Lighthouses and KeepersLighthouses and Keepers
by Dennis L. Noble

Who doesn’t love a lighthouse? Living on Lake Ontario, I’ve always had a soft spot for the local Great Lakes lighthouses, especially our own lovely little Charlotte-Genesee Light barely a stones’ throw from home. I’ve been visiting it on summer Sundays since I was a kid, climbing to the tower room above, and exploring the displays in the old keeper’s house. Yet there is always more to learn, histories I never heard before, pictures I never saw. A few weeks ago, I went to an illustrated lecture at the library on the history of this light, where I learned several new things, including  the exciting news that the tower will shortly have a new working replica of the original Fresnel lens.

After the lecture, I went browsing through the library to find something I might read on the subject. I discovered this engrossing and informative little book, just 200 pages, packed with a concise history of the US Lighthouse Service, with lovely illustrations. What appealed to me most was that it wasn’t just a “pretty” book, as so many seem to be, with arty photos and touristy information about visiting the lights on holiday. This book gets down to the nitty-gritty of how the lights worked, how the service was organized, what the daily duties of the keepers consisted of. It talks about the great ocean lights and the smaller lake lights, the often-overlooked river lights, the variations of service aboard the light ships, as well as fog signals and buoy tenders and other related outposts. The history of the changing technology, from candles to whale-oil to mineral-oil to electricity, from early improvements in reflectors to the great Fresnel lenses, is all part of the story.

A few years ago, I read a book about women who tended lights, and was delighted with that glimpse of an overlooked facet of women’s history. While women were still struggling to enter fields like business, law, and medicine, here was a profession which allowed them to roll up their skirts, climb ladders, row boats, and tinker with machinery. Of course, as the authors here remind us, women were welcome in the lighthouse service not because it was any more enlightened than the rest of the working world, but because their labor solved some purely practical problems most conveniently. A light keeper needed an assistant who could be left in charge at the station whenever the keeper was away buying supplies or on other business. As most keepers had families living with them, the keeper’s wife and older children were available, and were comfortably familiar with the duties from daily observation. Here was a built-in assistant who “came with the package” so to speak, hiring two for the price of one. And after years of experience as an assistant keeper, it wasn’t unusual for a wife or daughter to inherit the position of keeper upon the keeper’s death. Women like Abbie Burgess, Ida Lewis, and Harriet Colfax showed the world living examples of women in positions of working responsibility, examples which must have helped reshape the idea of what women might do.

The chapter on lightships was particularly interesting. In places of shoal water and shifting conditions, where it was difficult or impractical to build a stationary lighthouse, a lightship provided an easily movable light which could respond to changing circumstances. These vessels needed a crew to work the ship, as well as a keeper for the light, which made for a different sort of staffing system. Besides making sure the light was properly maintained, the usual lighthouse chores, there was the added complication of ensuring that the ship was correctly positioned and prevented from drifting to the wrong location. In heavy weather, this second half of the equation could become a serious struggle. Since they were located close to dangerous rocks and shallows, lightships trying to stay close to their assigned locations in a storm might find themselves driven too close and wrecked on the very hazard they warned other ships away from. In calm weather, being on a lightship was incredibly monotonous, as it entailed “sailing” daily on a ship that went absolutely nowhere.

Another interesting chapter details the wonderful variations in lighthouse construction problems and techniques. In the Chesapeake Bay region, for instance, where lighthouses had to be fixed firmly into shifting sandy bottoms and withstand a barrage of ice chunks in winter, a style developed known as the screw-pile light. These lighthouses look like houses squatting above the water on stilt-like legs. The bottom of each pile ended in an auger with wide flanges which were screwed deep into the ground underwater. The waves and ice in winter would be able to move freely through the pilings and pass under the light station, instead of slamming against it as would happen in the case of a stone or brick tower.  A completely different construction problem was behind the story of “Terrible Tilly”, the light at Tillamook Head at the mouth of the Columbia River on the foggy, rocky coast of Oregon. Figuring out how to even get construction equipment and workers onto this rugged crag was an arduous and deadly job to begin with. The effort and risk was worth it, though, if it would reduce the number of wrecks in the area, and the story of how the tower was finally successfully built makes for nail-biting suspense.

My taste in reading history is for the personal, the specific, the you-are-there quality. Books that attempt to digest all the mess of individuality into theory and statistic and sweeping trend are books that I find cold and dull. But the other extreme, books that try too hard to invoke romance and incite emotional interest are books that feel fake to me, like fiction pretending to be history. I like to wade into the strange and muddled world of daily life, the way it looked when you lived through it. I love old newspapers, periodicals, photographs, diaries and journals, schoolbooks and instruction pamphlets, sermons and political tracts, logbooks and personal letters. This is where history becomes most real to me, where I can smell and taste it. The historian standing impartially aside from the subject and looking at the big picture from a hundred years’ distance can’t teach me to understand as well as the people who lived the experience. The historian may be more impartial, but every historian must paraphrase the story of one time in the language of another. However well done, there is a certain amount of “smoothing” that can’t help but happen, a sanding away of interesting nubs and slivers. For instance, there’s this fascinating little tidbit — A lightship off the coast of California in 1901 found itself unexpectedly overrun with owls, cranes, and other land birds who had fled from a large forest fire ashore and saw the ship as a refuge from the smoke. And this one — In 1906, keeper Juliet Nichols discovered that the mechanical fog-bell at her station had failed, just as an impenetrable fog rolled in with ships approaching. She took up a hammer and kept striking the bell by hand for 24 arm-wearying hours, until the fog finally lifted.

LightHouse cover photoAs I read this book, one source kept turning up in references — the Instructions for Light Keepers, published by the US Lighthouse Board. “The instructions told the keeper everything needed to keep a good light and how to keep the station inspection ready. If a question arose regarding how to complete a task, the keeper scanned the instruction book’s index until he found the proper page and then looked up the answer. The ‘wickie’ had only to read and have a normal amount of intelligence to run the lighthouse.”  The Instruction books covered everything — how to fill, light, extinguish, and clean a lamp — how to repair a balky steam-boiler on a fog signal — how to mix whitewash or cement — how to fill out an expense report or inventory sheet.  I became curious enough to go hunting for a copy of one of these instruction books, because it seemed to me the best way to really get a feel for the daily life and routines of a lighthouse keeper. I discovered a copy of the 1881 edition online (here) and took such delight in it that I decided to record it as an audiobook at LibriVox.

I know this is the sort of book that many folks will find dry as dust and numbingly monotonous. But it’s exactly the kind of material that opens up a door to the past for me. I look through this door, and instead of seeing the romanticized water-color blur of a lighthouse fantasy, I see a living keeper, going about the work of the day, explaining to me as I follow along as much as I can grasp of his machines and how they work. There are some of the very technical bits that fly over my head. But I realize that keeping a light was a job often undertaken by women like me, with little initial knowledge of machinery, relying on an instruction book and a normal amount of intelligence. So I read my Instructions to Keepers with diligence, and I begin to see this life taking shape more and more clearly before my eyes.

If you’d like to sample a bit of it yourself, here’s the link to the LibriVox recording of Instructions for Light KeepersIf you want a sample of “the good parts”, listen to Chapter 1 (General Instructions for All Light Keepers) and Chapter 4 (For Keepers of Light Ships). There’s about a half-hour’s worth of good stuff there, without risk of getting caught in the mechanical details.

Or you can click on this audio player, and just “skip” the chapters you want to omit when they come along.