Celebrating Women’s History Month

Turkey Point Lighthouse Keeper Fannie Salter

Turkey Point Lighthouse Keeper Fannie Salter holds an electric light bulb and the incandescent oil lamp that the bulb replaced. Electricity made the keeper’s job a whole lot easier. Salter retired in 1947 as the last civilian female lighthouse keeper. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

In honor of Women’s History Month I thought it would be a appropriate to share the list of female lighthouse keepers I assembled for our book Women Who Kept the Lights.  I did a major overhaul of this appendix for the latest edition, making sure that I only included the 142 women who had served as principal keepers for at least a year.  Many women served as temporary keepers for a few months after a spouse’s death while the Lighthouse Service searched for a replacement.  Early on we decided that the many women who served as assistant keepers, paid and unpaid, to their keeper husbands or fathers were too numerous to track.

Most family members knew how to care for the light, filling in when the keeper was away fetching supplies, fishing, or otherwise occupied. It was at these “family stations” that women generally received appointments. Coastal stations, with multiple keepers caring for first order lenses or fog signals requiring machinists, did not have women serving as head keepers.  Instead they were generally found at stations with a single keeper, tending lights marking harbors, rivers, or smaller bodies of water. Large numbers of female keepers served around the Chesapeake Bay, on the Great Lakes, or along the Gulf of Mexico. Some female keepers tended a fog bell but none were required to maintain a steam fog signal.

Appendix: Women Who Kept the Lights, 1776-1947

Scott Price at the U.S. Coast Guard’s Historian’s Office, Washington, D.C., has also been tracking female keepers.  His web page lists not only principal keepers but also includes assistant keepers and other female employees of the Lighthouse Service. Scott also recently wrote an interesting blog article “Harriet Colfax & the Women of the Lighthouse Service” and devotes a web page to the 175-foot Coastal Keeper-Class Buoy Tenders named for women keepers.

Bodie Island Keepers: Oral and Family Histories

Bodie book

Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Sandra MacLean Clunies have produced a unique book based on the genealogical research they did for the Bodie Island Keeper Descendants Reunion that took place at Bodie Island Light Station last October. Published by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, the book features short essays on the keepers with lots of photos of them and their families. The reunion attendees must have been delighted to learn so much about their ancestors. There may still be copies available for purchase through the Society.  Email Diana Chappell –diandmanda at aol.com — for more information.DSCN1123

Record Group 26 in the National Archives includes only a few sources for letters from keepers. You can sometimes find them as attachments to letters written by custom collectors and district inspectors and engineers to their superiors in Washington.  A few letters from keepers also survive in field records.  The letter pictured above is part of the “K Series letters” in Entry 3 (NC-63) “Records of Fifth Light-House District (Baltimore), 1851-1912.”  Keeper Gallop is writing his supervisor, the 5th district inspector. Note the inspector’s notation at the bottom left that he has written the U.S. Light-House Board.

Great Lakes Lighthouse Conference

Jeff Shook at the Michigan Lighthouse Alliance has sent along information about their upcoming conference, May 21 -23, in Traverse City.

Great Lakes, Great Lights: Sustainability for a Successful Future

This conference provides stakeholders an opportunity to get inspired, to share ideas, and to learn from industry professionals in telling the stories of and preserving lighthouses. Efforts are placed within a framework of sustainability and community development, all to protect our lighthouses and collective maritime heritage long into the future.

For more information – MLA 2014 Conference Brochure or http://www.michiganlighthousealliance.org

Remembering Cullen Chambers – Lighthouse Preservationist

Cullen Chambers at Heceta Head Lighthouse, 2001

Cullen Chambers at Heceta Head Lighthouse, 2001

Cullen in his inspection gear at Heceta Head Lighthouse

Cullen in his inspection gear at Heceta Head Lighthouse

The lighthouse community is mourning the loss of a great friend and colleague, Cullen Chambers. Incredibly knowledgeable about all aspects of lighthouse preservation, Cullen was responsible for the preservation of Key West, St. Augustine, and Tybee Island Lighthouses as well as assisting in countless other preservation projects locally and around the country.

I first met Cullen while working on the National Lighthouse Museum Committee which later became the American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee. As part of the latter, Cullen wrote a position paper on Fresnel lenses, demonstrating an impressive expertise on those unique artifacts.  He applied this knowledge in working on two lens projects at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia and Heceta Head Lighthouse.  For his exceptional contributions to lighthouse preservation, Cullen was a recipient of the Ross Holland award in 2007.

