The island is elongated north-south, with a long axis of 1.9 km and a short (east-west) axis of 0.7 km at the widest extent.

The perimeter of the island consists of a rocky “berm” or edge that slopes gently to sea-level on the southwest end of the island, and rises in sheer cliffs approximately 10m in height at points along the eastern and northern shore. Berm areas at the southern end of the island are characterized by large boulders and unstable rock slabs often greater than 1m in diameter. In contrast, smooth cobble beaches exist on both the east and west sides of the island’s “waist”. The northeast end of the island consists of cliffs and ledges, but ironically contains the only “all-weather” landing spot - a crevice under the lee of Little Duck Island.

Geophysical Aspects of Great Duck Island. Contour interval is approx. 3m.Geophysical Aspects of Great Duck Island. Contour interval is approx. 3m.Approximately 76% (73.7 hectares) of the island’s above-tidal area is permanently vegetated at this time, leaving a total berm area of 17.3 hectares. Vegetated areas (Fig. 2) can be broken down into three general classes: forest, consisting primarily of mature spruce trees (40 hectares, of which approximately 1 hectare at the north end of the island was logged in the early 1980’s and is in the process of transition into a stand of mountain ash and paper birch); brackish wetland/standing water (4.7 hectares, of which approximately 0.4 hectares consists of the brackish “Slough of Despond”); and open grassy meadow (29 hectares). It appears that this wetland (which lies in an old surge channel that must have once separated Great Duck into two smaller islands) was significantly larger within recent times, but a segment on the northern side was bulldozed and filled as part of the construction of a rough airstrip during the late 1970’s/early 1980’s.

General vegetation of Great Duck. Data derived from digital ortho-quad sheets flown in 1991 and modified using differentially corrected GPS in 2000.General vegetation of Great Duck. Data derived from digital ortho-quad sheets flown in 1991 and modified using differentially corrected GPS in 2000.There are 11 permanent structures on the island (Fig. 3): a cluster of 6 buildings at the south end, constituting the old light station, three small and one large cabins and a private house at the north end, and a boathouse/boat ramp located mid-way down the east side. In addition there is at least one old cellar hole and the remains of an old orchard on the southeast margin. A rough fire road extends from immediately north of the boathouse to the light station, with a spur extending over the central ridge to the cobble beach on the west side, and looping from there south to the light station.

Buildings, roads and trails on Great Duck Island.Buildings, roads and trails on Great Duck Island.The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the State of Maine hold the bulk of the island in joint tenancy. College of the Atlantic owns approximately 12 acres, consisting of the old light station and boathouse, with rights of way to “traditional boat landings.” There is a 5-acre private in holding at the northeast end of the island, presently held by Dr. Richard Borofsky. Research on TNC/State portions the island is conducted under a cooperative agreement with College of the Atlantic.


We have found no evidence of Indian occupation of the island so far, and it is possible that its remoteness from shore combined with the lack of good all-weather landing places and limited macro-invertebrate fauna made it less appealing than other islands. The high level of exposure to winter storms along the southern two-thirds of the island would also remove any traces of shore occupancy quite quickly. The first true human visitors to the island are shrouded in mystery bordering on legend. Spain (pers. comm.) informs me that when her parents bought the island in 1951, her father William Bigenho had identified it as the island on a 16th or 17th century “treasure map.” She further states that her parents discovered a treasure consisting of gold, silver, and various artifacts. They were lead to the site of the treasure by a combination of the map and various signs carved on rocks. If this story indeed relates to 17th century “gentlemen” the island may have witnessed some strange sights well before the establishment of any regular European settlement.

The bulk of the island’s early recorded history is outlined in McLane (1989) The Island was purchased by William Gilley in 1837, and remained in his possession for 30 years. At some point during this period he was joined by Charles Harding, who bought the island in 1867, and farmed it with his family. The Hardings retained ownership until 1941. It is apparent that for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries the island was used for grazing, primarily of sheep and cattle. McLane cites an 1882 newspaper article that speaks of 200 head of sheep on the island, a flock that had declined to 140 by 1941. Spain (pers. comm.) informs me that sheep were still present on the island when her parents bought it in 1951, but that they were all slaughtered that winter. The impact of this long-term grazing on the islandís flora can only be speculated on, but it seems likely that the open meadows on the west side of the island may in part resemble a more general landscape in the 1890s.

The primary areas of human settlement seem to have been constant throughout the island’s recorded history: the Gilley Homestead site at the northwestern end of the island, and the Coast Guard light station at the extreme south. We have also found evidence of construction on the southeast side, consisting of an almost completely filled in cellar hole, a possible well, and the remains of an apple orchard.

