CUTLER, Maine — Unseen from the most picturesque harbor at Cutler because it sits on the seaward side of the island, the Little River Lighthouse has guarded the mouth of the river and the fishermen who ply the cold Down East waters for 164 years.
But this past winter was a harsh one and damage was aplenty. Trees were blown down, blocking and damaging the fairylike boardwalk and trails on the island, the landing dock was destroyed, and the deep cold penetrated the lighthouse keeper’s home, peeling paint right off the living room walls.
Tim Harrison of the Friends of Little River Lighthouse and founder of the American Lighthouse Association, who led the effort to save the historic site, said during a recent tour of the island that because the lighthouse cannot be seen from land, it is difficult to raise donations.
“It would be easier if we had a ghost,” Harrison said. The words were barely out of his mouth when the door to the lighthouse slammed shut behind him.
Of course, it was the wind.
Of course, it didn’t have anything to do with the two nameless seamen who are buried on the island.
“They were found washed up on the shore in the early 1800s,” Harrison said.
The mystery of the two seamen is just part of the lure and beauty of the Little River Lighthouse, set on the 15-acre Little River Island at the mouth of Cutler Harbor.
“Look on both sides of the walkway,” caretaker Billy Kitchen of Massachusetts said, opening his arms wide. “It is an enchanted fairyland, mystical, like ‘The Hobbit’ or the ‘Lord of the Rings’.” Kitchen recently returned for his third summer on the island.
Two trails wind around the island, taking hikers from deep forest to raspberry barrens to a rockbound coast. Wild iris blooms among the rocks, scrub pines hold fast against the ocean breezes. Grand Manan Island is visible in the distance, as are Machias Seal Island and lobster boats, eagles, porpoises, seals and whales.
For 130 years, the lighthouse station was occupied, first by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and then, after 1939, by the U.S. Coast Guard.
For one man, his Coast Guard duty at the lighthouse changed his life. Terry Rowden, who now lives in Cutler, arrived at Little River in 1968 from Michigan. He had swapped duty with another man who recently had bought a sports car and didn’t want to be assigned to an island.
“We had a tiny, little [rowboat] that we used to get to the mainland,” Rowden recalled. “We’d fill up a wheelbarrow with groceries and take it on up to the house. We used kerosene to light the light and you had to wind it like a cuckoo clock.”
While stationed at the lighthouse, Rowden met and married a Cutler girl and eventually returned Down East to settle and raise a family.
But what Rowden found upon his return was a dilapidated, nearly destroyed lighthouse. Twenty-five years earlier, in 1975, the Coast Guard automated the light and abandoned the island.
“On our first visit to the island with the American Lighthouse Foundation in April 2000, we found a rusted and leaky tower, a keeper’s house in shambles, a rotted walkway, downed trees and tons of debris on the island,” Harrison recalled. “Raccoons were living in the house, the cistern had collapsed into the basement, and the entire electrical system had been eaten by mice.”
Harrison said the first night a party from American Lighthouse Foundation came to the island for an assessment, they slept in the boathouse next to the landing dock. “It began to rain and the rain was coming through the roof,” he said. “And then the entire house started to slip toward the sea. We scrambled out and slept outside.”
The lighthouse and island had been offered to the town of Cutler, the state of Maine, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife. All declined.
In the fall of 1998, Maine Historic Preservation declared the Little River Lighthouse one of the 10 most endangered historic properties in Maine.
But in 2000, the American Lighthouse Foundation sought and was granted a historic preservation lease from the Coast Guard for the lighthouse. Restoration began immediately.
“I spent three months working in just one bedroom,” Harrison said. “There was lead paint on everything.”
The lighthouse tower, the boat ramp and the wood walkway were repaired and restored. A light was relit in the tower in 2001, 26 years after the lighthouse went dark, and was replaced by a flashing beacon on a pole. The foundation took ownership of the island and lighthouse in 2002.
“It was the first lighthouse in all of New England and the third lighthouse in the United States to have its ownership transferred to a nonprofit group,” Harrison said. Volumes of reports, documentation and applications to complete the process were compiled entirely by Harrison, who is co-founder of the American Lighthouse Foundation. By 2007, the Friends of Little River Lighthouse had been formed as a chapter of the foundation and is now responsible for managing and caring for the island and lighthouse.
This spring — 43 years after he first was assigned to Little River Lighthouse — Rowden was back, part of a dedicated team of volunteers that over the years has saved and maintained the lighthouse. Earlier this year, Rowden helped build a new landing ramp and, along with other boaters, towed it to the island and installed it.
Harrison said Rowden has been an integral part of the seven-year restoration of the keeper’s house.
Today, more than 1,500 visitors come to the island each year. Some stay in the beautifully restored keeper’s home, which offers overnight accommodations.
Without volunteers, Harrison said, the restoration never could have been accomplished. “The average donation for a half-million-dollar renovation was $68,” he said. Oftentimes, just as in Rowden’s case, former Coast Guard personnel return to volunteer on the island.
And just as they say the island leaves a mark on them, they leave their mark on the island.
Inside the boathouse are the signatures — everyone who has ever stayed at the island, including pairs of newlyweds, former lighthouse keepers and Coast Guard “Coasties” formerly assigned duty at the lighthouse.
There is the signature of Herbert Johnson, an early lightkeeper, dated September 1896, the pencil still clear and crisp, one of dozens printed on the boards. Willie Corbett, Al Vachon, Frederic Morong, Gary Sill, John Arrington, Anthony Weyer, David Bartholomy, Burleigh Chandler, Russell Reilly, Robert Cale Sr., Gleason Colbeth — all keepers of Little River Lighthouse.
And there on the northern wall is Terry Rowden’s signature with the date 1969, one of the light’s last keepers.
To make arrangements to visit or make a donation to the Little River Lighthouse, call 259-3833 or go to www.LittleRiverLight.org.