The "lens team" at the Franklin Institute

The “lens team” at the Franklin Institute

Disassembly of the Fire Island lens at the Franklin Institute.  (Cullen on left)

Disassembly of the Fire Island lens at the Franklin Institute. (Cullen on left)

Cullen inspects the metalwork on Heceta Head Lighthouse's lantern

Cullen inspects the metalwork on Heceta Head Lighthouse’s lantern as part of a condition assessment he prepared on the lighthouse.

Always upbeat and charming, Cullen was a joy to work with. He will be sorely missed by his friends in the lighthouse community.

Cullen at Heceta

Cullen assisting with reassembly of the Heceta Head Lighthouse lens.

Cullen assisting with reassembly of the Heceta Head Lighthouse lens.

Flying Santa

The first mention of receiving packages from an airplane in the The Graves Lighthouse Log, 1933.

The first mention of receiving packages from an airplane in the The Graves Lighthouse Log, 1933. (Click on image to see larger version.)

While digitizing the logs of The Graves Lighthouse in Boston Harbor, I noticed several entries about packages being dropped from an airplane. The keepers at this offshore station considered this a noteworthy event and probably appreciated some Christmas cheer while separated from their families during the holiday. (The Graves was what was called a “stag station” — there was no accommodation for families.) In future years the log identifies the pilot as Capt. Wincapaw, who started the Flying Santa tradition.

In the early days of aviation, pilots, like mariners, often used lighthouses to track their location.  Lacking sophisticated navigational equipment, they sometimes relied on lighthouses to set their course in stormy or inclement weather. One such pilot, Captain William H. Wincapaw, a native of Friendship, Maine, flew a variety of aircraft, including amphibious planes around the Penobscot Bay area. In 1929, Captain Wincapaw, flying blind in a snowstorm and low on fuel, spotted the gleam of Dice Head Light, which led him safely home. To show his appreciation he dropped gifts to light stations in the Rockland area and began the tradition of the Flying Santa.

1935 log entry

In 1935, Capt. Wincapaw has to make two attempts to delivery the packages to The Graves.

The packages containing newspapers, magazines, coffee, candy, and other items were so well received and the keepers and their families so appreciative that Wincapaw expanded the tradition to include light stations not only in Maine, but all over New England. In 1938 Edward Rowe Snow took over job and continued delivering packages until 1980. Today the Friends of Flying Santa continue this tradition of showing gratitude to modern-day Coast Guard personnel and their families.

Edward R. Snow

Note the entry regarding Edward R. Snow’s participation in the anniversary of nearby Minots Ledge Lighthouse. He later took over the Flying Santa tradition when Wincapaw was transferred out of the area.

Note that some of this text is excerpted from my book Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past.

Archivist Mark Mollan — Keeper of Lighthouse Records


Archivist  Mark Mollan assists researchers doing maritime and navy research at the National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C. He’s made working with Record Group 26 a whole lot easier in recent years by creating box lists for some of the more extensive entries. You can access these lists, many in the volumes pictured below, in the finding aids room on the first floor of the National Archives. (The same place you fill out pull slips to retrieve the records.) He or someone else is always on duty to assist you with your search.


Some of the finding aids for Record Group 26. RG 26 includes records of the Lighthouse Service, Lifesaving Service, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mark has kindly shared many of these box lists with me in a digital format and I have included them in my finding aid for Record Group 26.

One of the most helpful is the box list for the USCG general correspondence in RG 26 Entry 82. This correspondence is organized into three time periods and a fourth segment devoted to site files for stations (primarily lifesaving/lifeboat stations).  The files are organized according to USCG file manual, for example, 600 designates “Operations”, 601 “Scope of Operations”, etc.  So before Mark’s list, one had to pull everything under a file number and hope you found what you needed. Now with the box list you can search for a specific topic, station, or vessel within the list. Here is one segment as a WORD document. Notice it is in two parts because it is a long list!

USCG General Correspondence 1936-41 Part 1

USCG General Correspondence 1936-41 Part 2

Mark has also identified all the WWII logbooks when the U.S. Coast Guard under the administration of the U.S. Navy. Those for 1942 and 1943 are available in my finding aid.

My sincere thanks to Mark for creating these useful research tools.  He has made my job a lot easier!

