Abbie Burgess

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Abbie Burgess
Abbie Burgess

Rockland, Maine
Died1892, age 53
NationalityFlag of the United States.svg American
OccupationLighthouse Keeper

Abbie Burgess Grant (1839–1892) was an American lighthouse keeper known for her bravery in tending the Matinicus Rock Light in Maine during a raging winter storm in 1856. She did so for nearly a month while her father, the head keeper, was away from the island. Her heroic actions attracted much attention and she was soon a popular heroine.


Abbie Burgess was the fourth of nine children of Samuel and Thankful (Phinney) Burgess,[1][2] who moved with his invalid wife, a son, and several daughters to Matinicus Rock in 1853 to become its lighthouse tender.[3] Although only 15, she soon took over duties of tending the lighthouse so that her father could fish and catch lobster, which he sold in Rockland, Maine, 25 miles (40 km) away. In the lighthouse, she found a lightkeeper's log, which detailed great storms that had struck Matinicus Rock, including one in 1839 that had destroyed the original lighthouse.[4][2]

The family lived in a home near the new lighthouse, and Abbie became concerned that if a gale came, that the home could be damaged, and her mother would be unable to be moved. In December 1855 she transferred her mother's bedroom to a small room in the lighthouse itself.[4] Less than a month later a devastating gale struck.

Gale of 1856[edit]

In January 1856, Samuel Burgess left Abbie, his wife, and her younger sisters to take care of the lighthouse while he went to obtain supplies in Rockland. The lighthouse cutter that was supposed to have supplied the family had not shown up for its September delivery, and food and oil for the light was running low. He feared that the family might be stuck on the Rock throughout the winter with no supplies. He charged Abbie with the care of both her family and the lighthouse.[2]

Almost as soon as he had left, the wind shifted and a gale began. It blew for three days, with waves so high they overran the island with knee-deep water. The home intended for the family was completely washed away. Abbie and her sisters had to secure the windows of the lighthouse to keep the waves from breaking them in. The lower level flooded, and they were forced to seek refuge in the north lighthouse tower.[2] Abbie even managed to rescue all but one of their chickens.[5] Throughout this ordeal she kept the lighthouse light burning.[4]

Even after the gale subsided, the waves were too treacherous for her father to return for another three weeks. The family subsisted on one cup of corn meal mush and one egg per day until Samuel Burgess was able to return with supplies.[3]

Later life[edit]

Samuel Burgess lost his position as lighthouse keeper in 1861 for not supporting Abraham Lincoln.[5] (At the time lighthouse keepers were presidential appointees.) He was replaced by Capt. John Grant. Abbie Burgess, however, stayed on to train Grant and fell in love with his youngest son, Isaac. They were eventually married, and she and Isaac served as assistant keepers on Matinicus Rock for fourteen years, where they had four sons. They were then moved to Whitehead Light off St. George, Maine, where they served as lighthouse keepers for fifteen years before retiring in 1890.[1]

Abbie Burgess died in Portland, Maine in 1892. Maritime historian Edward Rowe Snow located her grave in Forest Hills Cemetery in South Thomaston, Maine and in 1945 arranged for a memorial in the form of an aluminum scale replica lighthouse to be placed over her grave.[5][2]


Burgess is the subject of several books, including the children's books Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie by Peter Roop, Connie Roop, and Peter E. Hanson, which was featured in an episode of the children's television program Reading Rainbow, and Abbie Against the Storm by Marcia Vaughan and illustrated by Bill Farnsworth.

The folk song "Lighthouse Keeper"[6] by Neptune's Car[7] was inspired by the experiences of women lighthouse tenders including Ida Lewis, Katherine Walker, and Abbie Burgess.

In 1998, the United States Coast Guard commissioned Cutter Abbie Burgess (WLM-553), a 175' Keeper-class buoy tender. She is currently stationed in Rockland, Maine.[8]


  1. ^ a b Brassard, Nicole (2008). "Grant, Abbie Burgess". Maine, an Encyclopedia. Publius Research. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d e D'Entremont, Jeremy. "History of Matinicus Rock Light, Maine". New England Lighthouses: A Virtual Guide. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  3. ^ a b Wood, Alan. "Matinicus Rock Lighthouse". New England Lighthouses and Coastal Attractions. Allan Wood Photography. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  4. ^ a b c "Abigail Burgess Grant". Rootsweb. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  5. ^ a b c "Abbie Burgess, Teenaged Heroine of Matinicus Rock Light". New England Historical Society. Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  6. ^ "Lighthouse Keeper". Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  7. ^ "Neptune's Car". Retrieved 25 February 2017.
  8. ^ "USCGC Abbie Burgess (WLM 553)". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 25 February 2017.

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