Category Archives: Lighthouse preservation

Support Needed for Designating National Lighthouse Day

As you may know there’s a big push afloat to have August 7th designated “National Lighthouse Day.” In 2013, August 7th, the day the lighthouse service was established, was recognized in a congressional bill. But it was just for that year. Now the effort is to have the date recognized in perpetuity.

August 7, 2014, is the 225th anniversary of the first act of Congress that made the administration of lighthouses the responsibility of the new federal government.  It also marks the 75th anniversary of the transfer of lighthouses to the jurisdiction of the U.S. Coast Guard. And it will also be the opening day of the new National Lighthouse Museum Educational Center on Staten Island.

There is now a facebook page devoted to this effort. It provides suggestions on how to contact your congressional representatives to support this designation. You can also show your support by “liking” this page if you have a facebook account.


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

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.

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

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

Modern Day Lighthouse Keeper – Bob Trapani

On my recent trip to Maine, I had the pleasure of stopping by Owls Head Lighthouse and catching up with Bob Trapani, president of the American Lighthouse Foundation.  The lighthouse, as you can see from these photos, looks fantastic.  Bob’s hard work has paid off.  Folks can now enter the tower and climb a few steps to enjoy the view and see the beautiful fourth-order Fresnel lens.  The keeper’s dwelling now houses the offices of the American Lighthouse Foundation on the second floor with the first floor devoted to a gift shop and some interpretation.  (And yes I did drop off the new edition of Women Who Kept the Lights, the first copy I distributed actually.) Bob has plans to enhance the interpretation and is currently writing a book about the station using lots of material from the National Archives.


Bob Trapani, keeper of Owls Head Lighthouse, copyright Candace Clifford, 2013


Owls Head Lighthouse, copyright Candace Clifford, 2013

In addition to Owls Head, the American Lighthouse Foundation is affiliated with some 20 other light stations. One of the biggest challenges Bob faces is the continuous maintenance and repair these station require in their harsh marine environments.

A talented photographer, Bob posts a lot of his wonderul photos to Owls Head facebook page.  Bob also finds time to work with the local Coast Guard’s Aids to Navigation team, getting a first-hand perspective on caring for offshore lights and the evolving technology. I am very pleased to feature him in the first post of my series on modern-day lighthouse keepers.