Category Archives: Lighthouse keepers

Restoration at Halfway Rock Reveals Evidence of Its Keepers

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Since acquiring the lighthouse in early 2105, Reiche has completed an 80-foot dock, an interior and exterior restoration of the wooden structure, and begun the tower’s restoration according to the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation. Photo courtesy of Ford Reiche

I always enjoy hearing from my research clients about their projects–especially if they are using historic documentation to restore or interpret their property.

Ford Reiche has been keeping me up to date on his restoration of Halfway Rock Lighthouse in Maine. He recently sent me these three images relating to the keepers who were assigned to Halfway Rock in the 1930s.

I was delighted with his interpretation of what he discovered in the process of restoring the tower:

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Photo courtesy Ford Reiche

The crew at Halfway Rock had a long and frustrating effort to get funds appropriated for a refrigerator. From the date of construction in 1871 until 1937, they had no ice or refrigeration. Some other lighthouses had been provided with refrigerators earlier, but it was pretty much restricted to those stations with families present. Because of the inherent dangers at Halfway Rock, it was limited to men only..called a “stag lighthouse”.  Also they did not get electricity there until 1936. When the day came that they finally got a refrigerator, in 1937, the crew made room for it by removing shelves in their little galley pantry so they could slide the refrigerator in there. In the process, Wm Clark and Arthur Strout signed and dated the back wall of the pantry to mark the occasion. 

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Photos of whiskey bottle courtesy of Ford Reiche

There was widespread consternation in the lighthouse world when announcement was issued by Washington D.C. that the U.S. Lighthouse Service would be disbanded in 1939 so that the entire system could be folded into the U.S. Coast Guard. Last year when we removed a failing wall in the living quarters that had been built in 1938, we were delighted to find a little joke for us left inside the wall framing by Clark and Strout…the bottle of whiskey that had emptied to ring in the holidays at the end of 1938. As you will see from the photo below, they signed and dated it.  In addition to taking pleasure in breaking several rules about liquor on premises, I have suspected that this was a small sign of their protest about the imminent disruption that they were facing as the U.S. Coast Guard way of life was about to be imposed upon them.

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Reiche is putting together a website at http://www.halfwayrock.com

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Finding Aid for Lighthouse Logs

I have made the National Archives RG 26 finding aid “List of Logbooks of U.S. Coast Guard Cutters, Stations, and Miscellaneous Units, 1833 – 1980” available at https://lighthousehistory.info/research/uslhs/rg-26-finding-aid-for-logbooks/. Note that lighthouse keepers were not required to keep a daily log until 1872. Many logs are missing.

Logs for the WWII era when the U.S. Coast Guard was part of the U.S. Navy are listed in a different finding aid.

Lifesaving station logs from the USLSS period are kept at regional Archive facilities.

RG 26 Logs Whitlocks Mill to Woobine

Sample page of finding aid

Lighthouse Keeper Records Prison Riot at Alcatraz

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Note the cell house in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Harry Davis became keeper of Alcatraz Lighthouse, marking the entrance to San Francisco Bay, in 1938. I was recently copying his logs in the National Archives as part of a research project for the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Davis’s log followed the two-page-for-every-month format, devoting one or two lines to each day’s weather and activities. He and his three assistants spent most of their time maintaining the property and the two fog signals. Then the format changed for May 1946 with a narrative written across two pages:

May 2: 1430 hrs. Convicts on the loose with submachine gun, entire prison held at bay. Shooting is almost continuous. Island surrounded by Coast Guard and Navy boats. C.G. called by the Keeper in charge at 1445 hours.

1815 hrs. The U.S. Marines landed on the north end of island, at this writing. More wounded guards were removed to the city, total of five so far, firing is still heavy.

2115 hrs. Eight more wounded men recovered and sent to hospital. Capt. Weinhold, Lieut. Simpson most seriously wounded, Mr. Stites and Mr. Miller both killed. Total 13 wounded, two deaths.

