GOULDSBORO — William Kearns hasn’t seen up close the damage to the U.S. Naval Satellite Operations Center in Prospect Harbor. The naval group’s former satellite operations supervisor and later maintenance department chief is afraid to see just how great the destruction was to the 173-year-old lighthouse keeper’s quarters that caught fire June 27. He maintained and kept the classic clapboard cottage in tip-top condition for years.
After the fire broke out at daybreak June 27, Kearns says the naval group’s chief of operations phoned him at 7 a.m. as a courtesy call to prevent him suddenly learning about Gull Cottage’s near destruction through the media. The Cherryfield resident eventually did drive down and view the classic white clapboard cottage’s collapsed, blackened second story from afar on the opposite shore of Prospect Harbor.
“It was heartbreaking. Kind of shocking,” Kearns recalled last week. Most of his naval career — spanning 42 years — was spent at the Prospect Harbor facility. During his service there, he worked for 19 years in satellite operations and an equivalent period in maintenance before retiring in 2010. “After all the years of maintenance, you love that work. You love the cottage and making it look good for all the people that came.”
Caused by a malfunctioning ceiling fan in an upstairs bathroom, the pre-dawn fire destroyed most of the dwelling’s roof and second story. Much fire, water and smoke damage were reported inside the structure still standing on Prospect Harbor’s eastern shore. The wood-frame, automated lighthouse was unscathed. The Prospect Harbor Light Station is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Besides Kearns, the sight of the Prospect Harbor Light Station’s collapsed, blackened roof has been painful for many Schoodic Peninsula residents to see and prompted the Gouldsboro Historical Society to launch a petition drive to save the landmark. For many years, the U.S. Navy has made the white-and-black-trimmed cottage available as a vacation retreat for active and retired military personnel, National Guard reservists and 100 percent disabled veterans and their families.
Led by the Gouldsboro Historical Society, the petition is addressed to the U.S. Department of Defense in light of the impending transfer of the Prospect Harbor naval facility to the U.S. Space Force’s jurisdiction. The petitioners are asking federal authorities to “restore rather than demolish the building” that “is an important part of the maritime and identity of the Schoodic Peninsula.”
The society’s president, Don Ashmall, notes that Governor Janet Mills expressed support for the historic dwelling’s reconstruction during her tour of the Schoodic Peninsula last week.
“I hope that what little influence that we have as citizens will bear fruit,” said Ashmall, who plans to submit the signed petition to the Bangor office of U.S. Rep. Jared Golden (D-Maine) in coming days. He also would like to see the off-limits historic light station become more accessible occasionally to the local community and public to see.
It’s been nearly a year now since U.S. Space Force spokesman Col. Nicholas Mercurio confirmed that the federal agency would assume command of the U.S. Navy’s Prospect Harbor satellite facility as part of the nationwide consolidation of all communications satellites under the new branch of U.S. armed forces. The transfer was expected to start last fall but was delayed. In recent weeks, U.S. Space Force personnel visited the Prospect Harbor facility in preparation for the property transfer.
“These units are being transferred because they are closely aligned in mission with corresponding units in the Space Force and they are operating together already,” Mercurio explained last September. He said making them part of the U.S. Space Force “enhances unity of effort and mission effectiveness in the satellite communications area.”
Since the June 27 fire, however, the U.S. Navy has remained the federal agency in charge of Gull Cottage. Debris from the fire has been removed and a chain-link fence surrounds the damaged two-story structure.
In a July 7 email, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard’s deputy public affairs officer, Gary Hildreth, said the Navy recognizes the lightkeeper’s quarters’ historical significance and its importance to the town of Gouldsboro and surrounding Schoodic Peninsula. He said cleaning up and making the property safe was the first priority.
“Following these immediate response actions, the Navy will begin the process of determining the long-term plan for Gull Cottage,” Hildreth wrote. “All immediate and future decisions will be made in compliance with relevant laws, including the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Policy Act.”
Kearns is among many former Navy personnel who once served at the Prospect Harbor facility or at the former Winter Harbor Naval Base before its 2002 closure who either stayed or returned to make the greater Schoodic Peninsula area their permanent home. A token of his and others’ strong ties to the Prospect Harbor Light Station stands next door to the Gouldsboro town office. While he still worked there, Kearns and crew built a true-to-scale model of the lighthouse and tower. Built in honor of Gouldsboro’s 200th birthday in 1989, the replica boasts asphalt shingles, overlapping clapboards and many other thoughtful details.
Within view of the actual light station, the model’s creator hates to think of the keeper’s quarters disappearing from sight.
“I think you could [rebuild] it if it is structurally sound below that floor line,” Kearns said. Still, he acknowledged, “I haven’t built one that’s burned down.”