Burnt Island lighthouse offers glimpse of the past

First published in Landings, June, 2014. 

The 30-foot lighthouse provides a view of Boothbay Harbor. Photo by Sarah Paquette.

The 30-foot lighthouse provides a view of Boothbay Harbor. Photo by Sarah Paquette.

It’s not often that one gets to take a trip back in time. Yet visitors can do just that on Burnt Island, a five-acre island just off Boothbay Harbor. The island is owned by the Maine Department of Marine Resources. The agency, with the help of volunteers, operates the island’s light station as an educational program for the public.

The island has served as a lighthouse location since 1821. At that time, Boothbay Harbor and the surrounding area was a very busy shipbuilding and fishing port. Because the harbor was large and well protected, it became a safe haven for the many sailing vessels that traveled the Maine coast. The island allegedly gained its name because, prior to the construction of the lighthouse, early farmers would graze sheep on the island. In late fall they would burn all the overgrown bushes and grass so that in spring a fresh crop of grass would grow for the sheep to graze on.

The current lighthouse and associated buildings have been restored and decorated as they were in 1950. During the spring and fall, the five-acre island serves as an outdoor school for students and teachers from around the state. Local elementary schools participate in day trips to the island, while children from the middle school level spend up to three days and two nights tenting out. Educational offerings focus on topics relating to Maine’s maritime heritage, coastal environment, marine fisheries, and conservation.

The carefully refurbished keeper’s house and other buildings give a sense of what life was like on a small island years ago. DMR photo.

The carefully refurbished keeper’s house and other buildings give a sense of what life was like on a small island years ago. DMR photo.

In the summer, however, the past comes alive through a program called the Burnt Island Living Lighthouse. The light station’s carefully restored buildings serve as a living history museum where interpreters in period clothing portray Keeper Joseph Muise and his family, who lived on the island many years ago. The cast make visitors believe that it is 1950 while sharing the experiences living on the island and tending the light during that time. Visitors then go on a nature walk around the island, led by interpreters who point out plants and animals indigenous to Maine’s coast. During the final segment of the three-hour tour, visitors climb the winding stairs into the 30-foot lighthouse’s lantern room, view the historic photographs and documents in the museum, and spend time enjoying the waterfront.

To learn more about Burnt Island, visit www.maine.gov/dmr/burntisland/tour.htm.