May 3: 1100 hrs. Fire again raging in cellblocks, Marines lobbing anti-tank bombs through windows into cellblock; hand grenades being dropped through holes broken through the roof. The prison is being reduced to a shambles – numerous aircraft circling around prison all day.

1300 hrs. For the past hour they have been throwing heavy demolition shells without effect. Gen. Stillwell just arrived; they have issued an ultimatum to surrender within 10 minutes otherwise they are going to blast the cellblocks and walls down with TNT; all convicts will then die.

1320 hrs. The warden refused permission to use TNT. All firing stopped at 1330 hrs. Broke out again at 1800 hrs.

1800 hrs. The Marines are dropping hand grenades into the cellblocks through holes in the roof, quit when dark at 1830.

Guards from San Quentin State prison arrived today to assist, they are inside cell houses with Marines. Extra guards from Leavenworth federal prison arrived by plane, all are in cell house. All is quiet inside at 2040 hrs.

2400 hrs. All is still quiet in the prison.

May 4: 0820 hrs. There was a sudden burst of explosions inside, rifle and grenade fire, lasting about five minutes.

1000 hrs. The sudden burst was a cover up for the guards to break through. Three dead convicts were found, had been killed by a hand grenade, they were in C block. D Block will be rushed later to end it for good.

1030 hrs. It ‘s all over. D Block has been taken with 26 live convicts. The end of 44 hours of living hell. The extra guards from McNeils Island & Denver will be here for some time.

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis's Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis’s Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

The Alcatraz lighthouse was automated and the prison closed in 1963. Alcatraz Penitentiary is now a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation area.

Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

While working in my digital research library, I recently revisited several letters written by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. As you know, the Secretary of Treasury oversaw lighthouses in the early years of the new republic, with frequent oversight from President Washington.

These letters were written to Benjamin Lincoln, the first customs collector in Boston, who, as the letters indicate, became the first superintendent of lighthouses for the state of Massachusetts. Copied from Record Group 26 during a 2001 visit to the Boston Regional Branch of the National Archives, the first letter is dated March 10, 1790, and the second July 14, 1790. In the March 10th communication Hamilton described Lincoln’s new duties as “keeping in good repair the Light houses, beacons, buoys and public piers in your State, and for the furnishing of same with necessary supplies.”

The letter also instructed Lincoln to confirm the appointments of four keepers who were already keeping the lights at Boston Harbor, Cape Ann, “Plumb” Island, and Nantucket. Hamilton mentioned the “widow of the late General Warren” as keeping the lights at Plymouth. I believe he was actually referring to Hannah Thomas, widow of John Thomas. When General John Thomas went off to fight in the Revolution he left his wife Hannah in charge of the twin lights at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor. Our book Women Who Kept the Lights begins with a chapter on Hannah, the first known female lighthouse keeper in the U.S. The July 14 letter shown here indicates that Hannah’s son John Thomas, Jr., received the appointment at Plymouth. He set their salaries based on what the Colony of Massachusetts had been paying them. The Boston keeper received $400, Plymouth $240, Cape Ann $400, Plumb Island $220, and Nantucket $250.

In his correspondence to Lincoln, Hamilton also touches on Portland Head, then part of Massachusetts. That lighthouse was under construction when the letter was written. Photo copyright Candace Clifford

Here is the March 10th letter in PDF format: Hamilton’s letter of March 10 1790

Candace Clifford, May 9, 2015

Bodie Island Keepers: Oral and Family Histories

May 2015 update – Cheryl Roberts has copies of BODIE ISLAND KEEPERS available for purchase. Contact her at cherylrbrts22@gmail.com

Lighthouse History

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…

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Los Angeles Lighthouses

Apart from a few more trees, Point Fermin Lighthouse has not changed significantly since its construction in 1874.  Photo by Candace Clifford

Apart from a few more trees, Point Fermin Lighthouse has not changed significantly since its construction in 1874. Photo by Candace Clifford

Point Fermin in 1893. Herbert Bamber photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

Point Fermin in 1893. Herbert Bamber photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

I recently attended the Council of American Maritime Museums conference hosted by the Los Angeles Maritime Museum. Upon arrival in Los Angeles I went directly from the airport to the Point Fermin Lighthouse, where historic site manager Kristen Heather gave me a delightful tour.

