A Thanksgiving to Remember at Boon Island Lighthouse
As we gather together at the homes of family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving Day, it is sometimes easy to forget the true meaning of the holiday.
Sure, most everyone cherishes a bountiful turkey dinner, complete with all the trimmings, a day off from work, and even some football mixed in for good measure, but these traditions ring hollow without remembering why they compliment the holiday rather than encompass it.
Exactly one hundred years ago on November 24, 1910, the true meaning of Thanksgiving was revealed in all its splendor, of all places, under the night-piercing beam shining forth from Boon Island Lighthouse.
For head keeper William C. Williams and his assistants, the unexpected blessings they would encounter on that Thanksgiving holiday a century ago were something that stayed with them for the rest of their lives.
To fully appreciate the dilemma of the keepers during a holiday such as Thanksgiving, one must take into account the site they called home.
Located some seven miles off the southern coast of Maine, the 133-foot Boon Island Lighthouse stands sentinel above a wave-swept, barren rock island.
The site’s appearance is hopelessly grim and its aura unsettling – a place where isolation is inescapable and danger echoes from underneath every rock.
Boon Island itself can scarcely be called an island, measuring only 700 feet long, 300 feet wide, and approximately 14 feet above sea level at its highest point.
When you consider that winter gales can spawn 20 to 30 feet seas in the open ocean around Boon Island, it comes as no surprise that the daily logs of keepers from 1811 to 1978 included the emotional records of storms that swept clear across their forsaken outpost.
For storm seas do unfathomable things at this place, and in their wake, destruction and upheaval were the two constants during the light station’s days of being staffed. In many ways, the wrath of the tempest is never erased from Boon Island – a fact that would be concealed from eyesight if not for the all-revealing ebb tide.
Each day as the sea recedes at low tide, its departure discloses the stark image of the island’s surrounding ledge being swept clean of all boulders and rocks. Only the scars from scour, friction and awful tumble caused by storm-tossed stone etch this otherwise amazingly smooth surface.
A quick scan toward the center of the island will explain the rest of the story as massive rocks, some weighing several tons, are strewn haphazardly about in a mass of confusion by angry seas.
Renowned author Samuel Adams Drake captured the bleak essence of Boon Island in his classic 1891 volume, The Pine Tree Coast, when he noted, “There is no comfortable dwelling on that lonely rock, over which storms sweep unchecked. The tower is itself both house and home to the watchmen of the sea, and in great gales a prison from which there is no escape until the return of fine weather.”
During the lightkeepers lonely vigils at this site, they knew all too well that when summer’s warm temperatures and calm seas gave way to autumn’s arrival, soon after Boon Island would become a place where gusty winds and agitated seas would prevent regular trips to shore.
In fact, as winter set in each year, leaving Boon Island by skiff was rarely an option due to the unsettled seas. This meant that keepers had to wisely stock up on provisions, but even with good planning and frugal usage, it was not uncommon for the light station to run low on food.
Such was the case as the Thanksgiving holiday approached in 1910 for keeper William Williams and his assistants. According to author Robert T. Sterling, who wrote the book, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast, “The holiday was approaching, and as nobody had been ashore for several weeks, they had got down very close to nothing in the hearty line. He (keeper Williams) was standing just inside of the light tower on the evening before Thanksgiving, and wondering what he and the boys were going to have the next day for the repast.”
Sterling went on to note, “Suddenly without any warning he heard a terrific blow struck against the parapet deck. Anxious to find out just what had happened he went outside and there lying on the deck were four pair of black duck dead as a door nail. Thinking that it took more than that to make such a thump, he went around the base of the tower and among the rocks he found four more.”
As was the case many times over at lighthouses, birds and waterfowl were often attracted to the alluring, bright beams emitting from a lantern, and would fly directly into the light at top speed. On occasion, these collisions were so violent a bird would break completely through the windowpanes of a lantern. More often, birds would crash into the lantern and fall about the parapet gallery and / or the ground below like the incident that occurred at Boon Island.
Robert Sterling, who was a keeper himself at a number of Maine lights in the early 1900s, concluded by saying, “The birds were in unusual fine condition and he and the boys had some Thanksgiving dinner, for which they were only too glad to give thanks to the Creator for remembering the at such a time.”
What makes this story so inspirational is both the character and insight Keeper William Williams shared with author Robert Sterling. Keeper Williams noted, with no fanfare, that Thanksgiving holiday or not, his men and him were on duty, with the head keeper himself standing watch the night before Thanksgiving.
Though I’m certain the keepers desired a grand Thanksgiving meal, it goes without saying that had the ducks not appeared, the men would have carried out their duties in dedicated fashion and celebrated the holiday with the best the human spirit has to offer under less than ideal conditions.
Lastly, Keeper Williams acknowledged Divine Providence for their good fortune, and thus counted their blessings for Him having remembered them during the holiday, even at a lonely and forsaken place like Boon Island.
There in lies the true meaning of Thanksgiving Day – counting our many blessings from the hand of Divine Providence and giving thanks for our loving families, friends and all those wonderful things in our lives that money can’t buy.