Last Visited: September, 2010
Eleven-acre Bear Island, near the town of Northeast Harbor on Mount Desert Island, is one of the island group known as the Cranberry Isles. Nineteenth-century landscape artists, including Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt, were drawn to Bear Island’s rugged beauty.
The historian Charles B. McLane postulated that the island’s name was originally “Bare.” McLane believed that the name stemmed from the island’s treeless appearance from the west rather than the unlikely presence of bears.Baker Island Light, the first lighthouse in the Mount Desert Island region, had been established in 1828. A naval captain wrote that the area between the southern shore of Mount Desert Island and the Cranberry Isles was a “general rendezvous for coasting vessels and fishermen in bad weather” and a “focal point for all vessels passing through the in-shore thoroughfare.” Spurling Point on Great Cranberry Island was considered as a lighthouse site, but Bear Island was chosen instead.
According to some sources, William Moore became the first keeper. If he did serve in that capacity, his tenure was brief. According to most sources, John G. Bowen (sometimes spelled “Bowan”) was the first keeper. Bear Island was always a family light station with one keeper.
The first lighthouse building took the form of a wooden tower on the southern end of the roof of a small rubblestone dwelling; its seven lamps and 13-inch reflectors in an octagonal wrought-iron lantern showed a fixed white light 98 feet above mean high water. A 10-foot-wide embankment of logs and gravel was formed to the west of the lighthouse for protection.
The new lighthouse consisted of a round brick tower at one end of the dwelling. It seems likely that much of the original dwelling was salvaged during the 1853 rebuilding.
Around the time of the station’s rebuilding, John G. Bowen returned for a third and final stint as keeper (1853–55). Caleb S. Gould succeeded Bowen in 1855. It isn’t clear how many children Gould had, but there were enough, in combination with one other family on the island, for Bear Island to be named a separate school district under Gould’s direction in 1856. School was taught on the island until 1871, when William Fennelly was keeper. It was resumed for some years beginning in 1880. Stephen Smallidge, keeper at that time, had five children.
A fifth-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1856. In 1888, a 1,000-pound fog bell and striking apparatus were installed. Also in 1888, the dwelling was reported to be quite dilapidated.
An oil house and boathouse were added later. The Fresnel lens was moved to the new tower, exhibiting its light from 100 feet above the water.
For a time beginning in 1887, Bear Island had a buoy depot where navigational aids were maintained; the depot was later transferred to Southwest Harbor. There was also a coaling station so buoy tenders in the area could refuel.
In the early 1980s, Bear Island Light was discontinued and replaced by an offshore lighted bell buoy.
The property became part of Acadia National Park in 1987. Through most of the 1980s, the station fell into disrepair.
The National Park Service then granted a long-term lease on the property to Martin Morad, who is required to pay for the upkeep of the property.
Morad, originally from Iran, is a professor of pharmacology and medicine at Georgetown University. Fabiola Martens, his wife, is Belgian. She is a former lawyer and now is an interior designer. Morad had originally seen Bear Island Lighthouse in 1971 and had attempted to buy or lease it to no avail. By 1989, the house had fallen into such poor condition that it took three years of renovation before Morad and Martens could move in.
New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide
- The lighthouse is best viewed by boat or air. See our Lighthouse Tours page for information on tours in the area.