Whispering Pines: Brunswick Nocturne

Whispering Pines

The arrival of the Perseid meteor shower in mid-August had me out in my back yard in the early hours of the morning to watch for streaks of light, as small particles from Comet Swift-Tuttle entered the earth’s atmosphere at a high rate of speed and burned up.

I never tire of this kind of display, although I sometimes wonder if my aging eyes had really glimpsed the flash of a meteor or had registered a phantom image instead. Spending time outdoors at night, away from artificial light sources, reminds me of how much my own rhythms and daily routine are conditioned by artificial light.

The Chapel at night.

The Chapel at night.

Among the current exhibitions at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art is “Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960,” a remarkable show that explores the ways in which artists have represented the night over the course of a century that saw the invention of electric lighting and changes in the rhythms of American life.

For most of us, night has always meant more than the interval from dusk to dawn. Darkness is emotionally charged with our fears and with our unease over the unknown. It is symbolically linked to sleep and dreams, to the world of magic and the supernatural, and to death itself. After the setting of the sun we gain a sense of the vastness of the universe in the night sky, we witness the arrival of the night shift in the animal kingdom, and we become acutely aware of our own vulnerability. An active imagination can translate an unexpected sound into dangers in the shadows, and stumbling in the dark over a tree root or a stone can result in a greater-than-normal adrenaline boost.

In a campus setting, the cover of darkness provided anonymity and an element of surprise for clandestine activities. Nighttime was a dramatic prerequisite for the torch-lit parades and bonfires that accompanied the annual burial of “Anna Lytics” at Bowdoin in the 1870s and 1880s,  and the “Flag Pole Revolution of 1930” could never have occurred in broad daylight. And, if we are to be honest with ourselves, darkness is also the accomplice of the darker side of the human character that engages in thefts, assaults, vandalism, and other crimes.

Several pieces in the “Night Vision” exhibit show how electric lighting transformed urban life in America in the early twentieth century. A pair of paintings by John Sloan (The Cot [1907] and Three A.M. [1909]) show how lighted apartment windows afforded the artist glimpses into the private lives of unaware subjects. With the greater security afforded the population by lighted streets and public venues came a new vulnerability to uninvited observation.

iron bed keys

Forged iron bed keys (The Country Bed Shop, Ashby, MA).

In Brunswick, tensions between public safety and individual privacy existed long before the advent of electric lighting, however. On a bitterly cold (-13 F) and blustery December day in 1825 a fire broke out in one of the textile mills down by the river and quickly spread to adjacent businesses and residences. The private Washington Fire Club responded with their 1810-vintage cart, which had to be filled by buckets before water could be pumped onto the fire. The fire company was led by Bowdoin science professor Parker Cleaveland, and included prominent citizens of the town and College Overseers and Trustees. Each member of the club pledged to have at the ready two leather fire buckets, two canvas bags, and a bed key. A bed key is a multipurpose tool for unbolting bed frames so that they might be removed before the house was engulfed in flames. The canvas bags were to hold small items of value recovered from a burning house. No one was under any illusions about being able to extinguish a fire that was well underway.

Washington Fire Company leather fire buckets owned by Professor Alpheus Spring Packard of the Class of 1816 (Pejepscot Historical Society).

Washington Fire Company leather fire buckets owned by Professor Alpheus Spring Packard of the Class of 1816 (Pejepscot Historical Society).

The “Great Fire” completely consumed twenty-five buildings within three hours and displaced eleven families. The town fire wardens expressed their gratitude to “…the Officers and Students of Bowdoin College for their prompt attendance and very active and successful exertions in stopping the progress of the calamitous fire.” Private subscriptions raised the funds to purchase a new engine with a suction pump (“The Hydraulian”), and Professor Cleaveland assumed his place at the nozzle, the position closest to the fire and most exposed to danger.

A second outcome of the “Great Fire” was the establishment of a fire watch, consisting of four citizens each night. Two would stay at a headquarters, while the other two would make the rounds of the town five times during the night (at 10:00, 11:30, 1:00, 2:30, and 4:00), each following a different route. They were to observe and report unsafe fire situations or sound an alarm if they discovered a fire in the early stages. In order to facilitate the work of the watch, residents were asked to cut holes in their first-floor shutters so that the fire watch could look in on fireplaces and stoves. Boredom and curiosity resulted in some memorable accounts in the watch’s log book for 1827:

“January 7th [1827] There was nothing material happened during the night. Found one light in a dangerous position, viz: at the head of a Bed in a chair; two fires badly taken care of, and some courting on hand – people up late…For further particulars please refer to H.H. Adams.”

