Young Colorado girl takes on role of Abbie Burgess as 1856 Maine lighthouse keeper

Melanie Rosenberg, 11, of Boulder, Colo., uses gestures to show the fortitude of teenage lighthouse heroine Abbie Burgess during a living history performance last week at the Penobscot Marine Museum.
Melanie Rosenberg, 11, of Boulder, Colo., uses gestures to show the fortitude of teenage lighthouse heroine Abbie Burgess during a living history performance last week at the Penobscot Marine Museum. Buy Photo
Posted Aug. 11, 2013, at 6:26 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 12, 2013, at 9:03 a.m.

SEARSPORT, Maine — Melanie Rosenberg of Boulder, Colo., has a thing for history, acting, teenage heroines and Maine.

This summer, the lanky 11-year-old was able to combine her interests with her living history portrayal of Abbie Burgess Grant, which she performed twice last week at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport. Melanie dressed in 19th century garb and played the role of Grant as a grown-up lighthouse keeper recounting her efforts to keep the lights burning at Matinicus Rock during the terrible winter storms of 1856.

The girl was just 16 years old when she was left to tend the lights for a long stretch of stormy weeks while her father, the lighthouse keeper, had gone to the mainland and couldn’t safely get back.

“The waves beat mercilessly upon our house, sounding like the booming of a cannon,” she said, adding that Abbie’s father told her something important before he left. “I know I can trust you to keep the lights burning, Abigail.”

Melanie used gestures and words to illustrate the harrowing events of a January nor’easter, when Abbie had to haul her frail, ill mother up the 48 steps to the relative safety of the lighthouse tower as the ocean washed away the family’s dwelling space below. But all the while, the lighthouse remained illuminated.

“A bright, steady stream of light beamed out into the storm,” Melanie said.

When Abbie’s father returned to Matinicus Rock after four weeks, he brought with him letters from friends and from strangers who had read about the teen’s bravery in keeping the lights burning that winter. He also brought an embroidered quilt made by the grateful sailor’s wives of Rockland.

“I think I will stay in a lighthouse until I die,” Melanie said using Abbie’s words, adding that her heroine died at 52 of “old age.”

Melanie developed the role through Young Chautauqua, a youth program in Colorado in which young people research and portray people from the past, bringing them to life through period clothing, language and worldview. The performance combined a monologue with a question-and-answer period.

“I picked this character because my mom is from Maine. My two best friends are from Maine. I love Maine. I absolutely love Maine,” she said.

While visiting family this summer in Maine, Melanie and her mom, Jane Rosenberg, set up the performances at the museum. They also went on an Abbie Burgess Grant pilgrimage. They traveled close to Matinicus Rock on a boat and then looked for the lighthouse heroine’s grave in Spruce Head Cemetery.

“It was very meaningful to me,” Melanie said.

Liz Lodge, the executive director of the museum, was in the audience for one of the shows.

“I think it’s very exciting. We’re continually looking for ways to engage folks that are younger in the history of the museum,” she said. “We often reach out to high school groups and middle school groups. The kids bring such a different perspective.”

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