Posing for a portrait, Sailor the lighthouse dog sits on a chair sometime around 1903. At the time, Sailor became famous through widely-circulated newspaper stories recounting his bell-ringing abilities. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Memory Network

PORTLAND, Maine — This state boasts 65 picturesque lighthouses. Each blinking tower is now fully automated but at one time, each required human caretakers to keep the vital beacons polished and burning through fog, rain and snow.

A lot of dogs helped, too.

There are no records showing how many Maine lighthouse keepers had canine assistants, but here are stories about three of them. Two were credited with saving human lives. One received a medal. All of them were very good boys. (Yes, they were.)

Thomas Orcutt began keeping Wood Island Light, in Saco Bay, in 1886. Originally constructed in 1806, it’s the second-oldest lighthouse in Maine, after Portland Head Light.

Around 1890, Orcutt got a 2-month-old, mixed-breed puppy from a dairy farm in Westbrook. He brought the dog to the island and named him Sailor. A few years later, the pup made headlines in papers all over the country, as well as England and Canada.

“Sailor was not long in learning the ways of the sea,” wrote the Boston Globe in July 1900. “He took a great interest in whatever his master did. He noticed, among other things, his master often pulled a rope that made a bell ring.”

Sailor watched as Orcutt would ring a bell to answer the horn salutes of passing ships. One day, Orcutt wasn’t near the bell to ring it so Sailor did it himself, pulling the rope with his teeth. From then on, Orcutt never had to ring the bell. Sailor always did it.

Sailor the dog rings the Wood Island Lighthouse bell for his owner, keeper Thomas Orcutt, around 1903. The dog became famous through widely-circulated newspaper stories about his bell-ringing abilities. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Memory Network

“The dog knows his business and never fails to return a steamer’s salute,” wrote the Daily Northwestern in 1895.

Eventually, Sailor’s exploits were reported in papers from Saskatoon to South Carolina and he even had his picture published in a London magazine.

The Globe also reported that Sailor weighed 60 pounds, was black and tan with a white spot on his chest and didn’t like thunderstorms. Sailor was also said to be on friendly terms with Orcutt’s two cats, sometimes sharing the same food bowl and napping with them.

Orcutt died on the island in 1905, a few months after his beloved canine assistant crossed the rainbow bridge in his arms.

Augustus Hamor kept the Owls Head Lighthouse, guarding the entrance to Rockland Harbor from 1930 to 1945. Hamor’s children taught their dog, Spot, to ring the bell for passing boats just as Sailor had.

Spot, a springer spaniel, would often sit staring out to sea atop the cliff, waiting for boats. He’d ring the bell and bark until vessels made it safely around the dangerous head.

Spot’s favorite was the mail boat. That’s because its skipper, Stuart Ames, always brought doggie snacks with him. Spot knew Ames’ boat by sound alone and knew it was coming before anyone could see it.

According to a story told by the Lighthouse Foundation, this turned out to be a life-saving skill.

The Owls Head Lighthouse stands off Rockland, in Penobscot Bay in a photographs from about 1910. It was built in 1826. Credit: Courtesy of Maine Memory Network

One winter day, a furious storm rolled in while Ames was out on his mail run to Matinicus Island. The thick snow muffled the Owls Head beacon and snowed-in the bell.

Worried, Ames’ wife called Hamor to see if the mailboat had yet passed the light. He was two hours late already.

Hamor said no, he hadn’t seen the mailboat but he’d let Spot out for a listen. The dog stayed out in the blizzard for two hours before returning to the house, shivering, tired and cold. After a brief respite near the kitchen stove, Spot whined to be let out again. He immediately took up his listening post once more.

This time, he heard the boat and barked — and kept on barking until Ames was safely past the snow-silenced bell. Ames tooted the mail boat horn in salute as he went by.

Two hours later, Ames’ wife called the lighthouse again. Her husband was home safe, thanks to Spot. Without the sound of the bell, the barking had told him his position, averting a tragic encounter with the breakers.

When Spot died, he was laid to rest on the lighthouse grounds. In 2004, he got a new headstone. It only reads: “Spot the lighthouse dog.” In 2000, Angeli Perrow wrote a children’s book about Spot called “Lighthouse Dog to the Rescue.”

Charles Knight was appointed keeper of the Hendricks Head Lighthouse on Southport Island, at the mouth of the Sheepscot River, in 1930. Knight had already served at Goose Rocks Light and Squirrel Point Lights. When he arrived to take up his post on the island, his son Lawrence — and dog, Shep — came with him.

Shep had already tasted adventure. Born on North Haven Island, the mixed-heritage shepherd reportedly flew in a plane with Charles Lindbergh as a pup. At the time, the world’s most famous aviator was dating summer islander Anne Spencer Morrow.

According to a 2005 story in Lighthouse Digest Magazine, Shep saved two lives in 1932.

One blustery night in the fall of that year, the dog was sleeping in a toasty spot behind the kitchen stove. Suddenly, he jumped up and started barking to be let out.

Keeper Knight, his wife and his son were alarmed at Shep’s sudden behavior. They let him out into the darkness and watched as he raced to the shore, barking the whole way.

When they caught up with him, Shep was facing the sea and still making noise. They couldn’t spy anything wrong in the inky light but decided to trust Shep. They rang the fog bell to see if they’d get an answer from any boats.

Two nearby motor boats heard the bell, took it as an alarm on the fogless night and started searching the nearby waters.

“They soon found a young couple about 200 yards off the lighthouse who had somehow lost the oars to their boat,” the digest story said, “and were about to be carried off by the high winds into the open sea where they surely would have capsized and perished.”

Shep’s story only came to light years after he’d retired when Knight told the tale to a clerk at Portland City Hall while licensing the dog.

The Anti-Vivisection Society of New York later awarded Shep a bronze medal for his decisive actions that night. One might assume he also got some good ear rubs and a few treats.

Avatar photo

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.