Keeper Emerson’s Story
About one o’clock in the morning, on March 16th 1865, with the sound of the surf thundering in his ears, Eben Emerson wearily dragged himself from his sleepless bed. He never slept much when the weather was bad, and this storm was a wild one. It was about time for him to trim the wicks on the lamps inside the lens at the top of the tower; not that it could be seen very far in the thick fog swirling around Wood Island on this night. As he finished doing the necessary chores, he opened the door to see if the storm was getting worse. As he stood outside he thought he heard a human voice over the roar of the breakers. Someone was in trouble. He hollered back and ran to his wherry and hauled it to the surf. His strength was not great enough to launch his boat through the towering breakers. He hurried to the house of his neighbor, a fisherman then living on the island. Together they launched the wherry and following the direction of the sounds, they pulled through the thick fog and heavy seas. They finally sighted a brig that had run aground on Washburn Ledge. It was undergoing a terrible pounding and its decks were awash. They could see the crew clinging in terror to the ropes. After many unsuccessful attempts, they were finally able to get close enough alongside so that Eben could leap aboard.
The crew had tried launching one of its two boats, but it had been immediately swamped. The other was still on the davits and owing to the steep slant of the deck, difficult to get to. At Eben’s command, the fearful crew climbed up into the boat as it hung there. He told the ship’s captain to take his place in the bow, the mate in the stern and be ready to cut loose.
With great difficulty, Eben made his way through the debris to the rail of the doomed ship. The giant seas washing across the deck threatened to knock him off of his feet. Suddenly, over the roar of the storm, he again heard a cry of distress. It seemed to be coming from below. He rushed down into the cabin even as it was filling with water. There he found two terrified white guinea pigs. Hastily he thrust them into his pockets and dashed back up to the deck. His fisherman neighbor was attempting to bring the wherry close enough to take him off the brig. In such heavy seas it had been difficult when both men were rowing. It was nearly impossible with one man alone. Finally after several attempts, he got close enough to the Brig, that Eben was able to leap safely into the wherry. He grabbed for his oars and together he and his neighbor brought their boat as close as they could to the boat containing the crew, which was still hanging in the davits. Tossing them a rope, he ordered them to secure it; then waited till an extra high sea came. “Cut loose!” he yelled. Swiftly the brig’s captain and mate cut the ropes and the small boat rode the breaker down.
As the two small boats pulled away, they could see and hear the grounded brig breaking apart under the pounding surf. Before they reached land, it had gone to pieces before their eyes. The ship, consigned to the E. Churchill Co., had been loaded with molasses and sugar from Puerto Rico for Portland. She never made it, but thanks to Eben Emerson, there was no loss of life.
For his heroism in the rescue of the crew of the Edyth Ann, the Bristish Government awarded Keeper Emerson with a pair of brass binoculars.
Order the booklet “The Heroism of Eben Emerson” from the web store. This booklet is written and illustrated by a descendent of keeper Eben Emerson who kept the light on Wood Island in the 1860s. In a situation of imminent danger, his bravery and determination achieved a rescue at sea against almost impossible odds. The wonderful illustrations really enhance the telling of the tale.