What was life like for a lighthouse keeper? Busy? Boring? Dangerous? Lonely? Yes to all.
Let’s take busy first. Keepers were required to keep a daily logbook of daily events, accomplishments, shipping traffic, and weather conditions. We know these things because logbooks have been saved over the years. The government required detailed record keeping. There are entries about dusting, scrubbing and painting. The daily routine included trimming wicks, cleaning the lens and keeping the windows free from soot.
Photo of Robert Carlson, circa 1909-1913 courtesy of National Park Service
Before electricity, many of the lighthouses had manual fog bells. When fog would roll in the keeper had to ring the bell in the designated pattern. Ships used this pattern to know where they were. So a keeper may have to ring a bell two gongs every 15 seconds until the fog lifted!
So life was busy but could get boring do to the constant routine. But the keeper had to keep everything in a constant state of good repair, as there were unannounced routine inspections.
Now on to danger. Remember, keepers had to haul heavy oilcans up to the lantern room for the light. This may mean trips up the stairs every couple of hours. If the lighthouse had a pulley system for rotating the lens, that has to be reset every so many hours. Gears presented a danger to fingers especially. Hanging outside a lighthouse tower painting was extremely dangerous.
When you see a lighthouse, you know it’s because there are dangerous waters around and that location put keepers in danger. Violent storms, ice flows and floods presented life-threatening danger. Ships in heavy fog have been recorded as running into lighthouses sitting offshore. Lighthouse keepers risked their lives trying to rescue crew and passengers from sinking ships. Lighthouses were also under threat during times of war.
By far the biggest danger to keepers besides falling was fire. Until the use of electricity, all lamps where wicked and burned some form of oil or kerosene. Fire was a daily threat. Loneliness. Remember, most of the Chesapeake Bay lighthouses sat offshore or on remote islands. Keepers at these lights were not able to have their families with them at the lighthouse. Their companions were the assistant keepers and books. Yes! Books were an important part of the keeper’s little free time. Lighthouse tenders on their scheduled stops would drop off a new “library”. The library was a wooden box that would be filled with books. The men stationed at the lighthouse would have these books to read until the next visit from the tender.
Lighthouse keepers found a day trip to shore or their time off a major event. Most offshore keepers worked two weeks at the lighthouse and then had one week on shore. But remember, getting to shore was always weather dependent.
Visitors to the remote lighthouses were treated royally.
Keepers who were fortunate to be stationed on land-based lighthouses like Cove Point were able to have their families with them. Every family member helped with the responsibilities of keeping the lights burning and daily chores around the house. Most had vegetable gardens and raised some domesticated animals. For children who lived on islands close in to shore, they rowed to shore daily to attend school. In more remote islands, children were home schooled or sent to the mainland during the school year.
The conditions were poor, keepers got no holidays, and their job was to maintain the lighthouse and living quarters. The lighthouse keepers would often work for years at a time without a change in location. Keeper duties were pasted down from father to son and in some cases from father to daughter or husband to wife. Supplies were delivered once every two weeks or so, weather permitting.
But most lighthouse keepers would not have traded jobs with anyone else.
The men and women who tended the light were people of unparalleled dedication and courage. For some keepers the boredom and loneliness was like a slow death. But for most the lighthouses provided a life of learning, discovering and investigating nature.