Keepers of the Goat Island Lighthouse
Scott Dombrowski pilots his small boat towards the dock at Goat Island Lighthouse where he and his wife, Karen, reside eight months out of the year.
Besides Karen, two of the couple’s faithful canine companions, Scupper and Folly, eagerly await his return. It was just a month before Christmas, and Scott’s daily run to and from Cape Porpoise Harbor was uneventful as he followed a familiar path past the fleet of lobster boats.
But life as the Goat Island Lighthouse keepers for the past 27 years is anything but uneventful. The lighthouse keepers’ home and the lighthouse itself, along with the grounds on the three-acre island, need constant attention.
“It’s like living on a small farm,” Scott says with a smile. Between painting, building repairs, and the routine maintenance to keep the lighthouse beacon and fog horn operational, the couple has more than enough to keep them busy.
“A lot of people think that we are just out here having a ball, but it’s a lot of hard work,” Scott explained.
The couple relies on underwater cables to provide their electricity, and those cables will soon need to be replaced. They also have two 1,000-gallon cistern tanks for washing dishes, bathing, and cooking. The couple have to lug their drinking water from the mainland. A family of four will typically use 15 gallons of water per day.
Doing the most routine things—like buying groceries for the week—is a labor-intensive affair. Karen explains they have to boat to the Cape Porpoise Pier, retrieve their car, do their shopping, load up their small boat, and head back to the island. Whenever they want to add a new piece of furniture or a mattress, they have to transport it in their small boat.
But as it was when they first started volunteering their time to care for the property for the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust (KCT) more than two decades ago, it continues to be labor of love.
When Karen was asked if the couple believes they will continue to take care of the lighthouse and Goat Island for long into the future, she replied, “He does!”
“This is our baby, and I foresee needing more help out here,” said Karen, who is 60. “We are getting older, and things are getting heavier.”
At 61, Scott cannot see a day when they won’t be living on Goat Island Light. The couple raised their two sons, Gregory, now 35, and Eric, now 33, on the island, and they look forward to sharing it with their grandson, Parker, when the COVID-19 pandemic is over and it is safe for families to be together again.
Karen remembers letting their sons take the boat out so they could go fishing when they were 12 and 10 years old. She also remembers plenty of wonderful summer days when her kids and their friends would camp on the island and play full-contact Wiffle ball games on the lawn.
“The sunrises and sunsets are absolutely gorgeous here,” Karen said.
One of the most enjoyable things about their lives as lighthouse keepers is sharing the island and beacon with the thousands of summer visitors they see each year. This past summer was different. Visiting kayakers and boaters could come to the island, but they could not go inside the house or the indoor walkway that connects the house to the lighthouse.
During previous summers, Karen and Scott would welcome visitors into their home and the lighthouse, so they could share the rich history and beauty of this iconic landmark.
They enlist volunteers to form work parties to come out in May, June, or July to help them make repairs to the island buildings and grounds. This past summer, volunteers helped them repair the boat house, which includes a restored peapod rescue boat that the KCT obtained from a Coast Guard lighthouse station in Southwest Harbor.
Students at the nearby Landing School in Kennebunkport helped the KCT restore the peapod boat, which is housed in the boathouse for educational display only.
Scott and Karen have also had a positive impact on helping the KCT maintain Goat Island Light. The couple was involved in obtaining the needed permits in 2005 to rebuild the bell tower, the fuel house, and the indoor breezeway that was destroyed during the Blizzard of 1978.
Scott recalled how they had to pick an era as part of the renovation plan for the lighthouse keepers’ residence. They went with a 1950s theme that incorporated authentic kitchen appliances, kitchen furniture, and décor that looks like it came right from the set of a vintage I Love Lucy show. The construction project was completed in 2012 to give the island a whole new life.
According to Scott, the renovation was sorely needed. No one was permitted to visit the island at all before the KCT took ownership. Scott said the US Secret Service actually lived in the home during President George H.W. Bush’s presidency from 1988 to 1992 when the former President vacationed at Walker’s Point in Kennebunkport across Cape Porpoise Harbor. When the lighthouse beacon became fully automated in the 1990s, no one lived on the island, and the buildings fell into disrepair.
How and why did Scott and Karen end up serving as the Goat Island Light caretakers for so long? “It just happened,” Karen said. The couple first met as students at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell in the 1970s. After they married, Scott pursued his career as an industrial engineer while Karen raised their boys. Scott is originally from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and Karen grew up on Goose Rocks Beach, a short distance from Cape Porpoise Harbor. The KCT actually built their headquarters on land that was owned by Karen’s great grandfather, William Prescott.
“When I first brought Scott here, he just fell in love with it,” Karen recalled. The couple were married in Cape Porpoise in 1982. When Scott was laid off from his job, he decided he wanted to pursue a better quality of life for his family instead of chasing another industrial engineering job elsewhere.
The couple decided to move to the Cape Porpoise area where Karen was reunited with her friend, Tom Bradbury, who is the executive director of the KCT. Soon after the KCT acquired Goat Island in 1993 from the Coast Guard, Tom asked Scott and Karen to head out to Goat Island and look after the buildings.
Scott said he and Karen had a 23-foot sailboat, and they were the only KCT volunteers who had a boat then. Karen said the couple kept heading out to the island to make repairs and look after it. Without any formal agreement made between them and the KCT, Karen said she and Scott just assumed the role as caretakers. “It got easier to take care of the place if we just stayed here,” she said.
Goat Island Light has always served a vital role in keeping boaters safe. Its beacon is powered by solar panels that were installed in 2008 and can be viewed as far as 12 miles offshore when it blinks every six seconds.
The original lighthouse was constructed in 1833 and the lighthouse keeper’s home and station were rebuilt in 1859 and 1860. Inside the renovated indoor walkway, the couple displays old photographs on large flat screen TVs for visitors to view. Scott noted that before electricity the past light keepers had to make sure the beacon’s five oil lamps were lit during the 1800s all the way until 1859. They often had to go to and from the lighthouse three times a night
Scott said that he has also done his share of water rescues during his tenure. As placid and calm as Cape Porpoise may appear to the naked eye, the harbor has plenty of rocky areas just a few feet below the water’s surface. These areas often cause problems and great peril for inexperienced and seasoned boaters alike.
“We’ve had boats catch on fire. We’ve had boats capsize,” Scott said.
If Scott cannot get to a boater in distress, he will climb the lighthouse tower and act as spotter to guide the Coast Guard or local firefighters. “We are mariners anyway, so we help them out.”
They have experienced a personal tragedy during their tenure. Near one of the picnic tables on the island is stone marker that was placed in memory of Dick Curtis, a local fisherman who used to live on the island in the winter months. In 2002, Dick was piloting his small boat across the harbor on Memorial Day Weekend to run some errands on shore when his boat was hit by a rogue wave, knocking him overboard.
No one knew that anything had happened to Dick until the couple headed back to the island and couldn’t find Dick. Scott said Dick’s body was found near the rocky coast of the island a short time later. That experience, along with the many accidents that Scott has seen befall others, remind him to always respect the water.
“It’s made us realize ourselves that we have to be extremely cautious, especially now that we are getting older.”