Elaine Jones in a bosun’s chair painting the exterior of the Burnt Island Lighthouse tower in 1998. Courtesy of Elaine Jones

In 1988, the last of the original 30 keepers of the Burnt Island Lighthouse in Boothbay Harbor manned the light for the final time. Starting that year, the light in Maine’s second-oldest original lighthouse was automated by sensors and monitored by the Coast Guard. 

Flash forward to a living room in Hampden eight years later. Elaine Jones, an Auburn native and graduate of Edward Little High School, is watching a news feature on TV. The Maine Lighthouse Program announced that 36 lighthouse properties were available for transfer from the federal government to state organizations for public use. Famed painter and Maine native Jaime Wyeth notably donated 300 prints of his painting of the Southern Island Light, called Iris at Sea, in order to fund the program.  

Jones, the education director for the Department of Marine Resources in Boothbay Harbor, had been working with teachers across the state to promote marine science education, but she had been struggling with finding a space to accommodate educators coming from far away to a town with exorbitant rates for rent.

“Part of my job was to provide teachers with instruction in the form of courses, like recertification courses. So I thought ‘Wow, what better place to teach teachers than at a lighthouse!’ The symbolism of a lighthouse, the beacon (that’s) drawing them,” Jones said.

Jones reached out and inquired about the properties available; Burnt Island was the first suggestion. Approximately a mile away from the mainland, the island sits on the western entrance of the natural harbor that gives the town its name.

The state of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources website describes the 5-acre island where the lighthouse stands as originally intended for sheep pasturage before it was bought for $150 by the United States government in 1821. Constructed by the government and lit for the first time that same year, the lighthouse has been in service for 200 years since. A keeper’s residence was added in 1857. 


The Burnt Island Lighthouse facility today. Courtesy of Elaine Jones

Although not what she was hoping for initially, once Jones arrived on the island to check it out, she was immediately convinced. “It had everything that an educator could ever want,” Jones said. “It had a sandy, gravelly beach, it had the rocky shore with the tide pools, it had the meadow, it had the forest, it had a freshwater kind of boggy area. It had everything, and I thought, ‘This is the best outdoor school that ever existed.’”

Jones’ idea, her tenacious passion for instruction and her previous work managing and overseeing renovations of the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor (designed by her husband, an architect) convinced Maine Department of Marine Resources officials to take acquisition of the lighthouse from the Coast Guard in 1998 to host Jones’ educational program.

While there was no monetary exchange for the lighthouse, the deed for the property contained covenants requiring the Department of Marine Resources to keep the facility open to the public for education, recreation and historic preservation, as well as maintain the grounds and buildings. The Coast Guard would remain responsible for monitoring the automated light and fog horn system. 

From that point on, Jones began spending entire summers, from May to mid-October, running programs and living on the island while simultaneously undertaking the gargantuan task of overseeing needed renovations to the lighthouse and keeper’s dwelling. And doing that with only a small amount of money set aside by the department. “I had no funding,” Jones said. “I always had to find my funding. I raised all the funds, all donated money from foundations.”

Once the lighthouse was acquired, Jones began seeking donations from anyone willing to give, and thankfully, people were feeling generous. Jones received a $50,000 donation from Stephen King and contributions from father-and-son artists Andrew and Jaime Wyeth, supplemented by donations from Maine residents and visitors to Burnt Island.

“A lot of people have helped her, all their volunteer work. You have to give the donors credit who took it upon themselves to give this money to keep the lighthouse open to the public as it is now,” said Jean McKay, a board member of the Keepers of the Burnt Island Light. Founded in 2008, the nonprofit organization is dedicated to “the restoration, preservation and maintenance of the Burnt Island Light and its historic buildings,” according to its website.


The renovations and maintenance of the lighthouse immediately became a full-time endeavor for Jones, who was still teaching and managing the aquarium throughout the entire process. “I had to do all the research. I looked for the procedures in order to fix it; what were the costs associated; bringing equipment ashore. I thought, ‘How am I gonna make this happen? How much is it going to cost? Who’s gonna donate to make it happen?’

“The masonry portion (lighthouse, lantern room and dwelling’s foundation) were restored by J.B. Leslie Co. of Eliot, Maine, and the dwelling and work shed were restored by Marden Builders of Boothbay Harbor,” said Jones. A deal for windows was struck with Hammond Lumber Co.

Restoration of the Burnt Island Lighthouse in 2003. Courtesy of Elaine Jones

Once the lighthouse was restored, maintenance of the island and buildings became a regular part of Jones’ routine. Since the Coast Guard still ran the lighthouse, Jones went through them whenever the light was not on or if there was a rescue. Once, two boys adrift in a skiff and lost in a thick fog washed ashore seeking directions. Jones was able to lead them back to their home using her boat. 

“Their dad was out searching for them and he started to (chastise) the boys (once he saw them) and then I said, ‘Time out. Time out! They were smart enough to ask for directions,’ and he goes ‘They aren’t smart enough to see that fog coming! They should have come in sooner!’”