January 22nd [1827] “Discovered gentlemen removing a part of a pile of boards supposed to belong to Mr. Davis. Gave them chase, and with equestrian speed effected their escape across the bridge – all else well.”

January 30th [1827]. “On the fifth watch saw a young man returning home from particular business. Detained him awhile, demanded his business for being out so late; he gave us good satisfaction; we let him go by paying one bottle of wine.”

Fire watch shutter in the Massachusetts Hall office of Secretary of the College Clara Hayes (about 1950).

Fire watch shutter in the Massachusetts Hall office of Secretary of the College Clara Hayes (circa 1950).

The fire watch was short lived, although it was resurrected in modified form in 1849 and again in the mid-1850s. There is a tangible reminder of this history in the Massachusetts Hall office of Professor Marilyn Reizbaum. A circular hole in one of the interior shutters may have been a tip of the hat to the town’s experiment with the fire watch by architect Felix Burton [1907], who oversaw the renovation of Massachusetts Hall in 1936. I’m not prepared to claim that the shutter dates to 1827, but I think that it’s likely that Burton made a faithful copy of the original one, complete with a hole for monitoring fires, lamps, and candles.

The “Night Vision” exhibit stirs the imagination in unexpected ways, enabling us to make connections that link art, history, technology, and those “hard-wired” and learned responses to the many dimensions of night. In the closing lines of “Morituri Salutamus,” the poem delivered on the occasion of his fiftieth reunion at Bowdoin, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote:

“For age is opportunity no less

Than youth itself, though in another dress,

And as the evening twilight fades away

The sky is filled with stars, invisible by day.”

Within the context of the poem, Longfellow’s reference is to aging and to what may still be accomplished in life. Within the context of the “Night Vision” exhibit I also see in his words the invitation to reflect on aspects of life that aren’t always clamoring for our attention – to see and appreciate what is always there, waiting to be discovered or re-discovered in a quiet moment of contemplation under a night sky.

With best wishes,

John R. Cross

John R. Cross ’76
Secretary of Development and College Relations


  1. Claude Bonang says:

    Many thanks for another one of your wonderful Whispering Pines article.
    Warm regards,

  2. John:

    A simply wonderful piece: of night & light.

    And some local lore, of Bowdoin & Brunswick.

    Best, Steve Chisholm, 1981

  3. Christopher Hanks says:

    Bowdoin’s latitude being what it is, the academic calendar, and the tendency of nighttime to be colder than daytime anyway, I suspect most Bowdoin students (at least the ones not from Maine) will have have found themselves wondering at least once whether freezing to death might turn out to be part of their undergraduate experience. Mine came when I left Westbrook Junior College too late one night to hitchhike back to campus, couldn’t snag a lift out on 295 north of Yarmouth somewhere, and wondered whether I’d still be alive in the morning if I just tried sleeping on the ground in the woods till morning.

    Cogswell’s experience was closer to home, even though he was from New Hanpshire and should have known better. After consuming two chocolate milkshakes in the Union late one very cold evening, and carrying a third out onto the Union steps, he found himself shivering uncontrollaby and asking if I would lend him my coat so he could make it back to the Senior Center.

    Here, by the way, is Cogs’ recipe for a THICK chocolate milkshake: Four scoops of vanilla ice cream, four pumps of chocolate syrup — and no milk.

  4. Wonderfully informative take filling in local holes, stories, & events for a universally, all-encompassing, & uniquely scholarly show at the museum. Makes me want to return after at attending the opening!! -rg

  5. Robert Armstrong says:

    Enjoyed the peek into Bowdoin’s history and participation in keeping Brunswick safe!

  6. John Cross says:

    The “Night Vision: Nocturnes in American Art, 1860-1960” exhibit runs through October 18, 2015.

  7. Nancy Bellhouse May says:

    This is a lovely reflection on matters of universal importance. And you have as ever highlighted the Bowdoin connection.

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