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Face of Defense: Growing Up At Boston Light

By Coast Guard Auxiliarist Reid Oslin

Screen Shot 2016-10-28 at 10.52.43
While on Little Brewster Island, Mass., for the Boston Light Tricentennial on September 14, 2016, JoAnn LaVigne Schroer stands with her husband holding a photo of her family taken in front of the lighthouse in 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.



Even more, than 60 years later, Joanne LaVigne Schroer insists she can still see the ghost of Boston Light.

It’s just one of a treasure chest of childhood memories for Schroer, who spent her early years living with her family at the 300-year-old beacon on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. Schroer’s father, Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph LaVigne, was the keeper at Boston Light from 1948 through 1950.

“To this day, every time I go out to Boston Light I get goosebumps when I walk into the keeper’s house,” Schroer said recently from her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts. “Not many people can say they started their life in a lighthouse.”

So what about that ghost?

“When we went out to the island [in 1948] the second-floor bedroom that faces the light itself was always locked,” Schroer recalled. “We had always heard that back in the 1800s there was a lightkeeper whose wife went a little stir crazy and killed her husband right around Halloween. Then, she wrote about it in her diary.

“Every October, we would hear these weird noises in that room,” Schroer said. “One night, my mother jiggled the doorknob to see what was going on. All of a sudden, this black image came right through the door, down the hallway and then down the stairs into the kitchen. It was the lightkeeper’s wife, and she had a big dog with her,” Schroer attested. “I woke up in the middle of the night and there was that big dog sitting right in the room.”

Schroer said her father was off-island on the temporary assignment that night, and so her mother frantically called sector headquarters in Boston for assistance. “They sent a crew right out,” she said. “They unbolted the door and opened it. There were books all along the walls, but right in the middle of the room was a pedestal with the woman’s diary on it, and it was opened to the night where she had killed her husband.” The Coast Guardsmen took all of the books out of the room that night.

“They never heard a thing after that.”

Although none of the many written histories of Boston Light mention the presence of a ghost, five keepers have died while on duty at the historic beacon, including the beacon’s eighth keeper, Capt. David Tower, who is listed as “died at light” on Oct. 8, 1844, with no information on the cause of his demise.

Not all of Schroer’s memories are spooky – most are tinged with humor. “The only source of electricity on the island in those days was a generator,” she said. “One day my dad, who was an engineman in the Coast Guard, took it apart for cleaning, carefully laying all the parts in a row on the ground so he would know how to put it back together. My sister and I decided we were going to ‘help’ him, and of course, we put the parts back in any order we wanted [laughter]. Dad had to call into Boston to get a temporary generator when he couldn’t get this one back together. We didn’t have power for a few days [laughter].”

The sisters also enjoyed exploring a secret cave under the lighthouse that would be exposed at low tide. “If the tide came in, it would be hard to get out, but somehow we always managed to do it,” she recalled. Today, a large rock blocks the entrance to the hidden passageway.

Schroer also remembers helping her father clean the intricate Fresnel lens that beams the beacon’s light to mariners at sea. “Dad would give us a special cloth to dust the lens,” she said. “We could only reach the bottom of the glass, but every once in a while Dad would pick us up and let us clean the main part of the lens with him.”

As a game, Schroer and her older sister would often race to the top of the lighthouse tower’s spiral 76-step stairway, stopping only to lean out of the structure’s three lofty windows to call down to their parents. “In those days, the brick interior was covered with plasterboard that was really old and falling apart. One day, my sister and I were going to the top when she got her arm stuck in the plasterboard.

“As luck would have it, my dad was away when that happened too,” Schroer said. “Mom had to call Boston to ask for a crew to get my sister out. After that, the Coast Guard tore all the plasterboard down and left the exposed brick that you see today.”

Life was not always easy for a family living on an island nine miles distant from downtown Boston. “My mother, Mary LaVigne, was petrified of the water,” Schroer admitted. “Although Dad loved it, she didn’t appreciate living out there,” she said. “I remember a couple of bad storms when Mom would be screaming and crying, but the kids would all run outside and stand out in the weather.”

There was no indoor plumbing when the LaVigne family arrived on Little Brewster Island in March of 1948. “Mom was always cold – and always pregnant,” laughed Joanne, “so she wanted a toilet right in the keeper’s house. Dad was great when it came to mechanics and he installed the first indoor plumbing in the house,” she said.

A large wood-burning stove provided heat and cooking when Schroer and her family were residents. That appliance has now been replaced with a modern electric stove and oven. The rest of the keeper’s house remains much the same as it was nearly 70 years ago.

The family also had to endure the constant roar of a large cannon that was used as Boston Light’s fog warning signal until a traditional horn mechanism was installed in the 1950s.

In 1950, Mary LaVigne gave birth to a son, Joseph, Jr., the couple’s fourth child, on the island. He was the last person to be born at Boston Light. “She never made it to the hospital,” Schroer noted.

“Dad delivered little Joey right there. Word got out that there was a baby being born at the Light and some newspaper people rushed out to cover it. Dad said that there was a photographer from LIFE magazine who was being really obnoxious – trying to take a picture of my mother while she was still hemorrhaging. Dad finally punched the guy in the face and refused to sign the photo release form for the magazine,” she laughed.

Finally, a Coast Guard crew brought a doctor out to the island, and mother and baby were safely transported to South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Mass. That “Boston Light Baby”, now 66-year-old Joseph LaVigne, Jr., currently resides in Carver, Mass.

Shortly after Joseph, Jr. was born, then-Engineman 2nd Class LaVigne was transferred from Boston Light to a more traditional Coast Guard assignment at Station Point Allerton in nearby Hull. LaVigne, who had enlisted in the Coast Guard shortly after Pearl Harbor, eventually served 21 years, retiring as a Chief Petty Officer in 1961. He lived in Halifax, Mass. until his death in 2001.

To this day, Schroer cherishes the recollections of her childhood at Boston Light: the beauty – and occasional challenges – of living on a lighthouse island; the games and hi-jinx with her siblings in the historic light tower itself; the annual holiday visits of the original “Flying Santa”, Edward Rowe Snow; and even, of course, those memories of a ghost.

“It was a great place to start your life,” Schroer said.