Category Archives: Lighthouse keepers

Ice and Lighthouses

Screwpile lighthouses were very vulnerable to icy conditions.  After many were damaged or swept away in ice flows, they were replaced with lighthouses built on caisson foundations.

Screwpile lighthouses were very vulnerable to icy conditions. After many were damaged or swept away in ice flows, they were replaced with lighthouses built on sturdier caisson foundations.

On February 11,1936, H.D. King, Commissioner of Lighthouses, wrote the Secretary of Commerce:

The extremely critical conditions due to prolonged and severe cold and resulting ice conditions along the North Atlantic seaboard have placed in serious jeopardy many aids to navigation, both fixed and floating, particularly in Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries . . . 

King goes on to mention that the Janes Island Lighthouse, near Crisfield, Maryland was destroyed; however, the keepers had previously abandoned the station for their safety. Personnel were evacuated from Tangier Island, Point No Point, Ragged Point, Tue Marshes, Love Point, and York Spit Lighthouses. Sixty-one minor lights had been destroyed before the end of January.

Article from the Washington Herald on the same day King wrote his communication.

Article from the Washington Herald on the same day King wrote his his memo to the Commerce Secretary.

King noted below the article shown here that a plane had been in contact with Solomon’s Lump Station and arrangements made for a distress signal that the keeper could display in an emergency. Also that “attempts are being made to reach station, both from Bay & over ice from land to take off the keeper.”

An article in the Baltimore Evening Sun, also dated February 11, reported that “Five Eastern shoremen tied together with ropes, yesterday crossed the ice to the Love Point light to bring the keeper ashore.” The lighthouse tender Violet  was able to reach Seven-Foot Knoll and remove its keeper but had to return to Baltimore before nightfall without visiting any other lights.

A press release dated February 12, 1936, reported that on February 9th, the War Department sent a plane to survey conditions and communicate with keepers still at their stations. At that time a supply of food had been dropped for Keeper H.C. Stirling at Solomon’s Lump Light. Conditions were described as the worst since 1918, when several stations were swept away.

Source: National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 50, File 3655.

Minneapolis shoal lores

A USCG tender services Minneapolis Shoal Light Station in Lake Michigan in 1944. Keepers were taken off offshore lighthouses in the Great Lakes when navigation closed for the season. National Archives photo.


Lighthouses at the Start of World War II

Scott Prices’s recent post “Pearl Harbor: 5 things you didn’t know about the Coast Guard that day” starting me thinking about what I had in my research files about lighthouses around the beginning of World War II.

Makapuu logbook

The log for the Makapuu Lighthouse, on Oahu not far from Honolulu, shows that watches were increased in the week after the Pearl Harbor attack.

As you all know, the U.S. Coast Guard became part of the U.S. Navy during the war.  On December 12, 1941, a confidential memorandum from U.S. Coast Guard Commandant R.R. Waesche discussed “Coast Guard National Defense Functions”:

While all reports received at Headquarters and the Navy Department have shown that the duties performed by Coast Guard officers and men have been very satisfactory, and in many cases deserving of commendation, I believe it desirable to call attention of our Senior Officers and to Captains of the Port, the following matters:

In addition to the duties being performed by Coast Guard officers and men at sea, there are two National Defense functions of paramount importance now being performed by the Coast Guard organization. I refer to the blacking out of aids to navigation on short notice, and the prevention of sabotage in our ports. . . . No organized plan of sabotage has as yet broken out in our seaports, but it is to be expected any time that such an organized effort may occur.

Senior Coast Guard Officers of the Naval District are also directly responsible to see that adequate and efficient plans are made for quickly extinguishing navigation lights. Some plans received at Headquarters require from two to three hours to black out a harbor. I believe by this time that this period has been greatly reduced.  Among the various measures that may be taken to accomplish the general purpose are the following:

a) Replacing lighted aids with unlighted aids for the duration of the war.

b) Reducing the candle power of various lighted aids to navigation.

c) Removal of all radio beacon buoys.

d) Taking measures to prevent lighted aids to navigation from being seen from the air while still visible from a surface vessel.

e) The feasibility of withdrawing lightships from their stations and replacing them if necessary, with other types of aids to navigation

f) The elimination of radio beacons either on lightships or on shore stations.

g) Limitation or elimination of fog signals

h) Elimination or limitation of lighted aids to navigation.

(Source: National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 82C)

This memo found in National Archives, RG 26, Entry 82c, indicates that an incident such as the Pearl Harbor attack was not unanticipated.

This memo found in National Archives, RG 26, Entry 82c, indicates that an incident such as the Pearl Harbor attack was not unanticipated.

It is interesting to note that a memo regarding “Coastal Lookouts at lighthouse stations, etc.” dated December 5, 1941, was issued before the attack. It begins:

In two districts the matter of establishing coastal lookouts at light stations to be manned by Coast Guard personnel has been considered and is being approved. These are located at prominent salients along the coast where continuous watches from lifeboat stations are not available. In some cases, at least, such lookouts would be provided with search light facilities for signaling or for challenging and communication with passing ships. . . .

(Source: National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 82C)

Makapuu Point Lighthouse. National Archives photo

Makapuu Point Lighthouse. National Archives photo

Letters from the First District Lighthouse Inspector, 1884 – 1885

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna's application for a lifesaving medal.

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna’s application for a lifesaving medal.

Many lighthouse “letterbooks” were damaged in a fire in the basement of the Department of Commerce in 1921. (This same fire destroyed the 1890 census.) I’ve heard that 40% of the lighthouse records that existed at that time were destroyed. Many surviving volumes were damaged and are too fragile to handle. In order to make them accessible to the general public I have started a digitization project to capture the damaged volumes.

The volume of letters from the first district Inspector to the U.S. Light-House Board, 1884 – 1885, was more than 500 pages–too large to create a PDF for web use so for this volume, I have created an image gallery.

Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse Keeper Marcus Hanna.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Keeper Marcus Hanna. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Most of the letters are routine but I noticed that this volume covers the January 28, 1885, rescue of crew from the shipwrecked schooner Australia (see p. 188).  Cape Elizabeth lighthouse keeper Marcus Hanna went on to receive a gold lifesaving medal for his role in the rescue. On page 418, you find First District Inspector A.S. Crowninshield’s letter:

I have the honor to forward herewith an application from Mr. Marcus A. Hanna, Principal Keeper of Cape Elizabeth Light Station for a medal of honor for rescuing the lives of two persons from the wreck of the Schooner “Australia” on the morning of Jan. 28th ’85: together with sworn statements from several of the eye witnesses of the circumstances, and others.

In referring this application of Mr. Hanna’s to the Board, I would respectfully state, without hesitation, that Mr. Hanna’s exposure to danger on the occasion in question, was made under great peril to himself; and in my opinion, I believe him entitled to the reward he is now seeking.

The wreck of the Australia drew support for a lifesaving station that was established at Cape Elizabeth in 1888. More on Keeper Hanna can be found in Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past.

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine.  Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine. Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

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 — 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.

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.



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.