the light tower, allowing the keeper to stay out of the weather when going to the light. A number of other buildings were erected, including a barn for livestock. From 1883 – 1913 the station was occupied by the Ball family. Howard T. Ball replaced his father, Capt. John Ball as lightkeeper in 1898. Following his retirement, John lived at the station for another seven years, until his death at age 82. Early in 1913, Howard Ball developed pneumonia and died after guiding a Bucksport fishing vessel to safety in a storm. His wife, Lucy, tended the light until a replacement arrived later that year.
The Modern Period (1932-1959)
Frank Earl Bracey Jr. stands outside Eagle Island Light.
To assist ships approaching Eagle Light in Maine’s persistent fog, a bell was installed in 1932 that was hung outside the wooden pyramidal tower. The keeper would wind weights up the tower much like a grandfather clock. As the weights slowly unwound, a large mallet would be powered to strike the 1,200-lbs brass bell. The last civilian keeper was Frank E. Bracey Jr., as the US Coast Guard took over the operation of Eagle Island Light in 1945. The Coast Guard fully automated the Light in 1959 and replaced the Fresnel lens with a 300mm lens and an electric light powered by a bank of batteries running off a diesel generator. At this time, the light was changed to flashing every four seconds.
Coast Guard Enacts Changes (1963-1996)
An aerial view after the keeper’s home was destroyed, leaving only the light and fog bell towers remaining.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard, Lighthouse Digest archives
In 1963, the Coast Guard decided to demolish the keeper’s house by burning it down even though there was stiff opposition from islanders. At the same time, an attempt was made to remove the 1,200-lbs brass fog bell embossed with “Eagle Island.” During the effort to unmount the bell, it broke loose and tumbled down the cliff into the water below. A local fisherman and caretaker from nearby Great Sprucehead Island grappled for the bell and retrieved it. The bell is now on a mount in the meadow on the eastern side of Great Sprucehead. A bell buoy just off the point at Eagle now serves the purpose of guiding boats the fog. In 1996, under the Maine Lights Program, the lighthouse was eventually transferred to Eagle Light Caretakers, a non-profit organization. The station remains an active aid to navigation and the light is now an LED lamp powered by solar.
Restoration of Eagle Light (2013-present)
Eagle Island Caretakers gather with friends outside the freshly painted lighthouse during 2018’s annual Open House.
Since 1996, Eagle Island Caretakers has maintained and improved the lighthouse. However, in 2013, they recognized work done over the years was not sufficient to keep the structures standing in an adverse marine environment. The board developed a three-phase renovation plan with a lighthouse restoration contractor, J.B. Leslie Company of Portsmouth, NH. Thanks to a few private donors, they completed the first two phases of the plan. Work included reconstructing the doorway, repointing the outer granite blocks, applying high-end architectural paint, redoing the paint and paneling inside the lantern house, refinishing the outside lantern house deck, and clearing the surrounding overgrowth. The final phase, estimated to cost $50,000, is on hold until further funds are raised.
“Eagle Island Light is on the way to becoming the most picturesque and best-restored light of its kind on the coast.”
– JB Leslie, Lighthouse Restoration Contractor
(1838 – 1841)
(1841 – 1843)
(1843 – 1848)
(1848 – 1849)
(1849 – 1850)
(1850 – 1853)
Russell C. Clay
(1853 – 1858)
(1858 – 1859)
Russell C. Clay
(1859 – 1861)
(1861 – 1871)
Ambrose P. Sweetland
(1871 – 1883)
(1883 – 1898)
Howard T. Ball
(1898 – 1913)
Edward S. Farren
(1913 – 1918)
Charles W. Allen
(1919 – 1931)
Frank E. Bracey, Jr.
(1931 – 1945)
U.S. Coast Guard Takes Control
(1945 – 1946)
Calvin H. Curtis
(1946 – 1949)
(1949 – 1952)
(1952 – 1955)
(1955 – 1956)
Edward Le Tendre
(1956 – 1957)
(1957 – 1959)