(The following account of former keeper Mike McQuade’s return visit to Wood Island was provided by Sheri Poftak of the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF)
Standing as he had for so many journeys before upon these waters, the thirty-third Officer in Charge (OIC) of Wood Island Lighthouse peered into the distance towards the island, which was his home many years ago.
Thirty six keepers had operated this lighthouse over the last 200 years – well really for 178 years as the light had been automated in 1986 when the last keeper left.
During the years 1976-1979, Keeper McQuade and his wife Patsy, kept Wood Island Light. Only four other keepers would follow, including Russ Lowell and Phillip Brothwell who stood duty for the next seven years following the McQuade’s. Then in August 1986, as the end was in sight for the staffed station, Merton Perry and Warren Rowell would finish up the last two months of duty prior to automation.
Jerry Murray, the keeper (1973-76) who preceded Mike McQuade, had heard talk of “a soon to be” automation of the light station – but nothing happened during his tenure. McQuade, Lowell and Brothwell toiled at keeping the light on task and the house in good condition, but in 1986, the prediction of the closure would become reality.
Keepers Perry and Rowell were on the island in August and September of that year and witnessed the end of an era at Wood Island. Perhaps it was their job to help facilitate the automation process that would enable the Coast Guard to keep the lens turning and its signal correct without a keeper, but the house itself was now on its own.
As they made their trip to the island, Mike McQuade’s wife Patsy, also onboard the Friends of Wood Island Light’s boat, Lightrunner, on that brilliant September 2010 day, must have had her own memories as she held and comforted her granddaughter Aleyda, only 11 ½ months old. The baby was uncomfortable in her new life jacket.
Aryana, Mike and Patsy’s other granddaughter, sat on her Dad’s (Damian) lap as the boat made its way to Wood Island. What were his thoughts about the trip we thought, for Damian had departed Wood Island when he was less than two years old.
Aryana seemed more comfortable in her sea gear than her little sister, but clearly she was not prepared to leave Damian’s lap. Would she attempt to make that one half mile walk to the lighthouse or would she join her sister in the stroller? Would she foster her own memories of this brief trip to her Dad’s early home?
Thirty-two years had passed since Mike, Patsy, Damian and his wee baby brother, Brendan, had left Wood Island Lighthouse. A lot had happened, and not happened, in those years, and it was with some anxiety that I escorted the group off the boat and down the boardwalk.
I was sure that the keeper’s house was in tip-top condition when they had left in 1979. I knew this because the care of the facility was a top priority job for the keeper. The Coast Guard inspections were known as the “white glove treatment.” If something wasn’t up-to-snuff during the inspection, it would be by the next monthly visit. Another proof of how the McQuades kept the station was noted in the Certificate of Appreciation that was presented to Mike by the Coast Guard in March 1980 which stated:
“During his term as Officer-in-Charge of Coast Guard Light Station Wood Island, Maine, Petty Officer McQuade’s diligent efforts and concern for his unit were at all times immediately apparent; indeed, the District Inspector was sufficiently impressed to comment on his official report that ‘the appearance and material condition of this unit is the best of any family unit I have inspected in the past two years.’ His remarkable performance was a source of great pride to this command, and to him and Mrs. McQuade (as his able and enthusiastic assistant) go my sincere personal thanks, signed R.I. Rybacki, commander, USCG Group Portland, Maine.”
Presently in 2010, the interior of the house – empty of furniture and lightkeeping equipment, and ravaged by time and intruders, is a sad looking place. Families of ten other keepers have revisited their old home in the last few years, and to them, it was a shocking sight. Yet these keeper families have all been very generous in their encouragement of the restoration efforts by the Friends of Wood Island Lighthouse (FOWIL).
FOWIL operates as a chapter of the American Lighthouse Foundation, which leases the station from the Coast Guard. Restoration was clearly not going to happen without these two groups.
The day of their visit was a very hot day and a swarm of wasps had managed to infiltrate the kitchen, though I was able to make it safe with an appropriate weapon – wasp spray. The family took their time to wander the house, tower and grounds.
As they did, I wondered if they were remembering events, activities and happenings of thirty- plus years ago “clear as a day.” Maybe they would recall the beautiful birthday cake for Damian’s first birthday, which was a small replica of the lighthouse, including the tower with a candle right on top.
Perhaps they saw the tower’s new lantern (fabricated to look like the old cast iron lantern) as an improvement over the once “headless tower,” which they had presided over. At that time, the light consisted of two aero beacons perched on the tower with absolutely no enclosure to protect the units or the keeper from the elements.
Mike graciously gave an interview back on the mainland and loaned FOWIL his family photo album, giving us permission and the time to scan the photos. In our archives, we had only a few pictures of keepers piloting their peapods. Mike had many more to add. We also had fewer pictures still of keepers at the top of their tower – Mike holding Damian right beside that aero beacon was a priceless addition to our collection.
Keeper McQuade is also an historian in his own right. In May 1973, he was approached by Roberta Blanchard, a writer whose main interest was lighthouses. By June, Mike had written a long report on the history of the light station, which included many news articles written about the place. As a person also interested in the history of Wood Island Lighthouse, I would say that Keeper McQuade knew quite a bit more of the history of his home than was expected of its keepers.
The family must have looked forward to a return visit to the island, because they drove all the way from Nebraska to Rhode Island to pick up Damian and his kids, before driving to Biddeford Pool fin Maine for their journey back to the lighthouse. We are extremely grateful for their visit and their sharing of information and photos.
Thank you Mike and Patsy – please come again!