Lighthouse Daughters--Abbie Burgess (Grant)

Monday, July 22, 2013


Unlike Catherine Moore, Abbie Burgess did not have to go outside to light the lights. The 28 lamps hung in two stone towers attached to opposite ends of the keeper’s dwelling. But that didn’t mean it was an easy life.

Matinicus Rock Light Station was a lonely, barren outcropping located five miles from Maine’s Matinicus Island and twenty miles from the mainland. Fourteen-year-old Abbie moved there in 1853 when her father received the lighthouse keeper’s job. At the time of the move, the family also consisted of Abbie’s invalid mother, an older brother who was usually gone with the fishing boats, and two younger sisters. (Abbie also had other siblings, all older, who no longer lived at home.)

Abbie’s father wanted to earn additional money as a lobster fisherman, so he trained Abbie to help with the lights while he was away.

A lighthouse tender was supposed to bring supplies twice a year, but it wasn’t dependable. By January 1856, the delivery due September 1855 had still not arrived. Desperate for supplies, Abbie’s father sailed to Matinicus Island for food and medicine, leaving seventeen-year-old Abbie in charge of the light. A month-long gale blew in soon after he left, and it was weeks before he could return.

Worried about the dwelling’s low-lying position, Abbie moved her family into one of the towers. She wrote this in a letter to a friend:

            You know the hens were our only companions. Being convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: “I must try to save them.” She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at a window, exclaimed, “Oh, look! look there! the worst sea is coming!”

Through it all, Abbie kept the lights burning.

The job as lighthouse keeper was a political appointment, and Abbie’s father lost his position to a Republican appointee in 1860. Abbie stayed to help the new keeper and fell in love with his son, Isaac Grant. Isaac and Abbie raised four children and remained on Matinicus Rock until 1875, when they transferred to Whitehead Light near Spruce Head, Maine. Both resigned in 1890 due to Abbie’s poor health. She died two years later at the age of 53.

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For more information on Abbie Burgess Grant and Matinicus Rock Light Station, see pages 21-25 of Mind the Light, Katie and/or check out the following websites:




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The picture is the cover illustration from the May 2, 1882 issue of Harper’s Young People: An Illustrated Weekly. Abbie Burgess may have been the inspiration for the drawing.

1 comment:

Caroline Ill said...

My first grade class reads a mini biography of Abbie Burgess each year. It is always a hit.

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