Most people from coastal Maine know the story of Abbie Eliza Burgess and the lighthouse. I had never heard of this 5th cousin 4 times removed. It really is no wonder that I would know nothing as my branch of the family had long since moved inland, given up the call of the sea and turned to farming for a living. Long before equal pay or pay at all, she took on a task that would frighten the boldest of us 21st century ladies. The 1960’s didn’t create strong, determined women; it just did a better job of bringing their accomplishments to light. This courageous woman helped start the steps of equality long before the call of the 60’s made the demand.
Born in 1839, Abbie was the daughter of Samuel Burgess and Thankful Phinney. She was the middle child of 10 children, 7 sisters and 2 brothers. Samuel took the job as lighthouse keeper in 1853 and moved the family out into the house that stood on the rocks on Mantinicus Rock Island. Samuels’s wife was an invalid and in 1853 there would be fours daughters and one son moving with them. Abbie would discover the old log books kept by previous light keepers and spend hours reading the fascinating stories that it told.
The books told of storms that swept over the island threatening to wipe clean all human existence. With her invalid mother living there, Abbie knew that a strong storm could be a problem for them. She moved her mother’s bedroom from the old building to what she thought would be the strongest part of the lighthouse living quarters. The original house had been destroyed in 1839 and Abbie was determined that her mother not need moved if a strong storm was to sweep the island again. In December of 1855, a great storm would hit the rock and beat against the old buildings. Abbies forethought proved correct and her mother was safe from the storm.
In January of 1856, Abbie’s father needed to return to the mainland for supplies for his family. Before leaving on his trip he took Abbie aside and told her that it was desperate that he returned to the mainland for supplies, the final supply of provisions had not made it to them in September and they were dangerously low on food to last the rest of the winter.
It wasn’t long after her father left that the weather began to turn. Alone with her sisters, her younger brother having taken a job on a fishing boat, the storm closed in on the women. Beating and wailing, the gales of water continued for three days, threatening the tiny buildings on the rock.
In the light of day of January 19, 1856, Abbie looked out a window across the rocks and saw that the building where her mother had been before had been swept off the rocks. Abbie continues the story herself:
"The new dwelling was flooded and the windows had to be secured to prevent the violence of the spray from breaking them in. As the tide came, the sea rose higher and higher, till the only endurable places were the light-towers. If they stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings, and went on with my work as usual. For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. During this time we were without the assistance of any male member of our family. Though at times greatly exhausted with my labors, not once did the lights fail. Under God I was able to perform all my accustomed duties as well as my father’s. "You know the hens were our only companions. Becoming convinced, as the gale increased, that unless they were brought into the house they would be lost, I said to mother: ‘I must try to save them.’ She advised me not to attempt it. The thought, however, of parting with them without an effort was not to be endured, so seizing a basket, I ran out a few yards after the rollers had passed and the sea fell off a little, with the water knee deep, to the coop, and rescued all but one. It was the work of a moment, and I was back in the house with the door fastened, but I was none too quick, for at that instant my little sister, standing at the window, exclaimed: ‘Oh, look! Look there! The worst sea is coming!’ "That wave destroyed the old dwelling and swept the Rock….The Sea is never still, and when agitated, its roar shuts out every other sound, even drowning our voices."
More storms would threaten the small family on the rock. Periods of near starvation, rationing out food until supplies could be stocked would plague the family. In 1861 Abbie’s father would lose his job as lighthouse keeper for political reasons and the job would fall to Captain John Grant, a friend of the family. Abbie would stay on the rock and train the new lighthouse keeper. The lighthouse keeper’s son Isaac was to be the assistant keeper.
Abbie and Isaac would fall in love and marry within the year. Abbie was officially appointed assistant keeper at $440 per year, a job that she had been doing with her father without pay for years. The young couple would have four children on the Rock and remain there until Isaac was appointed to the Whitehead Light in 1875.
Abbie lived for 38 years of her life on Matinicus Rock, keeping the lights burning for sailors in calm and storms. She would die in Maine in 1892 after having retired due to illness in 1890.