The tower was designed by Paul J. Pelz, A U.S. Light-House Board draftsman who designed six stick-style lighthouses. Pelz also worked for the U.S. Life-Saving Service and designed several their stations.

The tower was designed by Paul J. Pelz, a U.S. Light-House Board draftsman. The stick-style design was used for six lighthouses. Pelz also worked for the U.S. Life-Saving Service and designed several of their stations.

Front parlor at Point Fermin Lighthouse. The station is now a museum run by the City of Los Angeles.

Front parlor at Point Fermin Lighthouse. The station is now a museum run by the City of Los Angeles.

The visit was especially meaningful because the first keepers of Point Fermin Light, when it was established in 1874, were sisters Ella and Mary Smith. Although I realize these women had challenges living in such a remote location, I think it would have been a rather plum assignment when compared to many other light stations of that period. The interior exhibits interpret the lives of the station’s four keepers and their families. The fourth-order Fresnel lens is on display in one of the ground floor rooms and visitors can climb to the top of the tower for a spectacular view.

Kristen Heather, the historic site manager, has worked with the property for over a decade.

Kristen Heather, the Point Fermin’s historic site manager, has worked with the property for over a decade.

Lovely gardens surrounding the property are maintained by volunteers. For more information on this wonderful station, visit the Point Fermin Lighthouse website or read Point Fermin Lighthouse Families by Henrietta E. Mosley. The next morning I ventured further down the coast to Point Vicente Light Station. Unfortunately it was closed. Although generally open on the second Saturday of the month, April was the exception. Apparently it was open the previous weekend for a whale watching festival. However I enjoyed walking along the cliffs capturing views of the lighthouse at a distance.

Completed in 1926, Point Vicente used reinforced concrete in the construction of the tower.  A material adapted after the 1906 earthquake. Photo by Candace Clifford

Completed in 1926, Point Vicente used reinforced concrete in the construction of the tower–a material adapted after the 1906 earthquake. Photo by Candace Clifford

The lantern plan for Point Vicente.  Note the diagonal astragals.

The lantern plan for Point Vicente. Pointe Vicente had a larger lens than Point Fermin so could be seen at greater distances. Note the diagonal astragals.

Marking the entrance to San Pedro Harbor, the San Pedro Breakwater Lighthouse was completed in 1913. Photo by Candace Clifford

Marking the entrance to San Pedro Harbor, the San Pedro Breakwater Lighthouse was completed in 1913. Photo by Candace Clifford

Fortunately the CAMM conference included a narrated cruise of the harbors of San Pedro and Long Beach so I was able to capture the San Pedro Breakwater Light, also known as the Los Angeles Harbor Light and locally as “Angels Gate.” Still an active aid to navigation, the tower is located at the end of two-mile breakwater. It welcomes all types of vessels into the nation’s busiest container port. In 1928, Los Angeles Harbor Light Keeper Frank Weller described his duties as consisting of: Standing watches and upkeep of station and grounds, illuminating apparatus, fog signal engines, motors and generators, radio beacon apparatus, aga beacons, oil beacons, gas buoys, motor launch, sail and rowboats.

The Fresnel lens from the Los Angeles Harbor Light is on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

The Fresnel lens from the Los Angeles Harbor Light is on display at the Los Angeles Maritime Museum.

The watches average eight or more hours a day. The first watch is from sunset to 11 p.m. . . . The man on watch starts to light up I.O.V. lamp by heating up the lamp with alcohol; keeps a good light at all times; sees that clockwork and lens is on time; keeps watch on the weather; operates radio beacon for fifteen minutes every hour from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.; and in foggy weather or smoky weather operates fog signal continuously. . . .  Weller had started out as an assistant keeper in 1916. He became keeper around 1922. In 1928 he had two assistants–James E. Dudley and Herman L. Francis. Apparently life at this “bachelor station” was challenging for the assistant keepers. Their high turnover rate indicates that it was not a popular assignment. The Los Angeles Harbor Light was manned until the light was automated in 1973.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is located in the old ferry terminal on the San Pedro waterfront.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is located in the old ferry terminal on the San Pedro waterfront.

