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.


2 thoughts on “1881 Instructions to Light Keepers

  1. Paul St.Germain

    Candace, These e-mails are extremely interesting.I am in the process of producing a video on the history of Thacher Island and many of these old publication are very useful.Keep up the great work,

  2. Linda Nenn

    Very nice summary that I will share with our tour guides at the Port Washington, WI 1860 Light-House and Light Station Museum. I’ve made the various Instructions available to our volunteers, but they just overwhelm them with too much information. A summary like this is just what they need. Thank you.These Lighthouse History emails are very much appreciated by this lighthouse devotee.


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