Monthly Archives: November 2013


Here is keeper Fannie Salter with her son feeding the turkeys at Turkey Point Lighthouse. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office.)

For those starting their holiday shopping, we are now offering the hardcover version of the second edition of Women Who Kept the Lights for $15.95. That’s over 50% off it’s original price of $32.95! You can order using a check with our order form or try out our new shopping cart for credit card orders.  Email me at if you encounter any problems.


Fire Island Lighthouse Lens

lens before disassembly

The Fire Island Lighthouse lens before disassembly at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. NPS photo by Candace Clifford, 2000

In 2000 I had the pleasure of documenting the disassembly of a first-order Fresnel lens at the Franklin Institute, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as part of an exhibition gallery renovation conducted by C. Erickson and Sons, Inc. The lens had been on display since 1933 when it was lent to the Institute by the Department of Commerce whose Bureau of Lighthouses oversaw lighthouses at that time.  The lens had once served Fire Island Lighthouse on Long Island.

Fire Island Light Station was established in 1826-27; a second tower was built in 1858 and a first-order Fresnel lens installed. First-order lenses are the largest of seven orders of Fresnel lenses. They were used at coastal lights that needed to be visible to mariners from great distances. Fire Island was seen by traffic sailing into New York Harbor.

According to a Notice to Mariners dated July 3, 1858, the light was first displayed from the new first-order lens on November 1, 1858. Its characteristic was “a brilliant flash once every minute. . . . The new light should be seen in ordinary states of atmosphere, from the deck of a vessel 15 feet above the water, from 21 to 23 nautical miles.” The new lens created a much brighter light than the reflector system it replaced. The lens revolved around the light source by means of a rotation mechanism powered by weights which would be wound up by the keeper on a regular schedule.


Each lens component was carefully packed into crates for longterm storage.

A campaign by steamboat companies and marine-insurance companies was launched in 1908 to increase the intensity of the light. Their petition stated,

That it is of the greatest importance to the safety, and the uninterrupted course, of navigation that the light on Fire Island should be of a character equal to that of the best lights in existence elsewhere; That the present light on Fire Island has not been changed for many years, is not a modern light, and is not of such power as should be provided in this important position.

The U.S. Light-House Board recommended that Fire Island be equipped with a “modern high power illuminating apparatus” in its 1908 annual report, but no immediate action was taken. In 1929, the Office of the Superintendent of Lighthouses noted that “…the present apparatus is an obsolete type and beyond economical repair; it has been giving trouble for several years and has now reached the point where replacement is necessary.” In June 1933, the old first-order lens was transferred to the Franklin Institute and the Fresnel lens from the discontinued Shinnecock Bay Light Station replaced it. Because it could rotate more rapidly, the Shinnecock lens produced a flash at more frequent intervals and thus was of more use to mariners.


The lens in its new exhibit building at Fire Island Light Station. Copyright Candace Clifford, 2012

Museum records at the Franklin Institute, indicate that the Fire Island Lighthouse lens was first displayed on the ground floor of the Franklin Institute on June 10, 1933. The parts not used were stored at the Lafayette School (this probably included the spider and the weights) on November 10, 1943. The vapor lamp was placed in the lighting exhibit in 1964 and is now part of the Electricity Gallery.

According to an article in The Institute News (August 1938)

When the lens now to be seen on the ground floor was in active service, it was operated by the accurate clockwork which still runs it, except that a tiny electric motor has been substituted for the elaborate system of weights which ran down a tube through the middle of the lighthouse, around which a spiral staircase ran. These weights required rewinding every four hours.

The article also describes the installation:

The great lens, weighing between four and five tons, was brought to the Institute in pieces in 1933. It was first assembled in sections in the old Franklin Institute’s workshop, so that it might be checked up. It was then again disassembled, and brought to the new museum for its final assembly. When it was put together, it was found that there had been a miscalculation in the height of the ceiling, and that there was five-eighths of an inch less than had been anticipated. The result is that, at the present time, there is just about one-quarter of an inch clearance at the top of the huge lens.


A clockwork mechanism and chariot wheel system once rotated the lens. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2012

It took nearly a week for lampists Joe Cocking, Nick Johnston, Jim Woodward, Jim Dunlap and Tony Farr and to disassemble and pack the lens components.  Lighthouse Preservation Consultant Cullen Chambers assisted. NPS conservator Gretchen Voeks inspected every panel for damage and documented needed repairs.  All the panels were carefully packed into crates for a long-time storage.  We felt some regret at seeing such a beautiful artifact disappearing from view.  So years later I was thrilled to learn that the lens was returning to Fire Island.  In 2012 I visited Fire Island and had the chance to admire the lens once again in its new exhibit building next to the lighthouse.

Although the lighthouse grounds received much damage from last year’s Hurricane Sandy, apparently the lens came through unharmed.  For more about Fire Island Lighthouse, visit their website.