Researching Lighthouse Keepers

Keepers generally did not write their superiors in Washington but confined their correspondence to the  local superintendent of lighthouses before 1852 and the district inspector after 1852. This letter from Elizabeth Williams, keeper at Little Traverse Lighthouse, is an exception.  She is thanking the U.S. Light-House Board for a recent commendation. (RG 26 Entry 48 File 8645)

Keepers generally did not write their superiors in Washington but confined their correspondence to the local superintendent of lighthouses (before 1852) and the district inspector (after 1852). This letter from Elizabeth Williams, keeper at Little Traverse Lighthouse, is an exception. She is thanking the U.S. Light-House Board for a recent commendation. (RG 26 Entry 48 File 8645)

I receive a number of queries about researching lighthouse keepers so I’d like to devote a post to some of the resources available in the National Archives. Since it’s still Women’s History Month, I will illustrate this piece with records used in creating Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers. (Please note that you can click the images to enlarge them for easier reading.)

Unless noted, all of these records are located at the downtown Washington, D.C. facility.

Registers of Keepers

It is fairly easy to compile lists of keepers for lighthouses between 1848 to 1912 by using the Registers of Keepers available on microfilm. M1373 consists of 6 rolls, arranged geographically. All registers include an index; later registers are indexed by both the station and last name of the keeper, so if you know the keeper’s name it is fairly easy to find where he or she served.

Detail of microfilm showing Miss Hiern's approintment as keeper on 18 October 1844. (M1373)

Detail of microfilm showing Miss C.A. Hiern’s approintment as keeper of Pass Christian on 18 October 1844. (M1373)

Note Juliet Nichol's marginal notation about the San Francisco earthquake in her log for April 1906.

Note Juliet Nichol’s marginal notation about the San Francisco earthquake in her log for April 1906. (RG 26 Entry 80 (NC-31) )

Keepers’ Logbooks

Finding keepers after 1912 is more challenging. I look first at any surviving logbooks. (Keepers were required to keep logs starting in 1872.) Logs generally indicate when a keeper reported for duty. Some logs are very detailed, others very cursory. After 1939, when the Coast Guard took over the administration of lighthouses, the log changed from a two-page format for every month to a two-page format for every day so finding personnel changes can be very time consuming. Some commanding officers provided a “crew list” at the front of the monthly log listing all personnel. The commanding officer signed each page so they are easy to spot. (Logs are found in RG 26 Entries 80, 330, P-65 and 159)

1928 Job Description

In 1928 keeper salaries were reclassified. To help facilitate this process, each keeper filled out a two-page form providing their job description. They also provided the date they entered the lighthouse service and the date they were appointed to that station.  (RG 26 Entry 111 (A-1))

Most of the keeper letters in the field records are generally about routine matters--supplies, leaves of absences, requests for transfer, care of station or machinery, etc . (RG 26 Entry 6 (NC-63)

Most of the keeper letters in the field records are generally about routine matters–supplies, leaves of absences, requests for transfer, upkeep of station or machinery, etc . (RG 26 Entry 6 (NC-63))

Field Records

Letters from keepers are rather rare. If your keeper served in the 5th, 7th, 9th, or 12th districts around the turn of the 19th century, there may be letters written by the keeper to his or her boss, the district inspector. These letters were bound into volumes by the district office. Some have an index at the back of the volume; others are indexed in a separate volume. Found in RG 26 Entries 3, 5, 8, and 9 (NC-63). See my RG 26 finding aid for more information on these entries.

