William Gilley in 1828 received a rich reward for his support of John Quincy Adams: A $350-a-year job as keeper of the new Baker Island Lighthouse.
Gilley had come to Baker Island around 1812 from Norwood’s Cove in what is now Acadia National Park. He brought his wife, Hannah Lurvey, three small children, their household goods and tools for fishing and farming. Gilley had up until then made a living fishing and shipping, but he wanted to farm and timber.
William Gilley probably didn’t need the $350 lighthouse keeper’s salary. He, Hannah and their 12 children supported themselves through their own skill and labor. They carved out fields for planting, raised livestock and crops and profited from the sale of their butter, eggs, feathers and smoked herring. When Zachary Taylor, a Whig, was elected president of the United States, Gilley was offered to stay as lighthouse keeper, but only if he switched political parties. He refused.
In 1880, Charles W. Eliot, the president of Harvard College, bought property on nearby Sutton Island for a summer home. Eliot would lead the campaign to create Acadia National Park, and he would in 1899 write a brief biography of William Gillis’ youngest son John. He intended John Gilley, One of the Forgotten Millions to chronicle a quiet simple life that ‘mingled joy and sorrow, labor and rest, adversity and success.’ The little book is as much about William Gilley as it is about his son.
Hannah and William Gilley
William and Hannah Gilley didn’t buy their farm on Baker Island; they just took the land. The island, which lies four miles from Mt. Desert Island, is roundish and about a half-mile long by a half-mile wide.
William Gilley was a strong 6-foot tall man who weighed over 200 pounds. His wife Hannah was robust and well-educated for the time. She attended school until she was 13 in Massachusetts and taught all her children reading, writing and arithmetic.
Eliot sympathetically described Hannah’s lot when she moved to Baker Island:
She already had three little children, and she was going to face for herself and her family a formidable isolation which was absolute for considerable periods in the year. Moreover, she was going to take her share in the severe labors of a pioneering family. Even to get a footing on this wooded island— to land lumber, live stock, provisions, and the implements of labor, and to build the first shelter — was no easy task. A small, rough beach of large stones was the only landing-place, and just above the bare rocks of the shore was the forest.
But William and Hannah were healthy and strong. They worked hard and prospered. By the time their youngest son was born in 1822, the Gilley family had six cows, a yoke of oxen, two or three young cattle, 50 sheep and three or four hogs.
Food was plentiful. Lobsters could be picked up in the shallow water along the shore. Fresh fish could always be caught, a lamb could be slaughtered and mutton and beef could be salted or frozen during the winter. Seabirds could be shot for food and their feathers could be sold.
The children helped support the family. The girls tended the chickens, made butter and spun wool. The boys cleared land, broke it up, hauled off stones and planted crops. William raised flax, potatoes and vegetables, potatoes and a little wheat. To make flour, they carried a boatload of wheat to the mill in Somesville, had it ground and sifted and brought it back to Baker Island.
The girls made their clothes from wool and flax, the eldest son made their shoes and boots. In the summer they went barefoot.
Smoked Herring and a Job
Money was scarce, but the Gilley family needed some to buy essentials at the store at Southwest Harbor. Butter and eggs were swapped at the store, and feathers sold in Boston for 50 cents a pound. The family also smoked herring . The fish were caught in gill nets, then smoked in the Gilley’s smokehouse. The family nailed boxes together from lumber saved for them at the Somesville or Duck Brook sawmill, both nine miles away. A half-bushel of smoked fish was packed into each box and they were sent to New York by coasting vessel. A box of smoked herring could fetch as much as $1.10.
Sixteen years after William Gilley started his farm, the Baker Island Lighthouse was built and William Gilley was appointed lighthouse keeper. President John Quincy Adams ordered the lighthouse to warn of the shoals around the Cranberry Isles and the sand bar running between Baker Island and Little Cranberry Island. It was a sweet deal for a coastal Maine family, since they had free use of a house, all the sperm oil they could use and $350 a year in cash. William Gilley saved some of that money, improved his land and buildings and gave each of his six sons some money to launch their own careers.
In 1837, William Gilley bought Great Duck Island for $300 to pasture sheep. It was about five miles away from Baker Island and uninhabited. Twelve years later, the Whigs turned the Democrat-Republicans out of the White House and William Gilley was turned out of his job. He could have kept it had he switched parties. To that offer he replied, with expletives, he would not change his political connection for all the lighthouses in the United States.
William Gilley then went to live on Duck Island, which was even more inaccessible than Baker Island. Hannah had become infirm and only visited him from time to time. Instead she lived with one of her married sons on Little Cranberry. Hannah died at 69, but William lived to be 92. He spent the last years of his life on Baker Island with another of their married sons.
In 1855, the Baker Island Lighthouse tower was rebuilt. It still stands today, listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Charles W. Eliot in 1899 prefaced his biography of William’s youngest son John with words that apply to William as well:
This little book describes with accuracy the actual life of one of the to-be-forgotten millions. Is this life a true American type~ If it is, there is good hope for our country.
This story last updated in 2022.
Images: Baker Island Light (color) By Kevin A. Trostle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21126191.