The new lens exhibit building is the first building you encounter when walking to the lighthouse. Photo by Candace Clifford, 2012

Lighthouse District Staff Under the USLHB

When the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) took over the administration of lighthouses in 1852, they divided the country into districts and assigned an army officer to act as district engineer and a naval officer to act as district inspector. These officers oversaw the lighthouses in their districts and communicated directly with the corresponding USLHB secretary in Washington.  Letters to the USLHB from the district engineers and inspectors can be found in National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 24 (NC-31) and copies of letters from the USLHB to the district engineers and inspectors can be found in Entry 23 (NC-31).

The district engineer and inspector worked out of a district office which had its own staff.  Here is a 1896 letter from a District Engineer W.R. Livermore, Major of Engineers, U.S. Army, describing the qualifications of the various staff members in the 1st/2nd district office based in Boston, Massachusetts.







Coast Guard Heroes: Margaret Norvell

Here is a posting on the new U.S. Coast Guard Cutter named for Margaret Norvell, who kept Louisiana lighthouses for 41 years — Coast Guard Heroes: Margaret Norvell.

U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Capt. Robert Grant

U.S. Coast Guard photo courtesy of Capt. Robert Grant

Note that we have expanded the chapter on Margaret Norvell in our new edition of Women Who Kept the Lights and it will be reprinted in a forthcoming edition of the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s The Keepers Log.

Kate Walker Story to be told at Robbins Reef

Robbins Reef

Robbins Reef Lighthouse with the New York skyline behind it. Copyright Candace Clifford

The Noble Maritime Collection recently became the new steward of Robbins Reef Lighthouse, a caisson tower off Staten Island in New York Harbor. They plan to restore and interpret the station to how it looked in the early 1900s when Kate Walker was the keeper. We are excited by this development in that we devoted a chapter to Kate in our book Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers and later made her part of the cover image of the kid’s version, Mind the Light Kate: The History of Thirty-Three Lighthouse Keepers.  

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker

Illustration from the TIMES PICAYUNE, December 21, 1902

When Kate’s husband John Walker left the light sick with pneumonia, he instructed Kate to “Mind the Light Katie” which she did for the next 29 years.  According to a letter from the District Inspector dated June 18, 1894, after John’s death in 1890, Katie was paid as a laborer or acting keeper, not receiving the official keeper’s appointment until four years later in 1894. Her son Jacob was appointed her assistant in 1896.

Note in the Register of Keepers below that two men turned down the appointment after John’s death.

Entry for Robbins Reef Lighthouse, Register of Keepers, microfilm publication M1373

Entry for Robbins Reef Lighthouse, Register of Keepers, microfilm publication M1373

NOAA’s Historical Map & Chart Collection

Some of you may have seen the recent release by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that they would no longer be printing traditional nautical charts.  Most navigators are now using electronic versions that can be downloaded from their website. But what you may not know is that you can also download their historic charts.  They have an amazing collection which I have often accessed to illustrate our books. Here is an 1840 map of the Chesapeake Bay.  Note the red dots indicating lighthouses.


New Book About New Point Comfort Lighthouse

book cover

Photo by John Tobin

The Mathews County Historical Society announces the publication of their newest book The New Point Comfort Lighthouse Its History and Preservation by Mary Louise Clifford. This book is a tribute to the lighthouse keepers who manned this lighthouse, their families, the County of Mathews  and its residents and their part in the maritime history on the Chesapeake Bay.

Starting with a March 3, 1801, Act of Congress to build a light house between Old Point Comfort and Smith’s Point, New Point Comfort Lighthouse evolved. It was first lit in 1806 and manned by lighthouse keeper Elzy Burroughs, its builder. The book traces the lighthouse’s history from construction to preservation efforts of today.  Included within its chapters are old photographs and correspondence, the role of New Point Comfort Lighthouse during the War of 1812 and Civil War and the keepers of the light. Now the property of Mathews County, New Point Comfort Lighthouse was maintained as a beacon of welcome and protection until 1963.

Author Mary Louise Clifford and researcher J. Candace Clifford will be at the Mathews County Visitor and Information Center, Saturday, November 30, 2013 10 A.M. – noon and 2  – 4 P.M. for a book signing.

Mary Louise Clifford has published over twenty books, several about lighthouses.  Researcher and book designer J. Candace Clifford is a lighthouse historian.

The book will be sold locally at the Mathews County Visitor Center, 239 Main Street, Mathews or you may order by mailing a check (made out to MCHS) to MCHS, P.O. Box  855, Mathews, VA 23109.  Hard cover books are $28.00 plus $5.00 VA sales tax and shipping and soft cover books $20.00 and $4.50 VA sales tax and shipping.

Proceeds from the book benefit the preservation of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse.