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Serving At a Lighthouse

September 25, 2019

Gull Rocks Light Lighthouse Log (Rhode Island). “January 1, 1931: New Years Day. All dressed up and no place to go.” But Keeper James Gallen had hardly dressed in a special garb for the celebration. In 1883, the Lighthouse Service had published a 14-page pamphlet describing and illustrating the type of dress and work uniforms that keepers and assistants were obliged to wear. The dress uniform consisted of blue pants, vest, suit jacket and flat top, navy-blue cap. The station’s personnel were also expected to wear well-kept brown working duds while occupied with “dirty work” around the lighthouse or its dwelling. If found out of uniform in any way by a Lighthouse Inspector, the keeper and/or his assistant were subject to a fine, reduction in pay or immediate dismissal from their post. Women keepers, usually the wife of a deceased husband-keeper, were never supplied with an official uniform.
The unannounced arrival of a Lighthouse Inspector could send a keeper and his family into a state of panic. These official intruders often wore white gloves, as they searched for any amount of dust around ledges, table-tops, windows and door frames. At the end of the inspection, the white gloves had to be as clean as they had been when first worn. The station’s log book was also carefully checked along with additional records regarding oil inventory and other lighthouse supplies.
Lighthouse duty was a 24 hours per day, 365 days per year occupation. Throughout most of the 1800’s, there were no provisions for days off, illness or vacation. Light stations maned by only one keeper were particularly difficult. If he or she had to leave the site, a family member was expected to take over or a substitute had to be hired at the keeper’s own expense. Typically, a lighthouse’s lanterns were exhibited from sunset to sunrise. The keeper was expected to remain with the beacon for at least a half-hour after its lighting and check it at twice overnight. During storms, keepers were instructed to remain with the beacon to assure that it continued to show a light. Any winter ice also had to be constantly clear away from the lantern-rooms windows. Then, under the light of a new day, the lens and lantern had to be properly cleaned along with a host of other maintenance tasks.
The Boston Light located on Little Brewster Island, was the Nation’s first lighthouse (1716). Initially, it used canon fire as a fog signal. An approaching sailing vessel fired (hopefully a blank) its cannon, which was answered as many times as necessary by the light’s keeper. Luckily, fog bells were soon introduced that were eventually operated by a clock work mechanism. Unfortunately for Keeper Thomas Chase at Long Point Light, Provincetown, Massachusetts, the mechanism had become disabled during a particularly heavy fog. Over the next two nights, he was forced to strike the bell by hand, three strokes, every minute. A fog horn was also probably not too peasant to be around. On visiting England’s Eddystone Lighthouse, a reporter had found its keeper with “cotton wool in each ear”; one way to partially block the aggravating, repetitive noise!
With sufficient land surrounding a lighthouse, keepers raised poultry, cows and owned horse(s) for transportation. Fishing was also an important food source. But some light stations that simply stood on a rock surface, made its occupants dependent on deliveries of fresh water and all other supplies.
Lighthouse keepers were instructed to summon aid or, if possible, assist in saving lives and property of vessels in distress. There are many examples of successful rescues performed by keepers and personnel aboard lightships. But at age 18 years, Ida Lewis who officially took over light keeping at Rhode Island’s Lime Rock Light after her dad suffered a stroke, is probably the Nation’s best-known lighthouse hero. As America’s first female keeper, she managed to save 18 lives during her 54 years at Lime Rock. She was only a 15-years-old kid when she made her first rescue. Two soldiers stationed at Fort Adams, had spent the day at Newport. A winter storm struck as they were making their way back to their base in a rowboat. In the issuing waves, the vessel capsized. Without hesitation, Ida made her way to them and pulled them into her boat. Years later, when questioned about all of her heroic deeds, she stated “we have only one life to live and when our time comes, we’ve got to go. I never thought of danger when people needed help.”
To help whyle their way in their isolated confines, keepers went fishing, played cards, checkers, chess and/or took up reading. To fill some of those needs, during the late 1800’s, the Lighthouse Establishment began distributing small libraries of books that were rotated every three months. Out of concern for these in valuable lighthouse sentinels, in 1929, Captain William Wincapaw began delivering Christmas gift parcels to some isolated lights. Boarding his Travel Air A 6000 single radial engine aircraft, he airdropped the packages to lighthouses along the coast of Maine. Thus was born “The Flying Santa.” Included in the packages were “newspapers, magazines, books, coffee, tea, candy, tobacco, soup and other items.” The program became so popular that, with outside financial help, it was soon expanded to lights from Maine to Connecticut and eventually on both coasts. In the late 1930’s, Wincapaw was joined by author Edward Rowe Snow who continued the program until 1981. By then he was 80 years of age.
In 1939, the US Coast Guard took over all operations regarding aids to navigation. Civilian keepers were given the option of (#1) retiring, provided that they had enough time in service, (#2) transferring to the service at an applicable rate or (#3) remaining on as a civilian keeper under the aegis of the Coast Guard. The Nation’s last civilian keeper, Frank Schubert, grew up on Staten Island. Just out of High School, he joined the Lighthouse Service where he was assigned to the buoy tender Tulip. In 1939, he was transferred to New York’s Old Orchard Shoal Lighthouse. He later served at Governors Island and was assigned to the Coney Island Light in July of 1960. Despite its eventual automation, he remained at the station until 2003, where he past away at age 88. Frank exemplified the dedication of all of the Nation’s lighthouse keepers.

 

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