The Goat Island lighthouse stands less than a mile from the bustling fishing pier in Cape Porpoise, Maine. The signature white brick structure climbs 25 feet up from the rocky crags and granite ledges hemming the treeless 7.7-acre island. Through lashing nor’easters, blinding snowstorms, lacerating rains and thick opaque fogs, this Maine icon has signaled safe passage home to sailors for nearly two centuries
Built in 1835 at a cost of $6000, the lighthouse’s oil-lit lamp first guided schooners and barques laden with molasses, coal and timber into the horseshoe-shaped Cape Porpoise harbor. Today lobstermen, recreational boaters, even kayakers look for the blinking beacon when white caps froth the Atlantic.
In 1992, the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust leased the island and dwellings from the government and later embarked on a 10-year restoration project dedicated to “returning the lighthouse property to the peak of its history.” The Trust settled on 1950 as the fountainhead. “We wanted to restore the entire facility to how it looked in 1950 which, amazingly, was quite similar to how it looked at the turn of the century,” current lighthouse keeper Scott Dombrowski says.
Recently, I had the wonderful opportunity of spending a day on Goat Island with lighthouse keeper Scott and his wife. That visit turned into an article I wrote for TOURIST & TOWN (the best county newspaper in Maine!) and I want to share it with you because this is “a Maine” not many people get to know. Especially those “from away.”
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF THE GOAT ISLAND LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER
Goat Island Lighthouse is home and office to Scott Dombrowski, his wife Karen, three romping dogs and a feral cat named Otie. Frequent visitors include their adult sons Eric and Greg who considered the island their “private summer camp” when, as youngsters, the family lived here full-time.
“The island was their playground and I had to whistle them in at bedtime,” Karen says. Today, the Dombrowskis spend seven months on Goat Island, arriving just before Memorial Day and staying until they take a “slow leave” at the end of November “when the pipes get blown.”
The couple and their two sons moved into the keeper’s quarters in April, 1993. Furnishing the 1500-square-foot white clapboard two-story house “was a challenge because the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (which had leased the island and its facilities) had little money to spare,” Karen says. “People donated most of the furniture that filled our three bedrooms, living room, dining room, office and kitchen. We kept everything simple, including not having curtains. Who’d want them anyway when the views from every window are so spectacular.”
Karen’s kitchen is a throw-back to Margaret Anderson’s (played by Jane Wyatt) on “Father Knows Best,” that popular television show of the mid-1950s. Formica counters, porcelain sink with metal dish rack, plus retro Big Chill refrigerator and Elmira stove prove the “attention to detail” the Conservation Trust used in furnishing the kitchen in mid-20th century style. Even the flooring (custom-cut Armstrong nine-inch square tiles) is circa-1950.
Five kerosene lanterns are strategically placed throughout the house in case electricity goes out. “That doesn’t happen often,” Scott says, pointing to the thick black underwater cable that comes from the mainland to keep their lights on.
“Water is precious when you live on an island,” Scott says. “Initially, we had to haul water from shore, but our boat could only handle a 30-gallon drum due to its weight and size. We would fill the drum ashore in the boat, drive out here at high tide, then tip the boat on its side to get the barrel out. We’d roll it up the rocky beach and across the lawn to a cellar window where we would use a hose to siphon it into the basement cistern. We learned to live on 15 gallons of water a day for a family of four.”
“For a number of years, all our clothing and bedding had to be hauled ashore to the local laundromat.” Scott continued, “But we learned to make rain our friend. We collected water off the roof through a gutter system that goes to the two 1000-gallon cisterns in the basement. Today those cisterns provide water for bathing, cooking, dishes and laundry. Plus, just Karen and I live out here now and we’re pretty careful. Our drinking water comes from the mainland. We haul out five-gallon carboys which we dispense from a water cooler in the kitchen.”
When they first moved onto Goat Island, Scott still maintained a “day job” at Corning in West Kennebunk. “I’d dress for work wearing a button-down shirt and khakis, jump in the boat and start my commute. It was easy in the summer. In bad weather I put on foul weather gear and headed to shore. By 2001, I decided it was time to retire and devote my hours to Goat Island. As an engineer by trade, I use all the skills I learned in the industry here on the island.”
Scott admits he “happened to be in the right spot at the right time” when he heard the lighthouse keeper position was available. And he leapt at the chance! “We had no idea what we were going to have to do when we first arrived,” Scott says, but an ongoing “honey-do” list quickly manifested.
“June is ‘fix-‘em-up month’ when we assess and repair the damage done over the winter. We plant the garden and start painting. During July and August, in addition to the daily grind, we ‘meet and greet’ visitors, and keep the island ship-shape. In September, students and corporate groups arrive to study and help out on various projects. We are hosts 24-7.”
“It’s similar to living on a farm,” Scott says. “There’s always something to do, whether it’s mowing the grass, painting the trim, weeding the garden or washing salt off the windows. Every day I push and pull, haul and move, repair and paint. You get up with the sun and go to bed with the sun. And, as ‘host,’ I am always available to meet visitors who arrive by kayak, motorboat or on foot, crossing the clam flats at low tide.”
“Island time” rules their lives. In making an 8 AM doctor’s appointment in Biddeford on September 8, for example, they have to be sure the tide will be high so their boat can get to the mainland. When asked which they prefer — sunrise or sunset — both Karen and Scott agree they are “equally wonderful, and because the island is flat, we never miss either one!”
“Islands are dangerous too, and there are many ways to get hurt out here, so you have to be aware of your surroundings,” Scott says. Dangers lurk offshore as well. Over the years, Scott helped save a kayaker who capsized in 52 degree water. He’s witnessed plane crashes, boats on fire, boats crashing into rocks. He’s jumped out of bed countless times when he spotted red flares in the air. “It’s gratifying when we help save a life,” he says.
But “the connection with nature, this peek into the past, learning to be sensitive to your resources, the experience of living as our predecessors did, and being able to share this with visitors keeps me smiling every day,” the keeper says.
A symphony of sounds echoes through their daily lives — waves splashing on the rocks, the drone of a lobster boat heading back to the Cape Porpoise pier, gulls squawking overhead, staccato chirps from the VHF marine radio that sits on a kitchen windowsill. They have little time to read, they watch no television, and they rely on their garden crop of beans, corn and tomatoes (fertilized by seaweed they gather) to supplement food brought out from the mainland.
Would they want it any other way? “Nope!” says the Goat Island Lighthouse keeper.