My Life On Boon Island©
By Miriam (Dolby) Hammel
Courtesy of Lighthouse Digest Magazine - Reprinted by Permission.
My husband, Calvin Dolby,
myself and our young daughter left Portsmouth, New
Hampshire harbor on a Coast Guard boat to take the trip to
Boon Island, to live for an undetermined length of time,
in November 1944. Our daughter was 10 months old. I was a
little over 19 years old and Cal was 22 years old and a
Coast Guard MM2. I had grown up on Cape Ann,
Massachusetts, so I had a vague idea about lighthouses but
when I saw Boon Island I knew I had a lot to learn. So
desolate ... so barren ... so lonely!
The day we approached the
island was a windy cold day. The sea was choppy, the waves
were high and I was so seasick I wished I were dead. A
boat was lowered and Cal went ashore first, because he was
assigned to the God forsaken place and had to report in.
When it came my turn they told me they were going to take
Donna and me back to Portsmouth because it was too risky
to try to land. I said there was no way I was going back
to Portsmouth; I would jump overboard first. So ... with a
lot of hemming and hawing a couple of the sailors
volunteered to take us to the island along with baby food,
clothes, crib, etc. and that when the sea calmed down they
would bring the rest of our household goods to us. It took
several tries before they could get the boat to hit the
boat slip but we finally made it. I didn’t care how many
times it took ... I just knew I had to get ashore. I was
We were the only family there for several weeks. There were three other Coast Guard fellows stationed there. They had 8-hour watches. They had to take care of the light, the boats, and the large batteries that made electricity, and keep an eye out for any unusual activity that might have occurred on the ocean surrounding us.
Within the next month the three Coast Guard men were transferred and two other couples came to live on the island. Jack and Margie McCoe and William Parmentar and his wife (whose name I can’t recall). We had inspection by the Coast Guard once a month. Everything had to be clean, polished and in perfect condition. At least we had an hour to scour and scrub, because they had to call beforehand to find out if the landing conditions were okay.
We had a black coal stove in the kitchen to cook on and keep warm. We had a pump for water, a scrub board to wash clothes, a round tin tub for bathing and an outhouse for a bathroom. We did have a refrigerator, a telephone and short-wave radio. But the telephone and radio could only be used for information from the Coast Guard or very dire emergencies.
So you can see, for a couple of young people, it was a very stark existence. But we had our daughter. She made life so very pleasant for all of us. She was just beginning to walk and talk and so very curious. After a few weeks we had a “toy collie” dog given to us. She was so cute and we called her “Lady.” Wherever Donna was, Lady was.
Our water was secured when we had rain. The rain would be allowed to wash off the roof where all the seagulls sat every day - then at the foot of the down drains from the roof, a cup would be turned up to catch the water that came down the drainpipes. From there it would run into a cistern in the cellar. We boiled every bit of what we drank or bathed with. Yuck! That cistern had green scum an inch thick on top of it. If we ran low on water the Coast Guard would bring some out to us and pump it through hoses into our cistern.
During the winter, when it snowed, we would only see the flakes spilling from
the sky because the ocean washed them away as quick as they fell. There was not a blade of grass or a weed on the island. We did have wooden walks from one house to the other and to the light. Otherwise, just granite boulders.
We went ashore in an 18-foot whaleboat (I think that is what it was called) about every two weeks for groceries to Kittery Point, Maine. We were allowed to call ahead with our orders from the three families and they would be ready for us when we got there. We would buy 6 gallons of milk at a time and hope they wouldn’t get sour too fast. We bought lots of carbonated drinks, orange, root beer, ginger ale, coke, etc., peanut butter, jelly, crackers, candy (those were our snacks at night when we played pinochle or cribbage). I also did a lot of knitting. I made sweaters for everyone and crocheted afghans.
A lobsterman from Kittery Point brought us a lobster trap - so we had fresh lobsters. We also went fishing on days when the sea was calm. We caught mackerel (in season), codfish, flounder, I think, haddock also.
My husband and I made small window gardens with geraniums and herbs and I also made cushions for a couple of wooden garden type chairs that we used in our living room.
One day there was a terrible storm so terrible that we went to the top of the lighthouse and sat with our heads almost in our laps so we wouldn’t hear the storm. You can imagine my daughter between my legs, crying ... the dog trying to climb into me (she was so scared) me sitting on the floor by the light, my husband trying to calm me and Jack and Margie also trying to keep calm. It lasted about an hour. Bill was ashore that day.
Quite often we would find hundreds of birds dead around the foot of the lighthouse, usually after a storm, when they were trying to find shelter and flew into the light. We also found dead seals and lots of driftwood.
At Christmas time a plane flew over the island and a large package was dropped to us. In the package were cigarettes, candy, cookies and a baby doll for my daughter. I never found out who Santa Claus was, but I have never forgotten. (Editor’s note: It was Edward Rowe Snow, the Flying Santa of the Lighthouses.)
When it was time to wash clothes we heated buckets of water on the stove, carried them outside where we had a galvanized tub to wash the clothes in. I would scrub the clothes then put them in another tub where I rinsed them. We had clotheslines strung up along our wooden walk and Cal would help me hang out the sheets. Sometimes, the wind was so strong it would rip the clothes off the lines ... then we would have to go rescue them off the rocks. At times, whatever blew off blew into the ocean. I lost a couple of favorite blouses that way.
Cal and the other Coast Guard men had to walk up 175 stairs to the top of the lighthouse every morning and place a cover around the light. In the evening the cover had to be taken off before the light was turned on. Quite a feat! I tried it a few times. I was generally unable to make my legs work afterward. It was much more difficult going up, around and around, than it was coming down.
The storms were the hardest to accept. The sea would be so rough and so cruel looking. The water would pound against the island and if it was high tide, the rocks and the wooden walkway would be covered by the water that surged against the base of the lighthouse. Thank goodness that didn’t occur too often - but we never were sure. Wintertime was the worst.
During the summer it was lovely. Never too hot - always a cool breeze. Lots of seals to watch, whales out in the ocean, dolphins to see once in a while, and the opportunity to go fishing whenever you wanted to. We did a lot of fishing. Donna even had her own fishing pole that her Dad made her. I can close my eyes and see her hollering “fish, fish” when she felt one on her line.
We were even fortunate enough to witness the surrender of a German sub directly off Boon Island. We went to the top of the lighthouse and stepped outside and with binoculars watched the sub surface where our Coast Guard boat was waiting. Saw the hatch of the sub open up and the men come out. It gave us a feeling of pride and relief. I am so glad that I witnessed this event.
We left Boon Island because my husband ruptured himself picking up a piece of machinery and had to go into the hospital. We thought, at the time, that we would be going back, but it wasn’t to be.
I look back at the months that we spent on Boon Island as a marvelous part of my life. I have never forgotten and never shall.
Comment From Jack - I was stationed at Portsmouth Harbor Light Station in 1949 and 1950 and had a chance to go out to Boon Island several times on our 26' lighthouse supply boat. What a desolate place. As a 17 year old Seaman Boon Island would have been hell on earth for me. I admire the author for her courage to be with her family and live on such a place.
This story appeared in the May 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine.
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