Boon Island Lighthouse, off York, ME; from a 1911 postcard. It was built in 1854-1855.

Boon Island Maine | A Beacon of Maritime Tragedy & Resilience

Maine’s maritime legacy is as rich and storied as any of the original American colonies, rivaling even the sensational tales of Salem’s witches. This state, also the residence of famed horror writer Stephen King, is known for its spooky houses on Summer Street in Kennebunk and even tales of cannibalism — truly eerie stuff!

Amidst the churning waters of the Gulf of Maine lies a small, unassuming speck of land that harbors such a rich and tumultuous history — Boon Island. This place is as infamous in the annals of maritime lore as it is physically diminutive — steeped in both tragedy and triumph, forming an essential chapter in Maine’s maritime heritage.

Boon Island-York Beach
Boon Island | photo via lighthousejones

Getting to Know Boon Island

Boon Island is a barren, small shoal measuring 300×700 feet, situated merely 6 miles off the coast of York Maine — representing the epitome of isolation. It’s home to New England’s tallest lighthouse, Boon Island Light. But far from a hidden paradise, the island’s history is anything but idyllic. 

Tales of Tragedy & Survival

This tale isn’t just rumor — it’s fact! It’s so compelling that the Travel Channel ventured to the isolated Boon Island to capture the unnerving events that transpired there in 1710.

In December 1710, the Nottingham Galley wrecked on Boon Island — a well-documented incident. Stranded with land in sight but unreachable, the crew turned to cannibalism to survive the brutal winter, with only a few surviving to be rescued. Interestingly, this wasn’t Boon Island’s first shipwreck.

Back in 1682, the coastal trader The Increase also met its fate here. Its four survivors — three Europeans and one Native American — managed to survive a month by consuming fish and bird eggs. Their plight ended when smoke signals were seen by Native Americans on Mount Agamenticus.

The island’s name is said to be derived from this miraculous 1682 rescue, representing a “boon” from God. However, Captain John Winthrop’s sea journal mentions “Boon Island” years earlier, adding to the mystery.

The last known shipwreck on Boon Island was the British ship Empire Knight in 1944. Author Celia Thaxter described Boon Island as “the forlornest place that can be imagined.”

Cultural Impact

Boon Island has captured the imagination of many — from authors like Celia Thaxter to modern media outlets like the Travel Channel. Travel Channel’s “Mysteries at the Monument” has an episode — aired on June 27, 2014 — that delves into its macabre tales.

It might be best to avoid eating ribs or liver while watching!

The island’s stories contribute to Maine’s rich tapestry of maritime folklore, attracting both academic interest and touristic curiosity. The island’s eerie past continues to fascinate and educate — a reminder of the fine line between peril and survival at sea.

Boon Island lighthouse, in southern Maine, is the tallest stone lighthouse in New England.
Boon Island Lighthouse | photo via Allan Wood Photography / Shutterstock

Boon Island Light & Its Keepers

Towering at 133 feet since 1855, you can see Boon Island Light from Sohier Park, York Harbor Beach, and Long Sands Beach, as well as during local lighthouse boat tours. However, this granite sentinel was the first navigational aid in one of the most treacherous parts of the Atlantic coast.

Lighthouse History

It was initially established as a day marker in 1799 — a wooden tower that was destroyed by a storm and replaced by 1805 with a stone day beacon. Then, a 25-foot tower and keeper’s house were built on Boon Island in 1811, but that granite tower was washed away by an 1832 storm.

The current granite incarnation has weathered countless storms, although it has been rebuilt multiple times — including the blizzard of 1978. In 1980, it was upgraded with solar power by the U.S. Coast Guard, automating its light to flash every five seconds, a warning to prevent future shipwrecks.

Recognized as a historic site, Boon Island Light was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1988 and has been under the stewardship of the American Lighthouse Foundation since 2000 — leased from the U.S. Coast Guard.

Lighthouse Keepers

The lighthouse’s keepers — particularly William W. Williams who served for 27 years and lived beyond 90 — have become integral to its lore. These guardians of the light braved isolation and the elements, ensuring the safety of passing vessels.

Modern Times

Today, the Boon Island Light operates automatically, its beacon powered by solar energy and flashing frequently as a warning to mariners. The lighthouse stands next to a generator building as a symbol of endurance and technological evolution.

Things to Do Around Boon Island Maine

Nestled off the rugged coast of Maine, Boon Island beckons adventurers and history enthusiasts alike. Because of its storied past and breathtaking landscape, the island offers a unique experience that combines rustic charm with rich history.

Photography & Art

A visit to Boon Island is incomplete without exploring its iconic lighthouse. But, you can only observe the landmark by boat and capture its majesty through photography while enjoying panoramic views of the surrounding sea.

