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Dark memories swirl for caretaker at Seguin Island Lighthouse

Posted Aug. 15, 2012, at 3:05 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 16, 2012, at 12:12 p.m.
The Seguin Island Light Station's extremely rare First Order Fresnel lens is comprised of 282 individual glass prisms and stands 12 feet tall. It's designed to bend and magnify light into a single concentrated beam. It was installed in 1857.
The Seguin Island Light Station's extremely rare First Order Fresnel lens is comprised of 282 individual glass prisms and stands 12 feet tall. It's designed to bend and magnify light into a single concentrated beam. It was installed in 1857. Buy Photo
Seguin Island Lighthouse summer caretakers Beverly and David Ramsey stand atop the 1857-era tower Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2012. Beverly first came to the island when she was six days old and her parents were stationed there with the Coast Guard.
Seguin Island Lighthouse summer caretakers Beverly and David Ramsey stand atop the 1857-era tower Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2012. Beverly first came to the island when she was six days old and her parents were stationed there with the Coast Guard. Buy Photo
Seguin Island Lighthouse sits atop an island about 1.5 miles south of the mouth of the Kennebec River off Phippsburg.
Seguin Island Lighthouse sits atop an island about 1.5 miles south of the mouth of the Kennebec River off Phippsburg. Buy Photo
Seguin Island Lighthouse sits atop an island about 1.5 miles south of the mouth of the Kennebec River off Phippsburg.
Seguin Island Lighthouse sits atop an island about 1.5 miles south of the mouth of the Kennebec River off Phippsburg. Buy Photo

SEGUIN ISLAND, Maine — Beverly Ramsey has long imagined and dreamed of living at the Seguin Island Lighthouse, but when she and her husband, David, arrived there this year to serve as the island’s caretakers for the summer, she had an almost uncontrollable urge to leave.

“I was so excited to come here,” she said Tuesday, sitting at a picnic table near the base of the 1857-era lighthouse, which stands resolutely atop tall Seguin Island off the coast of Phippsburg. “The first day I got here, I didn’t want to be here. I just saw my daddy everywhere.”

Ramsey’s first trip to the island was in January 1959 when she was just days old. Her mother, who had married her father the year before and promptly joined him at the lighthouse, had traveled back to Florida to give birth, then immediately took a grueling bus ride back to Maine. At the dock near Fort Popham, her parents bundled her into a basket and hoisted her across the water on a taut rope to a Coast Guard vessel. The mid-winter ride to the island was cold and the always-choppy water near the mouth of the Kennebec River was especially rough. Baby in tow, her mother struggled up the steep and slippery path to the lighthouse, clinging to foot-long icicles that hung from a weathered wooden tramway for stability.

Over the next half century, Ramsey’s parents, Walter F. and Mary A. Stephens, told her repeatedly that their two years stationed on Seguin were among the best times they ever had. They spoke of catching pan-sized flounder on a string and a safety pin, and the time when four Coast Guard officers surprised them by marching through the living room, singing a boisterous cadence.

They showed Ramsey pictures, including one of her handsome and chiseled father in his Coast Guard uniform, sitting in a leather chair and cradling his infant daughter in his arms. The same leather chair is there today — as is that photo in the lighthouse museum — along with other mementos of the past: an old Whirlpool freezer where her parents kept their food, a Coast Guard-issued bureau where they stored their clothes, well-worn stair treads where they placed their feet. And of course, there is still the iconic lighthouse, which shines steadily in all directions warning mariners of submerged dangers and providing a breathtaking destination for tourists and boaters.

But amid the paradise, Walter and Mary endured tragedy. On Sept. 28, 1959, Mary traveled to Bath months before her due date and gave birth to a second daughter, Linda Jo. The baby died two hours later, and is buried in Oak Grove Cemetery in Bath. Ramsey grew up as an only child.

In 1999, Ramsey and her mother returned to Maine and erected a granite marker at Linda Jo’s grave and, fulfilling a decades-long goal for Mary, returned to Seguin for a visit.

Since the 1980s, an organization called Friends of Seguin Island Light Station has overseen care of the island, though the Coast Guard remains responsible for the lighthouse itself, as well as a foghorn that is controlled remotely. Every year, they bring in new volunteer caretakers for the summer, who usually are chosen in November.

Eric Dolbec, administrative coordinator for the organization, said the summertime opportunity has attracted people from far and wide, ranging from Navy or Coast Guard veterans to a couple from New Zealand who are spending their retirement volunteering at lighthouses around the world. Dolbec said he met one woman recently who recounted the last time people rode the tram to the top of the island. The cable broke en route and her parents were forced to throw her into the bushes. No one was hurt and now the tram is used for supplies only.

“For the most part it’s just lighthouse enthusiasts and people who are into history,” he said. “Obviously you’ve got to think about how remote it is to be out there all summer. It’s hard work.”

It costs up to $45,000 a year to maintain the various buildings on the island, a sum that is supported by donations and dues paid by members. Dolbec said more funding is always welcome, but that in 2011 the organization finished in the black for the first time in its history.

Leaving their lives in North Carolina behind for a few months wasn’t an easy decision for the Ramseys, who maintain a “Keepers Blog” at the Friends’ website.

“My wife had spoken about coming out here, but at first I wasn’t very enthusiastic about it,” said David Ramsey, who traveled all over the world during his Army career. “It’s a working vacation, but I think we’re happy now that we did it. How many people get to take a summer and spend it on a lighthouse in Maine?”

The Ramseys planned their summer on Seguin for months, relying on Beverly’s parents for encouragement and advice. Then Ramsey’s father died in October and she knew Seguin would either heal her or torture her. With a few weeks left in her adventure, she said Tuesday she’s still not sure which it will be.

Sometimes she walks down to the cove, sits on a rock and cries alone. Other times the tears flow while she’s doing chores and is reminded that maybe a half century ago, her father might have painted that same wall or tended that same garden plot. Over and over again challenges arise, such as when the diesel engine on the tramway wouldn’t start, and she wants to call him for advice.

“This is an emotional place,” said Ramsey. “I sit in the living room in the same chair and imagine 53 years ago, my dad actually sitting there on night duty, rocking me through the night.”

Once on a return trip from Bath where they purchased supplies, the Ramseys met a couple who were rowing around the island, spreading a former caretaker’s ashes. That’s when Ramsey realized the power Seguin has over people — not just her.

“I have been told that this place would change my life,” she said with the tears flowing again. “Whether it will, I guess I don’t know.”

Maybe the answer will come next month when the Ramseys pack up and return to their normal lives.

“When I’m going to town for supplies, I look back at the island and think about how I’ll feel when I’ll know I’m not going back,” she said. “I don’t like to think about that.”

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