How a Lighthouse Keeper's Daughter Became an Unlikely Coast Guard Heroine

Abbie Burgess (Image: Coast Guard Archives)
Abbie Burgess (Image: Coast Guard Archives)

Abbie Burgess had just rescued her chickens from their coop when a wave swept over the edge of Matinicus Rock and destroyed the structure. Clutching her hens, she made it into her family's house with saltwater at her heels. Yet she had to venture out again, into the storm, in order to light the beacons that would guide ships safely to Maine's rocky shore.

As a girl of 17, Abbie Burgess makes an unlikely Coast Guard heroine. Her father, Samuel, moved his family of five to the tiny 32-acre island outpost of Matinicus Rock in 1853. He officially held the title of lighthouse keeper, but Abbie soon assumed most of the keeper's duties so that her father could supplement the family income by lobstering.

In January 1856, Samuel took advantage of calm seas to sail 25 miles to Rockland, the nearest port on the mainland , for supplies. The lighthouse desperately needed oil and wicks, and the family desperately needed food and medicine for Mrs. Burgess. With only her younger sisters at home, Abbie had to care for the children's needs, nurse her mother and keep the lights burning at all times.

Soon after Samuel Burgess reached land, a storm blew up. Because of the island's position in the Penobscot Bay, the original lighthouse had been constructed with twin towers. However, by Jan. 19, the island was virtually underwater, and Abbie had to move her mother and sisters to the north lighthouse tower. She wrote in the keeper's log: "If they [the towers] stood we were saved, otherwise our fate was only too certain. But for some reason, I know not why, I had no misgivings. ... For four weeks, owing to rough weather, no landing could be effected on the Rock. 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."

Samuel Burgess made it back in his dinghy Puffin with all needed supplies, and Abbie continued to assist him until the position was assumed by one Captain John Grant. Abbie married his son, Isaac, and continued to work at lighthouses, both Matinicus Rock and Whitehead Light, until her death in 1892. Abbie, whom poet Wilbert Snow called "the friend and guide of sailors through dark nights," once said, "It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of myself."

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