A Lighthouse Ghost

Many lighthouse sites are reputed to have a ghost, or maybe more than one. This original story by Jack was written in 2005, while he was serving as the summer “keeper” at the Seguin Island Lighthouse. It tells of a fictional encounter with the ghost of a former keeper. The legend says that once long ago, a lonely keeper’s wife asked for a piano to while away her hours on this isolated spot. She got the piano, but only ever learned to play one song, which she played – over and over and over again. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, her husband, the light-keeper, took an axe to the piano, then to his wife, and ultimately to himself. His spirit still roams the island, so the old tale says. Did it happen? Here on Seguin? Who is to say? Another version has this happening on nearby Pond Island. Who knows, so keep an eye out. You never know whom you’ll meet on the shore.

“Nothing is certain in life, except death and taxes.” So, once upon a time, said Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s favorite sage. When sixteen year old Ben left his native Boston to seek fame and fortune in Philadelphia in 1723, there was one other certainty of life. He should have included the omnipresent, ever watchful, faithful, dependable, comforting beacon of the coastal lighthouse. Ben should have known better. He had left Boston seven years after a lamp was lit on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, the first lighthouse in what would become the United States of America. This light still shines.

Twelve lighthouses were in existence when the U.S. constitution was adopted, including the oldest one still in continuous service today. That is at Sandy Hook, New Jersey, and dates from 1764. Creating a “Lighthouse Establishment”, to provide for and manage these necessary aids to coastal navigation, was one of the first tasks of the fledgling national government.

Ben Franklin was five years dead by the time a lamp was first lit in a light tower on Maine’s Seguin Island, a 65-acre hump of rock emerging regally just off the coast of what was then yet a part of Massachusetts. Two hundred and eleven years later, the Seguin light too still shines. Sixty three other such lights remain in the state of Maine.

All this historically interesting information floated in the far back storage areas of my brain as I went about my daily labors on Seguin in the summer of 2005. I was hurrying down the path from the house and light, high on the island, to the tiny sand beach below.

I looked back as I always did to marvel at the light tower, which casts a continual magical spell over the whole island. Its beacon is always on, the light beam focused by the huge Fresnel lens which was installed in 1857. At 180 feet above sea level, this is the highest light on the Maine coast. The granite tower itself is only 53 feet tall, short by most lighthouse standards, but more than high enough here, sitting on this big rock. The light seems to watch you wherever you are – only along some of the shore are you out of its watchful eye. My legs reminded me of the steepness of the hill as I went down the path.

I was going down for a number of reasons: to water the flowers in the boxes by the information board, to bring a few gallons of fresh water up the hill from the larger containers left in the engine house, and to do a little mowing of the paths around the island entrance. At least that’s what it said on my worklist. (All good caretakers have a worklist.) It was a nice day – pleasant – not too hot, too cool, too windy, too foggy, or any of the innumerable combinations that make weather on Seguin so charming, so I decided to take a walk out to Cobblestone Cove. Work could wait. Work will always wait; it never gets tired of waiting and goes away. It was about half tide, so I might look for some mussels on the rocks. At the very least I would sit on the rocks at the edge of the water and dangle my feet in the waves. I would also look for flat stones among the cobbles – ones that could be skipped across the not too high surf, just things one does on an island.

As I approached Cobblestone Cove, I was surprised to see someone already there, sitting down near the water’s edge, with their back to me. I quickly tried to remember if I had noticed a boat moored in the landing cove – I didn’t think I had. “Must be,” I said to myself – “someone’s here and they didn’t walk on out to this island.”

