It may be six miles out to sea, but the allure of Boon Island Lighthouse remains as strong as ever for coastal communities like York, Maine, and lighthouse enthusiasts everywhere.
Two centuries after the first lighthouse was established on Boon Island in 1811, a sentinel still stands a lonely vigil at this wave-swept location.
As might be expected, the history associated with this light station is nothing less than compelling, filled with harrowing storms, isolation and accounts of keepers fearing for their safety, but as a standing room only crowd would come to discover on January 23, 2011, there is much more to Boon Island’s history than the lighthouse itself.
In an effort to share new and fascinating information with the public about the well-known wreck of the Nottingham Galley that occurred on Boon Island in 1710, along with a wealth of human interest stories associated with the light station itself, The Museums of Old York sponsored a program entitled, “Boon Island Day.”
The program, which was held at the Museum’s Visitor Center in the Remick Barn, featured four speakers who each touched on a different topic. Richard Bowen, programs director for Museums of Old York, noted that the audience that crowded into the room for the event was the biggest he had seen for any event held there.
American Lighthouse Foundation president and well-known New England lighthouse author Jeremy D’Entremont started the program by presenting a history of two hundred years of lightkeeping at the site and shedding light on how Boon Island’s name may have come to be.
According to D’Entremont, the origin of Boon Island’s name “is shrouded in four centuries of history.”
D’Entremont noted that John Winthrop referred to the island as ‘Boone’ in a 1630 journal entry, and that he has seen the spelling as ‘Bone’ too, which D’Entremont said might be “appropriate for a spot where so many mariners lost their lives.”
The historical overview concluded with happenings around the site during World War II and the process of automation that removed the lightkeepers from Boon Island in 1978.
William O. Thomson, a popular historian and author, utilized his segment of the program to touch on the human hardships and sacrifices of life at Boon Island.
At the outset, Thomson asked the audience the question, “Why do we like lighthouses?” His reply was, “They stand lofty, dignified and proud. They represent the best in us.”
Thomson then asked the crowd to imagine life without a cell phone, the Internet, and all the conveniences modern technology has provided to our way of life, before reminding everyone that none of these things existed for Boon Island’s keepers and their families.
He went on to point out, “There was no communication. If someone was hurt or ill, you couldn’t call 911. There was just a medicine kit and a book to tell you how to treat yourself until help arrived.”
Bob Trapani, Jr., American Lighthouse Foundation executive director, shared his memories and experiences of visiting the island, while the audience viewed photos showing the rocky site and interior of the light tower.
According to Trapani, “there is nothing warm about Boon Island and the tower’s drab granite appearance only adds to the island’s aura.” He also noted that at high tide the sea feels very close to the where the lighthouse is located.
Trapani concluded his segment by touching on the need to preserve the 1855 lighthouse, the difficulties associated with this task and how the American Lighthouse Foundation is seeking to establish a local chapter to help spearhead such an effort.
Writer and researcher Stephen Erickson concluded “Boon Island Day” by presenting intriguing new evidence he was able to uncover about the wreck of the Nottingham Galley in 1710 on Boon Island.
Amazingly, ten of the fourteen men survived the shipwreck despite being stranded for three agonizing weeks on Boon Island and resorting to cannibalism before being rescued.
“I’m going to make the case that this is one of the most important shipwrecks in all of maritime history,” said Stephen Erickson, who has extensively researched the Nottingham Galley and published an article on the subject in New England Quarterly. “The circumstances of survival make this interesting and horrifying.”
“If it were up to Captain John Deane, he’d be portrayed as a hero,” Erickson said. “But his crew mates accused him of committing insurance fraud and crashing the boat on purpose.” Erickson also said he has caught Deane in more than one lie in researching the shipwreck.
“The cause of the wreck is rooted in this mutiny,” he said. “Common sailors took on their captain in the court of public opinion in England. Nowhere else in maritime history does this happen.”
Jeremy D’Entremont summarized the controversy surrounding the wreck of the Nottingham Galley by noting, “Traditionally, and largely because of the Kenneth Roberts novel, Captain John Deane has been viewed as a hero. Most people believe that he was not at fault in any way regarding the shipwreck, and that he conducted himself heroically through the whole ordeal.”
“Stephen Erickson has researched the story for years, both in the United States and England, and he’s found compelling reasons to believe that Deane was involved in smuggling and trade with the enemy (French). There’s not really a smoking gun that proves Deane’s guilt, but Stephen believes there’s a large pile of circumstantial evidence.”
D’Entremont concluded, “He feels that the first mate, Christopher Langman, and the other two crewmen who stood by Langman, were the ones who showed the real courage by standing up and telling their side of the story, which painted Deane in a negative light.”
300 Years after the Wreck of the Nottingham Galley
On December 11, 2010, a program was held at the Town of York’s Sohier Park commemorating the 300th anniversary to the day of the shipwreck Nottingham Galley.
Standing in the shadow of Cape Neddick Lighthouse, and peering out over the water for distant views of Boon Island Lighthouse, those in attendance listened as speakers Jeremy D’Entremont, Richard Bowen, Stephen Erickson and Bob Trapani, Jr., touched on topics ranging from the history and controversy surrounding the 1710 shipwreck at Boon Island, to the history and future of the lighthouse itself.
“I was pleased to see a good turnout for an outdoor event near the ocean in December,” said Jeremy D’Entremont, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation. “It’s an indication, I think, of the fascination people have for Boon Island, a mysterious outpost out on the horizon. I’m happy that we were able to give a good overview of the history of the island and its lighthouse, in addition to discussing the fascinating story of the Nottingham Galley.
D’Entremont went on to note, “Stephen Erickson’s research has opened a new chapter in the way we look at one of our nation’s most notorious shipwrecks. He deserves much credit for the work he’s done and for the fact that he’s not afraid to say things that are counter to what’s usually been accepted.”
For anyone interested in being a part of an American Lighthouse Foundation effort to form a chapter to help care for and preserve Boon Island Lighthouse, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org