Hurricane Island Foundation :: P.O. Box 1280 :: Rockland, Maine :: 207.867.6050 ::

Hurricane Island – The Granite Years 

By Eleanor Motley Richardson

Hurricane Island was purchased by General Davis Tillson (1830

-1895), in partnership with Garret Coughlin and Patrick McNamara

, from Deborah Ginn of Vinalhaven on Jan. 18, 1870, for $1,000. 

Their intent was to quarry its massive core of beautiful pinkish-gray

stone.  The location seems remote today, but shipping in those

days was best over the water, and heavy granite schooners plied

the Eastern Seaboard.

Tillson was a Rockland man, experienced in lime quarries, who

was returning from the Civil War.  An accident while attending

West Point had deprived him of one foot, but nevertheless, he

had been promoted rapidly in the field to Brigadier General, and

was used to organizing men and construction in a hurry.  He also

had connections in Washington to help get government contracts

for buildings and Civil War Memorials.

Soon he was importing labor from Europe, hiring Swedes, Finns, Irish, Scots, English, and whole villages of Italians, who had 400 years of stonecutting experience.  Some stone was imported to the island for these experienced sculptors in granite.  Fragments of carved stone remain (please leave them there). The island school, which had the highest per pupil expenditure ($9.97/year) in the state, had about 60 students with one teacher, who was paid about $6/week.  The students spoke many different languages, which made the large student-teacher ratio even more of a challenge. Year-round population was about 250.  Tillson ruled with an iron hand, and those Yankees who were registered voters were required to vote Republican. 

The Italians, transplanted to a wintry island from sunny Italy, frescoed their ceilings and started a band.  This inspired the Yankees to form a second band, and the two would march around the island in opposite directions creating a Charles Ives-type auditory experience for the listener.  They built a little Catholic Church, complete with reed organ, stained-glass windows, and a silver communion cup.  There was also a baseball team which competed against off-island teams.  While Tillson was in charge, no liquor was allowed on the island, although a bootlegging vessel, The Dark Secret,  was known to anchor offshore.  This was hard on the Italians, who were used to wine with meals.  The wisdom of this policy was proven when that prohibition was lifted in the 1890s and they immediately had to build a lockup for rowdies.

The granite quarrying was at its peak from about 1870 to 1900.  Tillson started wintering in Florida about 1885 planting oranges, and his son-in-law, William S. White, gradually took over.  The company merged with Booth Brothers in 1888.  Hurricane granite may be found in the Suffolk County Courthouse, Boston; the Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis Post Offices; the Brooklyn Bridge; the Washington Monument; Philadelphia and Chicago railroad stations; and the city streets of New York, Boston, Chicago and Havana, Cuba, among many other projects.

Hurricane Island was a company town, and workers’ pay went directly into an account at the company store.  They earned $1.75-$2.50 per week. Paving Cutter’s and Quarrymen’s unions were among the first in the nation, and friction with management was constant.

They rented their houses from the company, or at least rented the land they stood on.  There was a slow decline in demand for Hurricane Granite in the first decade of the 20th Century.  Granite began to be transported by rail from quarries such as Barrie, VT, and it had new competition in concrete, which was easier to handle and transport.  Cement is still produced in Thomaston to this day, from a generous vein of limestone. 

The last shipment from Hurricane Island, a barge of giant blocks for the Rockport, MA, breakwater, foundered in heavy seas off Rockland on Nov. 8, 1914, and sank to the bottom of Penobscot Bay.  The promising foremen, John T. Landers, age 46, died 16 days later of Typhoid, and perhaps of discouragement.  Management came out to the island and announced the closing of the town virtually overnight. Tools were left where they

dropped.  People hastily assembled what belongings they could, some families having lived there almost 50 years, and got on the boat.  Town records were packed up and sent to Vinalhaven, and Hurricane once again became part of that town. All possible equipment was sold, and some lies rusting there still.

From 1917 to 1922, the Anson Philbrook, his wife Nellie, and their 10 children lived on Hurricane, working year-round to dismantle the buildings one by one and pile the materials on the pier.  People bought them, and built houses elsewhere, many on the near shore of Vinalhaven (“Dogtown”).  The Philbrook children would sneak into the empty houses and find tables set for the next meal, a baby’s cup on the high chair, and pictures still hanging on the walls, something like Pompeii.  The Philbrooks left in 1922, having taken down most of the buildings, and the ghost town lay dormant, a popular destination for picnickers, for 42 years.  William Gaston bought it when the bank went into receivership in 1936, and later deeded it to his son, Dr. James Gaston, as a wedding present.  Dr. Gaston first built an A Frame near the south cove, then had a stunning house built on the island’s high point, which he owns to this day.

Excerpted from Hurricane Island – The Town that Disappeared, by Eleanor Motley Richardson.  Published by The Island Institute, Rockland, ME, 1989.  Second printing 1997.  (Out of print).