The original Gilley/Harding homestead was destroyed by fire in 1882, and the Hardings re-settled on Great Gott, retaining Great Duck as a pasture. According to the Congressional Record a lighthouse was first proposed in 1823, but construction was delayed until 1890. The original compound consisted of a 12m. brick tower, a square brick “generator building”, a stone “oil shed”, three houses for the keepers and a large boathouse with a double boat-ramp half way up the eastern side. A second, smaller boathouse was later constructed on the western side of the island to allow landings regardless of prevailing winds. This boathouse appears to have had a boat ramp at some point, but the ramp has long since been torn away by the sea. Photographs taken by William Bigenho (Spain, private collection) show that all three keepers houses were standing at least in 1953, but only the head keeper’s house and the station utility buildings remained ten years later.

Van Dyke (1907) reports a visit to Great Duck during which he lands “below a fisherman’s shanty at the lower end of the island”. Further description makes it clear that this is the north end, close to the former Gilley/Harding homestead, which Van Dyke describes as being little more than a ruin. He further states that there were 14 children on the island, and that Great Duck had the smallest school district in the country. McLane (1989) reports that immediately prior to World War I the islandís population had grown sufficiently that the Lighthouse Service authorized the construction of a schoolhouse to accommodate the 30 children then resident on Great Duck. The bulk of these children were associated with the keepers’ families, but some belonged to a mysterious fisherman named Van Horne, whom McLane refers to as “squatting” on the island during the pre-war years. I assume that the “shanty” mentioned by Van Dyke (above) is that of the Van Hornes, although Van Dyke makes no mention of the shanty being occupied by a family in 1907, and specifically refers to the children as belonging to the three light keepers’ families.

It is not clear when the Van Hornes departed from the island, but I note that the three heirs of Dennis Driscoll (who had obtained a half-interest in the island from the Hardings in 1871) included a “Horne”, who, along with Caspen and Phillips and Mary Harding (who held the other half share in the island) conveyed it in its entirety to William Clark Mason in 1941. Mason held the island for 9 years, although the Harding family seems to have continued to use it for pasturage. Mason sold the island to Maurice Rich in 1950, which in turn sold it to William Bigenho in 1951.

The Bigenho family constructed a house on the site of the Gilley homestead, and were two-to-three-season residents of the island until they sold the bulk of the island to George Cloutier in 1963. Ellen Spain (the Bigenho’s daughter) retained ownership of approximately 5 acres at the northeast end of the island until 1981, when she sold it to Richard Borofsky, who holds the property through the present. Borofsky constructed a 2-story summerhouse overlooking the northeast shore of the island, and visits for parts of each summer.

Cloutier seems to have originally intended the island as a “summer retreat” from his Boston psychotherapy practice. He constructed a gravel runway immediately north of the Slough of Despond, and commuted to the island in a seaplane. Unfortunately this runway appears to have cut through the island’s cemetery, leaving no trace of any burial sites. Benson (1975) gives the impression that Cloutier may have lived on the island year-round, but other accounts suggest that he may have simply visited for the bulk of each summer.

By the early 1970’s Cloutier had established a psychiatric clinic and “intentional community” on the island, in which some residents wintered over for one or more years (Borofsky, pers. comm.). Besides the former Bigenho house (which seems to have burned down early in the clinic’s history, and was replaced with a log cabin) the clinic consisted of three additional small cabins, a geodesic dome, and various other temporary outbuildings. Of these, the main cabin and the three smaller cabins remain. Much of the lumber used for cabin construction seems to have come from a small clear-cut in the woods at the north end of the island (The “Stood”). Cloutier also imported two deer, a pig, a pony, a few sheep, two cats, two dogs (a beagle and a “200 pound Newfoundland dog named Melissa” (Fuller 1975)), and several pieces of heavy construction machinery. Remains of the latter can be seen scattered along the north shore below the cabin.

The introduction of dogs and cats (both also mentioned in Benson 1975) are of particular import to the island’s bird population. Folger (pers. comm.) informs me that the lighthouse keepers also kept at least one dog in the 1980’s, and the presence of these animals on the island cannot but have had a negative effect on gulls and petrels.

The clinic closed in 1979, although the presence of newspapers and other remains make it seem likely that Cloutier or his patients occupied some of the cabins sporadically for some time afterwards. In 1984 The Nature Conservancy (TNC) launched a campaign (Albright 1984) to acquire Cloutier’s portion of the island. This was achieved in collaboration with the State of Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife in 1985. TNC personnel razed the geodesic dome and the “yurts” that had been constructed at the north end of the island, and formally closed the airstrip. The remaining buildings with the exception of one small cabin have been left to “benign neglect” although the main log house still contains many artifacts from the Cloutier era.

The light station was automated in 1986, and with the departure of the Coast Guard the era of year round island living seems to have come to an end. The College of the Atlantic acquired the Coast Guard property and all traditional rights of way in the summer of 1997. At present the College is rehabilitating the station buildings as a research center and island campus.