Times Past, Pausing to Remember


One thing leads to another.

I was randomly looking through some of the thousands of photos of the American Memories Collection (Library of Congress) and came across the image below of the lighthouse on Boon Island, York County, Maine. There were photographs taken closer to the subject, but there was something about that one that looked like it had a story attached.

Of course, it was the "island" and not the lighthouse that caught my attention. Island? How does a pile of rock 700 feet long, 300 feet wide, and 15 feet above the level of the sea merit that term and a name as well?

Boon Island

Before it had a name, and long before anyone thought of placing a light there, a coastal trading vessel, the Increase, was wrecked on it in the summer of 1682. The four survivors -- three white men and one Indian -- spent a month on the island, living on fish and gulls' eggs. One day they saw smoke rising from Mount Agamenticus several miles away, so they built a fire in response.

The Indians at Mount Agamenticus saw the smoke from the island and the stranded men were soon rescued. Seeing their survival as a boon granted by God, the men named the island Boon Island. It's an ironic name for the desolate place poet Celia Thaxter called "the forlornest place that can be imagined."

A more famous shipwreck was the December 11, 1710 destruction of the British Merchant ship, Nottingham Galley. The 14 occupants survived the wreck, but two died of injuries and another two were drowned trying to reach shore in a type of home-made raft. Ten men managed to stay alive in the winter conditions with no food and no firewood for 24 days, until finally rescued. Most unnerving was the fact that they could see people on the shore six miles away, but they themselves went unnoticed. They resorted to cannibalism, and that gave the incident a fame and notoriety which it has even today.

The first light was placed on Boon Island in 1799 but lasted only five years. The ocean's fierce storms demolished that one and several others until the present tower was build of hand-hewn granite in 1852-54. Keepers willing to live on the rocks in that miserable place were few; they came and went in a steady progression. One man seemed to thrive there; he stayed 27 years and lived past ninety.

In 1978, two men on the Island had to retreat from a powerful winter storm. They took shelter in the light chamber while the seas and wind demolished all the other structures on the island. Water rose five feet up the tower. The next day, they were rescued by helicopter. The lighthouse on Boon Island has been automated since that time, requiring no resident keeper.

And The Bad News Is...

There is a page on the internet, apparently placed there by the Coast Guard Safety Office, but its only link to anything else is broken. It says, in part:
Coast Guard Marine Safety Office Portland has established a permanent safety zone prohibiting all vessels and persons from anchoring, diving, dredging, dumping, fishing, trawling, laying cable or conducting salvage operations within a 1000 yard radius of the stern portion of the wreck of the M/V EMPIRE KNIGHT. The purpose of the rulemaking is to protect the environment, the commercial fishery, and the public from any adverse effects of mercury contamination which could result from disturbance of the wreck.
In February of 1944, the Empire Knight, a 428-foot British freight ship, ran aground at Boon Island and later broke into two sections. The stern section, which included the ship's cargo holds, sank in approximately 260 feet of water, one and one half miles from the Island. In August of 1990, the Coast Guard "became aware" of the existence of a plan of stowage dating from 1944 for the ship indicating that 221 flasks containing mercury may have been loaded onto the vessel. Investigation revealed that such flasks had been placed on the ship but had deteriorated, releasing the mercury. An estimated 16,000 pounds of mercury remain unrecovered and is believed to have settled in the low point of the cargo hold.

The report goes on to say:
Scientific forecast of the site indicated that the site is currently stable and that the remaining mercury would not pose a substantial threat to the environment as long as the wreck remained undisturbed.... Consensus was reached that although the risk of release was low, the foreseeable consequences of that release would be devastating to the local environment and economy.
Hence, the "permanent" prohibition of any activity near the site.

The photo of the lighthouse on Boon Island still interests me, but I don't think I want to vacation there. Yes, one thing does sometimes lead to another.