Cistern Repairs

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It's a Dirty Job, but Someone Had to Do It

By Timothy Harrison


Being a lighthouse volunteer is not just doing the easy work at a lighthouse like painting and greeting visitors. Some projects are just downright hard and dirty, as Lee Leighton recently found out at Little River Lighthouse when he cleaned the cistern.


It seems that a number of mice and even ocean rats had found their way into the cistern at the lighthouse and drowned in the water, contaminating it. Although the water from the cistern is not used at the lighthouse for drinking, it is used for showers taken by the caretaker and the overnight guests.


Long time lighthouse volunteer Lee Leighton took on the job of cleaning the cistern and sterilizing it. Dressed in protective gear complete with goggles, face mask, boots and more, he looked like a man from space as he climbed into the cistern in the dark and dingy old basement of the 1888 keeper’s house.


Years ago the cistern was the only supply of fresh water that was available for the keepers of the lighthouse. Sometime after the Coast Guard took over the lighthouse, they drilled a well, which usually went dry by August of every year. However, just before the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, the Coast Guard caused a fuel oil overflow in the basement of the keeper’s house, which contaminated the well water.


After the Coast Guard abandoned the lighthouse, the cistern fell into disrepair and one of the walls collapsed. Eventually, over time, the wooden cistern cover rotted and could not be repaired or saved.


In 2006, Boy Scouts from southern Maine rebuilt the wall of the cistern, and in 2007 Hal Biering donated a custom made swimming pool liner for the cistern, which was installed that year. In 2008 the contaminated water problem was resolved by a special water filtration system installed with help from the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the well water was again able to be used. The cistern then provided a back-up water supply for the lighthouse.


A new cistern cover is now being made and installed by former Little River Lighthouse keeper Terry Rowden; the new cover will keep the cistern nearly air tight and secured from mice and other creatures. The new cistern cover will have a sliding door for access for future cleaning, which will now be much easier and cleaner than in the past.


Rowden is familiar with the cistern from his days as part of a three-man Coast Guard crew that was stationed at the lighthouse in late 1960s. When he was low man on the pole, it was his job to clean the cistern, which he described as the second worst job on the island. The worst job was cleaning the septic tank, which had to be done by hand with pails. Island lighthouse life was not always great.


Thanks to dedicated volunteers like Lee Leighton, Terry Rowden and others, Little River Lighthouse Station continues to evolve with its ongoing projects to keep the island and its lighthouse open to the public for future generations.