USCG Retirement Cards

There are nine boxes of retirement cards organized by the employee’s name. These include all types of employees — keepers, depot workers, lightship and tender crew, and district office staff. Each card gives a summary of the employee’s service. The cards appear to cover the time period between the two world wars. (RG 26 Entry 7 (A-1))

Sample letter from RG 26 Entry 82

Sample letter from RG 26 Entry 82

Nominations and Appointments

The National Archives staff put together a database of lighthouse keepers mentioned in correspondence found in RG 26 Entries 82, 85, 16, 17I and 259. It also includes ship crew, inspectors, and lifesaving service personnel. You can access the database with the help of a maritime archivist in the finding aids room or see a modified version as this searchable PDF.

You can also find letters regarding appointments and personnel changes during the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) period in the correspondence from district inspectors in RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31). The original letters were bound into letterbooks, many of which burned in the 1922 fire. There is an index of these letters in RG 26 Entry 38 that provide summaries of each letter received.

Form letter from district inspector informing the USLHB of the transfer of Margaret Norvell from Head of Passes to Port Ponchartrain.  (RG 26 Entry 24)

Form letter from district inspector informing the USLHB of the transfer of Margaret Norvell from Head of Passes to Port Ponchartrain. (RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31))

RG 26 Entry 32 (NC-31) “Letters Sent by Treasury Dept. & USLHB, 1851-1907” also include correspondence regarding nominations and appointments. Some volumes contain press copies of appointment letters. Note there is a gap between 1877 and 1905.

There are notices of appointment for the 1849-1873 time period in RG 26 Entry 99 (NC-31).

Keepers before 1848

For keeper appointments before 1848, I rely on RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31) “Letters Sent Regarding the Light-House Service, 1792 – 1852.”  These volumes record every outgoing letter sent by the administrator of lighthouses, starting with the Commissioner of the Revenue. He would correspond with the local collector of customs who served as superintendent of lighthouses for his region. The collector would be notified whenever a new keeper was appointed. The volumes are indexed.

Stephen Pleasonton notifies the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the appointment of Ann Davis as keeper of Point Lookout Lighthouse has been approved.

Stephen Pleasonton notified the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the appointment of Ann Davis as keeper of Point Lookout Lighthouse has been approved. (RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31))

Conversely, the collector would send letters to the lighthouse establishment in Washington notifying them of the need for a keeper, suggesting keepers to be considered for appointment, or any other issues concerning the keepers under their employ. Occasionally the collector would forward a request or report from an individual keeper as attachments. The collector would also submit accounts for paying the keepers. These original letters are organized by the port at which the collector served in RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31).

The local superintendent reports a fire at Point aux Barques Lighthouse where Catherine Shook was keeper. (RG 26 Entry 17C)

The local superintendent reported a fire at Point aux Barques Lighthouse where Catherine Shook was keeper. (RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31))

You can also find keepers in the Federal Registers of Employees that were issued every two years for most of the 19th century.  Look under the section for the Treasury Department. It also lists the collectors of customs and USLHB members, engineers, and inspectors. Those volumes belonging to the National Archives can be found in the library at the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. I understand that some of these volumes are available online.

Letters to the Secretary of the Treasury

Early on, appointments had to be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. Gradually it appears that he was merely informed of changes in keepers. Entry 31 (NC-31) “Letters Sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, 1852-1908” confirm appointments made during most of the U.S. Light-House Board period, 1852-1908.

Oath of Office for Mary Reynolds, keeper at Pass Christian. (RG 217 Entry 282)

Oath of Office for Mary Reynolds, keeper at Pass Christian Lighthouse. (RG 217 Entry 282)

Oaths of Offices

Every keeper was required to sign an oath of office during the U.S. Light-House Board period. RG 217 Entry 282 includes oaths of offices for all types of Treasury Department personnel, including keepers from 1865 – 1894.

Personnel File

If the keeper served after the Lighthouse Service became part of the Civil Service in 1896, there should be a personnel file at National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. See <http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/> for more information.

Online Resources

Kraig Anderson includes lists of keepers for each lighthouse on his comprehensize webiste <www.lighthousefriends.com>.

Jeremy D’Entremont does the same on his website <www.newenglandlighthouses.net> for New England Lighthouses and Terry Pepper for western Great Lakes lighthouses at <www.terrypepper.com/lights/index.htm>.

~ Created by Candace Clifford, March 2015