Artists and photographers will find Boon Island a source of endless inspiration. The island’s natural beauty, from its rugged coastline to the majestic lighthouse, provides the perfect backdrop for creative pursuits.

Boat Tours, Cruises, & Sails

The waters around Boon Island are ideal for boating, and a steady breeze allows for the island to be accessible by sailing. New England Eco Adventures offers a Boon Island Light Seal Watch from Kennebunk that includes views of the tower, seals, and beautiful sights. In fact, the island is a haven for wildlife, especially seals basking in the sun and a variety of seabirds.

If you decide to take a self-guided tour of the island, though, caution is advised because the island’s craggy shores pose a hazard to vessels. It is generally inadvisable to approach the island too closely, even during the most tranquil weather conditions.

Nubble Light at Sohier Park
Nubble Light at Sohier Park | photo via jamiemalcolmbrown

Other Attractions Near Boon Island Maine

Since you can only explore Boon Island by boat, you can fill in your Southern Maine Coast getaway itinerary with alternative experiences on land nearby. Here are some highlights of mainland things to do.

Highlights in York Maine

With a small-town atmosphere, York Maine was one of the earliest European settlements in the U.S. and is a thriving maritime commerce center. Additionally, the town has a good balance of local restaurants, lodging options, and fun attractions.

As one of the places from which you can see Boon Island Light, Sohier Park is a community gathering spot with views of Nubble Lighthouse in Cape Neddick. Aside from the view, visitors love this park for picnicking, scuba diving, and the famed Lighting of the Nubble in July.

If you’re traveling with kids, you don’t want to miss out on York’s Wild Kingdom Zoo, the only zoo and amusement park in the region. It has over 50 species, a few rides, a mini-golf course, and an arcade.

For an indoor activity (mostly), you could explore the Museums of Old York. The Old York Museum Center provides insight into one of the country’s oldest colonial communities. The complex is home to eight historic buildings.

Ogunquit Maine Highlights

With a name that means “Beautiful Place by The Sea,” Ogunquit Maine is one of the prettiest coastal towns in the state. The town has miles of beach, tree-canopied streets, colonial architecture, and a nice mix of local dining and shopping.

You can explore all of this during the summer on an Ogunquit Trolley ride. The open-air trolley passes Ogunquit Beach, restaurants, and shops, as well as a couple of top attractions — Marginal Way and Perkins Cove.

Marginal Way is a 1.25-mile cliff walk from Ogunquit Beach to Perkins Cove with promontories and a lighthouse. It takes about 20 minutes to walk it, but there are 39 opportunities to rest on a bench with your camera ready to snap lasting memories.

Perkins Cove is a small, turn-of-the-century fishing village with a manually operated drawbridge. You’ll find scenic outlooks, seaside restaurants, and unique shops and art galleries. In particular, the local candy shop is a must-visit for freshly made saltwater taffy.

And if you need an indoor activity, stop by the Ogunquit Heritage Museum. The building itself is on the National Register of Historic Places and houses artifacts and exhibits about the town’s history.

Highlights in Kennebunk Maine

Blending nautical, novelistic, and nostalgic accents, Kennebunk Maine is named after the hill atop the Mousam River’s mouth. Many people travel through the town and make Kennebunkport their destination, but this town has so much to offer — including delicious restaurants.

Actually, Kennebunk is often praised for having better beaches. The three main beach areas — Gooch’s Beach, Mother’s Beach, and Middle Beach — are within walking distance and connected via sidewalk.

For a more cultural experience, you have to take the Museum in the Streets walking tour in the Kennebunk Historic District. You can even learn about the ghost of Kennebunk Inn as you walk down Main Street.

If you love looking toward the sky, check out the Astronomy Society of New England’s weekly events, such as viewing parties for exploring the night sky with telescopes.

Full of romantic architecture, the Wedding Cake House is a home that looks like a wedding cake. The primary residence enchantingly blends maritime heritage, colonial elements, and Victorian elegance. And, the extensive lawns and towering forest trees overlook the river, providing a captivating backdrop that complements the detailed architecture.

Boon Island Lighthouse, off York, ME; from a 1911 postcard. It was built in 1854-1855.
Boon Island Lighthouse circa 1854 | photo via Public Domain / Wikimedia

Observe the Legends of Boon Island Maine for Yourself

Boon Island’s saga is more than just a series of grim tales. It is a poignant reminder of the human spirit’s resilience against the relentless forces of nature.

As it stands today, the island and its lighthouse serve not only as navigational aids but as beacons of history, illuminating the past for future generations to ponder and learn from. In the story of Boon Island, we find a compelling chapter of Maine’s maritime legacy, as enduring as the granite of its famed lighthouse.

As you plan your journey, remember to tread lightly and cherish the experiences that await at this small yet magnificent piece of Maine’s maritime heritage.

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