EAGLE ISLAND — For more than a century, the Quinn family has taken responsibility for delivering mail to the islands of eastern Penobscot Bay. If there was a resident on Eagle Island, Butter Island, Great Spruce Head, Bear Island, Beach Island or the Barred Islands, five generations of Quinns somehow delivered the mail, sometimes at the expense of their lives.
In 1873, accompanied by a Newfoundland dog, William Quinn Sr. and his nephew, Augustus James Quinn, were returning with the mail and groceries from Sylvester Cove on Deer Island to Eagle Island when a typically brutal northwest wind slammed into the harbor and turned the boat over. The Quinns and their boat were never seen again. The dog swam to shore and survived.
Around 1913 (records are uncertain, though a Lucy Ball who lived at the Eagle Island lighthouse was a witness), Theodore Scott and Samuel Scott Jr. were clamming off the Quinn dock and offered to pick up the mail in Deer Isle. They rowed their 14-foot peapod toward Deer Isle, but a strong sea and stronger winds took that boat, too. The Scotts’ bodies were never recovered.
In December 1997, the Quinn family and their tradition of delivering the mail were honored at the Sunrise post office. About 100 grateful mail customers applauded Edith Quinn, 87, and her son, Robert Quinn, 54, who are retiring after holding the official island mail contract for 50 years.
But their service started long before the official contract, according to family historian Bob Quinn, who has taken up the mailbag to carry on the tradition on Eagle Island where he and his wife, Helene, live. (Bob and Robert Quinn are cousins, the subject of much island confusion.)
Samuel Quinn purchased the 263-acre island for $1,500 in 1844 from John C. Gray, son of a 19th-century merchant prince named William Gray, who at one time owned 60 sail vessels. Family members established four farms and survived on boat building, lobstering, fishing and trading. The self-sufficient island family has remained on Eagle Island continuously for more than 150 years. Their history is chronicled in “A Family Island,” written by John C. Enk, printed by the Courier Gazette press and published in 1973.
Through marriage, the Howard, Brown, Raynes and Carver families moved to Eagle Island. By the turn of the century, six families with 30 members lived there. “Uncle” Ed Howard, the first mail boat carrier for Eagle Island, is the grandfather of Helene Quinn, whose husband, Bob, is the current mail boat operator.
Originally the fishermen, farmers and quarry workers on the other islands came to Eagle Island to pick up their mail, but gradually the Quinn family took up the responsibility of delivering to the other islands. The formal post office contract was signed in 1947.
The population of the islands on the mail run dropped to as low as a single person at times and rose to as much as 100 during the summer vacation months. The runs were started to deliver the mail, but soon the Quinns were delivering groceries and visitors, liquids and furniture. Over the years, during the trips back and forth, the Quinns’ roles grew, as they also became informal guides and family counselors.
At the Sunday ceremony, Robert Quinn accepted the plaudits and praise for the 50-year contract with a bow to his predecessors. Starting around 1904, Ed Howard did the job for 33 years, followed by Richard Howard, and then Cliff, Jimmy and Richard Quinn, who passed the mailbag down to brother Robert 20 years ago.
Island residents traveled from up and down the East Coast to honor the Quinns at the ceremony. Christopher “Cricket” Lyman of New York City and Barred Island thanked the Quinns for providing “love, patience and care” to several generations of island residents and visitors, decades before the advent of cell phones and faxes.
State Sen. Jill Goldthwait, I-Bar Harbor, was missing several legislative proclamations honoring the family. “They got lost in the mail,” said the senator. “We found out that the post office is not as good as the Quinns.”
Deer Isle Postmaster Roy Welliver was also missing several post office proclamations. “They got lost in the mail, too. Must have been the holiday season,” he reasoned.
Welliver said the Quinns “never ceased to amaze me. They are a concerned and good family. It wasn’t only the island residents who appreciated them. The post office did, too. It’s a good thing they retired when they did. We never would have fit into the old post office.”
Bangor surgeon Wes English brought both his Dixieland band and his thanks to the Sunrise post office to honor the Quinns. The Philadelphia transplant visited the Penobscot Bay islands for decades before he decided to move to Maine. He recalled a few crude surgeries done for Quinn family members who refused to leave the island. He thanked his “surgery room nurse,” Edith Quinn.
The family received a copy of a 1973 New York Times travel feature story on Capt. Jimmy Quinn and his vessel, Northeast Sunset.
Robert Quinn was given the DIM Award by one island resident, who explained it was for being a Dedicated Island Mechanic and for keeping a variety of contraptions running through the summer season.
Clearly stunned, Robert said, “I can’t believe that this many people came from so far in the cold weather.”
One woman replied that a meeting to honor the Quinns had to be held in the winter. They were simply too busy during the hectic summer months, she said.
A typical islander, Robert said the weather was “never really that bad.” There were no close calls during his watch, other than a boat that burned at the mooring. He would admit only that winter was “more of a struggle” than the summer.
Delivering the mail to Maine islands was not in his career plans when he moved south about 20 years ago. “I never intended to come back. I was living it up in Florida. Then I came home for a visit and stayed 20 years. I could care less about Florida. I never went back.”
You can take a Quinn off Eagle Island, but you can never take Eagle Island out of a Quinn.
No Quinn was more loved than Edith. On this Sunday afternoon, Edith, shaking, said she was “speechless, really” at the turnout. “I am overwhelmed that so many people came. Thank you all. I really appreciate it.”
Edith was a trained nurse who came to Eagle Island at age 25 to care for a stroke patient. She had been working in Portland on patients who had scarlet fever during an epidemic. The protocol at the time called for a nurse to take a vacation every few months to avoid infection. She was living at the family home in Vinalhaven when the stroke victim’s case developed. During that job, she met her future husband, James Quinn. She never wanted to go back to Portland, or anywhere else.
She took over as Eagle Island postmaster in 1942 after she moved over from Vinalhaven. People who know Edith remember her with a phone in one hand and a citizens band radio in the other, coordinating people and boats across the bay. No one could figure out how she had time to knit all those mittens and socks.
“I never wanted to leave,” she said. “Those were the happiest years of my life. I met so many wonderful people.” Her husband and sons provided the boats to deliver the mail.
In the “House of Quinn” poem read at the Sunday ceremony, poet James St. Pierre said:
“Think of water and island and you’ll think of a Quinn.
For two centuries this place is where they’ve been.
Building boats, hauling gear, catching fish, shell and fin,
farming dirt, moving mail at times alone, usually with kin.
To them work is play. When we give up, they begin.
As long as they have their way, they lead with their chin.”