For as long as I can remember, my family and I have vacationed on the Maine coast. My father’s family is from Maine, and I can’t remember a summer that wasn’t marked by our trip north. To me then, Maine seemed like the far side of the world, an interminable drive through what felt like thousands of miles to end up in our own wonderland. (And we were only coming from New Jersey!) It was like another country and like a trip back in time to place where the sea provided the bounty and always called the shots, a far cry from my sleepy suburban abode.
The beauty of mid-coast Maine, an area that encompasses great places like Boothbay Harbor and Rockland, is found in its rocky coast. As a child, it was what made the coastline so different from the sandy beaches of the Jersey shore, and to me that much more appealing. But for the people who really did sail here from the far side of the world, and not up route 95 in a station wagon, those same rocks presented a life threatening danger. It was to guard against that threat that motivated our forefathers to build the incredibly beautiful lighthouses that Maine is now so famous for.
On my way home this year, I decided to stop at Portland Head Light. The light sits on a gorgeous point of land in the town of Cape Elizabeth along Casco Bay. It is one of the oldest, and perhaps most breathtaking, lighthouses in North America. It was commissioned by George Washington himself to help guide ships safely into Portland’s busy harbor. But just the light is sometimes not enough to ensure a vessel’s safety during Maine’s harsh winters.
Walk along the outside of Portland Head Light and you will find a haunting, and obviously makeshift, memorial to a ship that didn’t have as merry a Christmas as perhaps her crew had hoped. It is painted on the rocks facing the light and all it reads is “Annie C. Maguire Shipwrecked Here Christmas Eve 1886”. It is all you and any other visitor will ever need to understand the importance of lighthouses to Maine’s commerce and shipping industry. But this story is not a typical tail of souls lost at sea. Unlike most makeshift memorials, this one does not honor those who died. In its own way, it honors the heroism of those who helped the crew of the Annie Maguire live…every last one of them.
As the story goes, the Annie Maguire was heading up the coast towards Canada in a blinding snowstorm. She was hoping to put into Portland’s sheltered harbor to get out of the danger, probably share a holiday toast. It was likely her captain and helmsman were completely blind from the snow and unable to hear any audible signals from the shore through the pounding surf, and instead she crashed into the huge rocks just yards from the lighthouse.
The keepers of the light at the time were Captain Joseph Strout and his wife Mary. Amid the roar of waves pounding on the rocks, the Strouts heard the shouts of the Maguire’s men and knew they needed to help. Now take a look at that picture above of Portland Head Light and the rocks its sits upon. And then, imagine waves pounding, wind howling and snow blinding the Strouts from saving those men. Jeremy D’Entremont is his book The Lighthouses of Maine described what happened next.
The Strouts took quick action, grabbing a ladder from storage and climbing down onto the rocks. They laid the ladder across the rocks to the ship so that it became a makeshift gangway. Mary Strout shed light on the scene by burning blankets that had been cut into strips and soaked in kerosene. In addition to the captain and the 15 crewmen, the passengers included the captain’s wife and 12-year-old son. All aboard made it safely across the ladder to the solid ground.
Later, Capt. Strout decided to immortalize the event by painting this little memorial on the rocks pictured above, not a small or entirely safe project either. Maybe by making sure everyone who came to Portland Head Light was made aware of the terrifying Christmas Eve in 1886, the good Captain was doing a little bragging. Well, it certainly is well deserved.
by Dave McBride
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