Maine: An Encyclopedia
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Grant, Abbie Burgess

(1839-1892), an early female lighthouse keeper in Maine, was born in Rockland, the fourth of nine children born to Samuel and Thankful Burgess. She lived and went to school in Rockland until she was fourteen years old when she and her family moved to Matinicus Rock, where her father became a lighthouse keeper.

Life on the Rock was not an easy one. There were many things to do and harsh weather conditions to put up with. Abbie’s older brother Benjy took on the job of helping their father with the lighthouse while Abbie helped with the house work. Unlike Abbie, Benjy disliked the Rock and couldn’t wait to leave. Once Benjy left, Abbie took the responsibility of helping her father keep the lighthouse.

In January 1856, the weather had been so bad that the government had not been able to get supplies to Matinicus Rock. The Burgess family was running out of oil for the lamps and out of food for the winter. Samuel had to leave for the main and appointed sixteen-year-old Abbie in charge of the family, and more importantly, the lighthouse.

While her father was away a big storm passed through. It was up to Abbie to keep the lights burning, and she did just that. For three weeks she also protected her family and even their egg-laying chickens. Because of Abbie’s great effort many sailors’ lives were saved.

In 1861 Samuel lost his job at the lighthouse because of politics. Abbie was heartbroken. The Grant family, who were friends, moved onto the Rock to replace the Burgess family. Abbie, loving her home so much, asked to stay and train the new lighthouse keeper.

Soon she fell in love with the Grant’s youngest son Isaac. They later married and lived on the Rock for another fourteen years. Abby was named his official assistant. Isaac and Abbie had four children on Matinicus Rock. After twenty-two years, they moved to Isaac’s new position as lighthouse keeper of Whitehead Light Station, near the Town of St. George. Finally in 1890 they both retired.

Abbie Burgess Grant died in 1892 at the age of fifty-three. She is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery in South Thomaston Maine.

Matinicus Island Light Station

Matinicus Island Light Station

Station Established 1827
Present Lighthouse Built 1857
Automated 1983 (North light discontinued in 1924)
Height of Tower 48 feet
Height of Focal Plane 90 feet
Original Optic / Present Optic Third order Fresnel / DCB -224
Fog Signal One blast every 15 seconds
Other Structures Still Standing 1864 keeper’s house and 1890 oil house

 

U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service Photo

Source: http://www.fws.gov/northeast/mainecoastal/lighthouses/Matinicus_rk.html

Additional resources

Clifford, Mary Louise and J. Candace Clifford. Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers. Williamsburg, VA. Cypress Communications. 1993.

Jones, Dorothy Holder and Ruth Sexton Sargent. Abbie Burgess, Lighthouse Heroine. New York. Funk & Wagnalls. 1969; rev. ed.; rev. ed. Camden, ME: Downeast Press.1976.

New England Historical Society. “Abbie Burgess, Teenaged Heroine of Matinicus Rock Light.” http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/abbie-burgess-16-year-old-heroine-matinicus-rock-lighthouse/ (accessed June 18, 2014)

Contributed by Nicole Brassard, Bath, Maine, 2008.

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