Maintenance included repairing the facility’s boats and vessels, taking care of the grounds with the help of gardener volunteers, and collecting trash, dead seals and whatever washed ashore. And she faced those challenges at the same time she began developing the educational programming she would become known for.

Initially, Jones reached out to a fifth-grade teacher at the elementary school in Hampden, who was teaching her youngest child at the time, to try and organize a field trip. She suggested that the field behind the facility be used by the group as a camping area for the students to pitch tents for three days and three nights. The trip was a success, though repeats in the following years were hampered by poor weather.


After another campaign for funding, Jones was able to hire contractors to construct an education center in 2006 with a $150,000 challenge grant from the MBNA foundation. The facility, designed to accommodate 32 people for overnight visits, is where visiting students and teachers stayed during their visits to Burnt Island. 

Over the course of restoration, Jones’ yen for the sciences gave way to an unexpected interest in the history of Burnt Island, which prompted her to research the lighthouse’s former keepers. It even inspired her to write a book. And it was the impetus for the development of a living history program at the lighthouse, inaugurated in 2003, that became one of the most memorable and perhaps most effective educational experiences at the lighthouse.

“I was always interested in science, biology and all; never once did history ever capture me. Never. Once I had to start researching the station, because it’s a historic site, man, I can’t leave history alone now,” said Jones. “It’s like finding the pieces to the puzzle, and it just doesn’t end.” 

Jones was able to track down surviving keepers and relatives of deceased keepers to come back and portray themselves for her living history program, adding a palpable element of authenticity that left a lasting impression on many visitors.

“I know how many people, children and teachers, whose lives I have touched through the use of Burnt Island as an educational facility,” said Jones. 

The Muse sisters, seated, who were the daughters of Joseph Muse, the lighthouse keeper from 1939 to 1951, are shown with the volunteers who portrayed them in Elaine Jones’ living history program at the lighthouse. Courtesy of Elaine Jones

“We were portraying the life of Joseph Muse, who was there from 1939 to 1951, and we picked him because we found his son living in Boothbay Harbor and we were able to connect with his three sisters and we brought them out to the island and got all the history from them, (so we) were able to create the program,” said McKay, who founded the living history program with Jones.


“All the people in that program were volunteers. They were kids from Boothbay Harbor or adults who were teachers or had an interest in being involved with the program. And MEDMR (Maine Department of Marine Resources) eventually couldn’t keep up with the program so the keepers took over to run it.”

The living history program continued right up to the pandemic, twice a week during the summers, along with other educational offerings. Visitors of all ages came to learn about marine life, history and literature, with Jones’ program spanning various disciplines to attract as many people as possible.

The majority of the help Jones received to make it all possible came from volunteers, including her own children who, as teenagers, would kayak over from their summer jobs at the Spruce Point Inn to spend time with mom. 

In the last two years of the pandemic, the lighthouse has seen limited visitors. Another restoration in 2020, totaling close to $500,000, along with COVID-19 have made it difficult to accommodate visitors, Jones said, although it remains available for tours. 

After 30 years with the Department of Marine Resources, Jones retired on Nov. 9, 2021, at the age of 65 and continues to live in Hampden. Her last day of work coincided with the anniversary of the lighthouse’s 200 years of service.

Former lighthouse keeper Jim Buotte in uniform during a living history program. “He was a star,” said Elaine Jones. Courtesy of Elaine Jones

“Obtaining funds for the resource center and having a place to educate people was just a huge accomplishment on her part and she did it single handedly. I supported her certainly as a supervisor, but it was Elaine’s efforts and go-get-it-ness that made it a successful program,” said Linda Mercer, former supervisor of education for the Department of Marine Resources.


“It was just a wonderful opportunity to take schoolchildren out to an island and spend several days learning about the marine environment. And then she developed the teacher programs in the summertime to complement that, so she was getting good use of the island,” Mercer said.

Jones is anticipating the birth of a grandson, which she says will be her new focus life. However, the bittersweet decision to retire did not release her of her commitments completely: She is a member of the Keepers of the Burnt Island Light. The Keepers have been integral in preserving the educational programs put in place by Jones, as well as the lighthouse and grounds, sponsoring several fundraising events for continued restoration. The property remains under the Department of Marine Resources.  

In the wake of Jones’ retirement and the continuing pandemic, the new director of the Department of Marine Resources’ education department, Dottie Yunger, now oversees the facility’s maintenance and programming on the island, preserving the vision and endearing educational influence it has had for nearly 20 years.

Jones is hopeful Burnt Island Light’s programming and positive impact will live on. “I just hope that it’ll continue to be used for educational reasons and the vision that I had — a vision that came to fruition because of my resourcefulness, my persistence, and my love of science and teaching.”

Elaine Jones sits in front of Burnt Island Lighthouse. Courtesy of Elaine Jones  

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