1881 Instructions to Light Keepers

1881 Instructions

The 1881 Instructions began, “The Keeper is responsible for the care and management of the light, and for the station in general. He must enforce a careful attention to duty on the part of his assistants; and the assistants are strictly enjoined to render prompt obedience to his lawful orders.” Absences had to be communicated to those left in charge and reported to the inspector. “Light-keepers may leave their stations to attend divine worship on Sundays, to procure needful supplies, and on important public occasions.”

“Watches must be kept at all stations where there is an assistant. The keeper on watch must remain in the watch room and give continuous attention to the light while he is on duty. When there is no assistant, the keeper must visit the light at least twice during the night between 8 p.m. and sunrise; and on stormy nights the light must be constantly looked after.”

A keeper was expected to understand how to operate the apparatus and use strict economy in the use of his supplies: “He must be careful to prevent waste, theft, or misapplication of light-house property.” Quantities of oil and other supplies used each day had to be recorded.

“Light-keepers must not engage in any traffic on light-house premises, and they must not permit it by any one else. They must not carry on any business or trade elsewhere which will cause them to be often absent from the premises, or to neglect, in any way, their proper duties.”

Visitors to the light station were to be treated courteously and politely, but not allowed to handle the apparatus or carve their names on the lantern glass or tower windows. Intoxicated persons were to be removed “by the employment of all proper and reasonable means.”

Keepers were not to change the color of towers or buildings without written orders. All parts of the station, including bed chambers, were to be neatly kept. “Untidiness will be strongly reprehended, and its continuance will subject a keeper to dismissal.”

Shipwrecks were to be reported promptly to the inspector. “It is the duty of light-keepers to aid wrecked persons as far as lies in their power.” Precautions had to be taken against fire; fire-buckets were to be kept filled and ready. Burning mineral oil, or kerosene, was to be extinguished with sand or ashes rather than water.

Boats were furnished at stations where they were “necessary for communication with the mainland, to obtain household supplies, etc.” They were to be used only for light-house purposes; “the boats must not be used for freighting, wrecking, fishing with seines, ferrying, or for carrying goods or passengers for hire.”

Paperwork increased for the keepers. They were to submit monthly reports on the condition of the station and make explicit specification for any needed repairs. A monthly report on the fog signal and absences from the station was also required. Expenditures of oil, etc., and salary vouchers were to be submitted quarterly. Property returns were submitted annually and receipts for extra supplies, the keeper’s receipt for property on taking charge, receipts for delivery of supplies, shipwreck reports, and reports of any damage to station or apparatus and any unusual occurrence were made as necessary. The keepers were expected to keep a daily-expenditure book, a general-account book, and a journal. This journal, or log, must record the events of the day in one line written across two pages. “The visits of the Inspector or Engineer, or of the lampist or machinist, and an account of any work going on or delivery of stores must be noted; as also any item of interest occurring in the vicinity, such as the state of the weather, or other similar matter. The books must be kept in ink, with neatness, and must always be kept up to date.”

Special instructions were provided to keepers of stations where navigation was closed down by ice in winter. “Lights may be extinguished when navigation is entirely suspended, but must always be shown if it is at all possible for vessels to benefit by them.” Keepers at island stations who could not remain there during the winter “must continue their lights as long as possible in the fall without endangering their lives by being caught in the ice; and must return to their stations as early in the spring as the ice will permit.”

A section devoted to the “Care of Lights and their Appurtenances” included detailed instructions on the care of the optics. The keepers were to hang lantern curtains each morning and to wear a linen apron to protect the lens “from contact with the wearing apparel.” The lens and lantern glass were to be cleaned daily. Rouge was used to polish the lens and “rotten-stone” to shine the brass. “Keepers are forbidden to use any other materials for cleaning and polishing than those supplied by the Light-house Establishment.” The revolving clockwork and carriage rollers were to be kept properly oiled. Keepers had to cut replacement glass for the lantern when necessary.

Other sections were devoted to care and management of other equipment, particularly the fog signal, and specific instructions were provided for the keepers of light-ships. The last section listed “Allowances of Provisions” for unusually isolated stations, amended in 1883:

Beef 200 pounds
Pork 100 pounds
Flour 1 barrel
Rice 25 pounds
Beans 10 gallons
Potatoes 4 bushels
Onions 1 bushel
Sugar 50 pounds
Coffee 24 pounds
Vinegar 4 gallons

This summary was excerpted from Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses by Candace and Mary Louise Clifford (Alexandria, VA: Cypress Communications, 2000). To view a PDF of the original document goto my digitized volumes page.