Rotating photos above give a great overview of Seguin Island and its Lighthouse

As I approached, it looked to be a man, wearing a yellow slicker. Not wanting to startle him, I hollered a hello. There was no response, nor indication he had heard. “Lovely day in the state of Maine!” I shouted a little louder, to which I got the same lack of response. He was sitting on a rock by the water, that must be why he didn’t hear, so I walked to the shore myself, a good fifty feet away and stood looking in his direction. I had not wanted to startle him, but his profile, as I saw it from where I stood, startled me. Here was an old man of the sea. The Gloucester fisherman I thought. The man on the clam chowder can. Some relative of Captain Ahab! In his right hand, the one closest to me, he was holding a meerschaum pipe and even from my distance I could see that the head of the pipe looked just like him. I hadn’t said another word of greeting, but as I stared, the old man turned his head and looked at me. “Hello, young fellow,” he said pleasantly. “Welcome to Seguin.” My mind was racing as I tried to decide if my feet should be racing back up the path and away. My mouth returned his greeting, pleasantly too I hoped, although my heart was beating fast. I couldn’t help noticing as I came closer to him, that his clothes looked old, particularly the boots he wore. Good workman boots, they reminded me of the ones my steelworker grandfather always wore. Who could this be? It had to be someone from Seguin’s past. “Come sit a spell,” he said, with an air of authority that made it somewhat more than a request yet less than an order. Was there a trace of a foreign accent in his voice? John Polereczky, the first keeper of the Seguin light, was a Hungarian, a veteran of the French army that aided George Washington in our country’s revolutionary war. I’m Hungarian, on my mother’s side. This had to be it. Polereczky had many misfortunes on this island, so perhaps his spirit stays here still, and had found a kindred soul in me? This was exciting.

I introduced myself, and told him all about being one of the summer caretakers of the island. He listened politely. “I know all about this island,” he said when I paused. “I’ve been here a long, long time.” He didn’t have a foreign accent. He sounded exactly like what I had come to think a down-east Mainer should sound like. An easy voice to listen to. This man knew his way around a “lobstah”, and a “chowdah” pot. No, this wasn’t Count Poleresczky. I was disappointed.

“I didn’t see your boat in the cove,” I ventured. “How long have you been here?” I knew right away that was not a good question to ask. He took a long draw on his pipe, paused, and blew out the most perfect, and huge, smoke ring I’d ever seen. “I was appointed keeper here right after the war,” he answered, a note of irritation in his voice. I got in a little deeper when I asked, “Which war was that?” He looked too old for even a Vietnam vet.

“Why the war between the states, of course. You young people don’t know enough about your history.” Another smoke ring accompanied a glance that looked annoyed with me. “You’re right about that,” I quickly agreed, trying not to antagonize him further. ” I didn’t get your name,” I casually mentioned. He said something, but I didn’t hear it, because at this exact moment I happened to notice his hand, the one on the far side of the body, away from me. Or rather I noticed that he didn’t have a hand, but only a very bloody stump, and that his bright yellow slicker was blood red on that side. I also noticed just then that on the rocks between his boots – how could I have missed it before? – was a very bloody axe. I wanted to move, to run, to flee, but my body wouldn’t work. I just stood there, my jaw gaping I’m sure. He studied me as I stared. “What would you have done?” he asked in that same easy voice. “She just wouldn’t quit playing that damn song.”

Slowly my feet began to take little steps backward, then larger steps. My eyes never left the axe. A few more steps and I turned and hustled up the trail away from Cobblestone. The fog seldom creeps in on Seguin. It usually rushes in, and that’s the way it came then, seemingly from out of nowhere. I was only a few hundred feet from where the old man sat, but I could see nothing as I glanced behind me but the mist. “Goodbye old man,” I yelled, I’m not sure why, but I heard no response, only the rising surf, and the sudden start of the foghorn from up above.

To spend time on Seguin is to enmesh oneself in the ceaseless sounds of the surf, a sound to which you become oblivious because of its constancy, but to which you are at the same time ever aware because of its incessantness. I laugh at myself when I recall buying a small device some years ago that played out “surf” sounds to put me to sleep. Surely the surf sounds had somehow created my recent encounter? Imagination? Or could it really have happened?

In 1935, A.G. Staples, editor of the Lewiston Journal, lived on Squirrel Island near Boothbay Harbor. From his house he could see the flashes of six lighthouses. “These are my neighbors — these lights… All these lights teach steadfastness. They enter the soul, if permitted. Long after we leave here, I hear the memorized echo of Seguin as it lows like a great bull, out there in the storm, fog, blackness amid roar or surges.”

Long too, after I have left our memorable summer on Seguin, the beacon of its ever present light, the great low of the fog signal, the sounds of the seabirds, the bark of the seals, the breaking waves, and even the glimpse into the history of this delightful island have permission to stay always in my soul. As if I could make them fade away!

This story, under the title “Always the Light”, appeared in the January 2008 issue of Lighthouse Digest magazine.