Growing up at Boston Light: A special and spooky childhood

Although none of the many written histories of Boston Light mention the presence of a ghost, one keeper’s daughter has a different tale to tell. It’s just one of a treasure chest full of childhood memories for Joanne LaVigne Schroer who lived at the 300-year-old light with her family when she was a toddler.

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While on Little Brewster Island, Mass., for the Boston Light Tricentennial on September 14, 2016, JoAnn LaVigne Schroer holds a photo of her family taken in front of the lighthouse in the early 1950's. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.
While on Little Brewster Island, Mass., for the Boston Light Tricentennial on September 14, 2016, JoAnn LaVigne Schroer holds a photo of her family taken in front of the lighthouse in the early 1950’s. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.https://www.dvidshub.net/image/2934652/childhood-little-brewster-island

Written by Coast Guard Auxiliarist Reid Oslin

“To this day, every time I go out to Boston Light I get goosebumps when I walk into the keeper’s house,” Joanne LaVigne Schroer said from her home in Duxbury, Massachusetts.

Child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.
Child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.

More than 60 years after moving from the light, Schroer insists she can still see the ghost of Boston Light.

It’s just one of a treasure chest full of childhood memories for Schroer, who spent her early years living with her family at the 300-year-old beacon on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. Schroer’s father, Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph LaVigne, was the keeper at Boston Light from 1948 through 1950, when she was just a toddler.

“When we went out to the island the second floor bedroom that faces the light itself was always locked,” Schroer recalled. “We had always heard that back in the 1800s there was a lightkeeper whose wife went a little stir crazy and killed her husband right around Halloween. Then she wrote about it in her diary.”

“Every October we would hear these weird noises in that room,” Schroer said. “One night, my mother jiggled the doorknob to see what was going on. All of a sudden, this black image came right through the door, down the hallway and then down the stairs into the kitchen. It was the lightkeeper’s wife, and she had a big dog with her. I woke up in the middle of the night and there was that big dog sitting right in the room.”

Schroer said her father was off the island on temporary assignment that night so her mother frantically called the Coast Guard’s sector headquarters in Boston for assistance.

JoAnn LaVigne Schroer as a child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Schroer’s father, Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph LaVigne, was the keeper at Boston Light from 1948 through 1950. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.
JoAnn LaVigne Schroer as a child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Schroer’s father, Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph LaVigne, was the keeper at Boston Light from 1948 through 1950. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.

“They sent a crew right out,” she said. “They unbolted the door and opened it. There were books all along the walls, but right in the middle of the room was a pedestal with the woman’s diary on it, and it was opened to the night where she had killed her husband.”

The Coast Guardsmen took all of the books out of the room that night and the family never heard the strange noises again.

Although none of the many written histories of Boston Light mention the presence of a ghost, five keepers have died while on duty at the historic beacon, including the beacon’s eighth keeper, Capt. David Tower, who is listed as “died at light” on October 8, 1844, with no information on the cause of his demise.

Not all of Schroer’s memories are spooky – most are tinged with humor.

“The only source of electricity on the island in those days was a generator,” she said. “One day my dad, who was an engineman in the Coast Guard, took it apart for cleaning, carefully laying all the parts in a row on the ground so he would know how to put it back together. My sister and I decided we were going to ‘help’ him, and of course we put the parts back in any order we wanted. Dad had to call into Boston to get a temporary generator when he couldn’t get this one back together. We didn’t have power for a few days.”

As a game Schroer and her older sister would often race to the top of the lighthouse tower’s spiral 76-step stairway, stopping only to lean out of the structure’s three lofty windows to call down to their parents.

Mother and child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.
Mother and child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.

“In those days, the brick interior was covered with plasterboard that was really old and falling apart. One day, my sister and I were going to the top when she got her arm stuck in the plasterboard. As luck would have it, my dad was away when that happened too. Mom had to call Boston to ask for a crew to get my sister out. After that, the Coast Guard tore all the plasterboard down and left the exposed brick that you see today.”

Life was not always easy for the family living on a small island.

“My mother, Mary LaVigne, was petrified of the water,” Schroer admitted. “Although Dad loved it, she didn’t appreciate living out there. I remember a couple of bad storms when Mom would be screaming and crying, but the kids would all run outside and stand out in the weather.”

In 1950, Mary LaVigne gave birth to a son, Joseph, Jr., the couple’s fourth child, on the island. He was the last person to be born at Boston Light.

“She never made it to the hospital,” Schroer said. “Dad delivered little Joey right there. Word got out that there was a baby being born at the light and some newspaper people rushed out to cover it.”

While on Little Brewster Island, Mass., for the Boston Light Tricentennial on September 14, 2016, JoAnn LaVigne Schroer stands with her husband holding a photo of her family taken in front of the lighthouse in 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.
While on Little Brewster Island, Mass., for the Boston Light Tricentennial on September 14, 2016, JoAnn LaVigne Schroer stands with her husband holding a photo of her family taken in front of the lighthouse in 1950. Boston Light was built on Little Brewster Island in 1716 and stood as the first lighthouse in what is now the United States. U.S. Coast Guard Photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

A Coast Guard crew brought a doctor out to the island and mother and baby were safely transported to South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Massachusetts.

Shortly after Joseph, Jr. was born, then-Engineman 2nd Class LaVigne was transferred from Boston Light to a more traditional Coast Guard assignment at Station Point Allerton in nearby Hull, Massachusetts.

LaVigne, who enlisted in the Coast Guard shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, served 21 years before retiring as a chief petty officer in 1961. He lived in Halifax, Massachusetts, until his death in 2001.

To this day, Schroer cherishes the recollections of her childhood at Boston Light: the beauty and occasional challenges of living on a lighthouse island; the games and hi-jinx with her siblings in the historic light tower itself; the annual holiday visits of the original “Flying Santa,” Edward Rowe Snow; and even, of course, those memories of a ghost.

“It was a great place to start your life,” Schroer said.

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