Thursday, July 30, 2020

National Lighthouse Museum

Greetings Blog Readers and Lighthouse Fans,

In this time of pandemic, many of our lighthouse groups and museums are suffering. Please support them with small donations (or large ones).

One museum that definitely needs help is the National Lighthouse Museum at Staten Island, New York. Please send them donations, buy products from their website, and when possible, attend their tours. We've heard the Princess Royal of England (Princess Anne) will pay the museum a visit when it's safe to do so. How exciting is that??!! She is a great fan of lighthouses and supporter of the Northern Lighthouse Board of Scotland and Trinity House, the UK's lighthouse authority. We are proud to have her visit our national lighthouse museum.

Sign up for the National Lighthouse Museum's newsletters. They are fun, informative, and now have profiles of United States lighthouses in each issue. I love them and look forward to reading each one. They are very well done!

Here's a sample, saved from my Google docs acct. Click on it and then click on the docs address it brings up. Can you guess which lighthouse is profiled from the picture I've posted?

National Lighthouse Museum lighthouse article

Contact the National Lighthouse Museum at--

National Lighthouse Museum
200 The Promenade at Lighthouse Point
Staten Island, NY 10301-0296

Call 718-390-0040

Coast Guard Photo

From 1898 Scientific American Magazine

Monday, June 29, 2020

Fun for Kids & Adults in a Second or Third Childhood

As many of you know, I am on the Board of Directors of the U.S. Lighthouse Society. My primary work involves education, particularly youth education. The society recently launched a youth initiative. I am pleased and proud to share the first pages of kids' fun and stories mailed to the entire society membership, along with an introductory letter from me explaining the imitative and asking members to share our work. I'm asking the same of my blog readers. Share the fun! Download the pages below to print for a kid you know, or download them to send by email to a child, teacher, scout leader, youth counselor, etc. (And, if you're a kid at heart, have fun on your own!)

Photo courtesy of St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Memories from Point Fermin Lighthouse, California

My friend Martha McKenzie of Point Fermin Lighthouse in California wrote some great memories in the last issue of "To the Point." Read, enjoy, and consider joining this hardworking group.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The Lighthouse Keeper's Sea Dog

This story is from Harper's Monthy Magazine. I regret the issue date has been lost, but I believe its circa 1885. It's a great example of Victorian era prose. I hope you enjoy it!

Photo from Wallpapers

Thursday, February 27, 2020

The Potato Chip Lighthouse

Lighthouses are wonderful symbols for brands and logos. A stroll through the grocery aisles will tell you so. They’re on so many products—clam chowder, oyster crackers, juice drinks, canned sardines, salad dressing, and potato chips, to name just a few. Sometimes the lighthouse pictured is a generic one. Sometimes it’s a real lighthouse, like the one on Cape Cod Potato Chips bags. They’re my favorite chips, not just because they taste good and I’m a chipoholic, but because they support lighthouse preservation and education through their logo. (And…don’t tell, but Nauset Beach Lighthouse is my favorite!)

I thought you might enjoy learning about the famous potato chip lighthouse at Nauset Beach, Eastham, on Cape Cod National Seashore. It’s had a storied career! It stands watch on the “backside” of Cape Cod. If you imagine the Cape as an arm where the shoulder connects to the mainland and extends first east like a flexed biceps muscle and then north up the forearm to the fist, you can see the shape of Cape Cod. The “backside” is the name for the outside forearm beach that runs north-south up the middle of the cape. It’s one of the cape’s more dangerous places. Ships heading south toward Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard, or north toward Boston, pass by the “backside” of Cape Cod. It was and remains a dangerous area, rife with shoals and rocks and all manner of wild weather.

By the 1830s when lighthouse construction was in full swing in the United States, several lighthouses stood along this shore. There was a single beacon at Highland Light near Truro and twin lighthouses at Chatham on the elbow of the cape. Why twin lights? At this time, the United States had not adopted a technology to make lighthouses flash, so multiple lights were used in places where many beacons stood almost back to back along a treacherous stretch of shore, all of them white and all steady. The idea was that mariners would not confuse these close-together white, fixed lights. If some locations had multiple lights, they could be distinguished from places with single lights. It sounds like an over-lighting practice, and it was, but it was all we had in the United States before about 1850.

National Archives photo

On a shoreline as dangerous as the “backside,” a skipper needed to be able to see a light off the bow of a ship as one disappeared off the stern. But nothing stood between Highland Light and the Chatham twin lights. Coastal vessels—usually small fishing types that hugged the shoreline—often got into trouble on the “backside.” Thus, in 1837 the U.S. Lighthouse Service decided to put a navigational aid on the cliffs at Eastham, about hallway between Highland and Chatham.

To avoid confusion, they opted for triple lights—three diminutive little lighthouses standing on the cliff about 150 feet apart. Each one was 15 feet tall, whitewashed brick, and topped with a black lantern. The three little lighthouses looked like women in white skirts and black hats. Sailors quickly dubbed them the “Three Sisters” lighthouses. They began their career with simple oil lamps and reflectors that produced fixed white lights. Years, later they were upgraded with sixth-order Fresnel lenses in 1858 and fourth-order Fresnel lenses in 1873. These optics cast their beams far enough to sea that the coastal vessels and those traveling several miles offshore had guidance along the perilous “backside.”

Coast Guard photo

If you know this area, then you know nothing is static about the cliffs, hollows, and beaches on Cape Cod. They are in constant flux. Wind, tides, and storms continually chisel away at these features. Sand is an easily movable material, so willing to blow this way or that. The sandy beach and cliffs at Nauset have changed considerably in my lifetime alone, and much more in the three hundred years lighthouses have guarded the cape. Very large storms can eat away a foot of the cliff in a matter of hours. On average, it loses 2 to 3 feet a year. Between 2009 and 2018, the beach cliffs lost 16 feet of sand per year. Likewise, the cliffs at Highland Lighthouse and the low beach at Chatham have changed shape and shrunk over the years.

The author and husband, Jonathan, in autumn 1977 at Nauset Beach. Pregnant with son Scott. Photo was taken by our five-year-old daughter, Jessica. Note the cliffs.

By 1892 the “Three Sisters” lighthouses seemed as if they had hiked up their skirts and walked to the edge of the cliff. In reality, the cliff had eroded away and crept up on the hems of their skirts. The Lighthouse Service abandoned the three brick lighthouses that year and built three new 22 foot tall wooden “Sisters” 30 feet west of the original site, well away from the cliff everyone thought.  But within two decades the hungry elements had eaten back the cliff and again threatened the little towers. They were moved again in 1911, back some 100 feet from the cliff this time.

By now, the need for multiple lights was long gone. Lenses could flash, occult, eclipse, and otherwise identify themselves in a variety of patterns. The multiple lights at Chatham (twin lights) and Nauset (triple lights) hadn’t really been necessary since the 1850s when the Fresnel lens technology was adopted at American lighthouses. But Cape Codders loved their multiple lights and couldn’t give up the tradition. They were like family! When the Lighthouse Board suggested demolishing the twins and triplets, public outcry was loud and forceful!

The tower on the left was barged from Chatham to Nauset Beach.

Rather than destroy the extra towers, they were extinguished and moved. In 1911 after a second move back from the cliff, the Lighthouse Service opted to relight just one of the “Sisters”—the middle one. She became known as “The Beacon.” The other two “Sisters” stood dark for a time, and then they lost their hats when the government removed them and sold them to Mrs. Helen Cummings of Eastham for $3.50. (The lanterns have  never been found, unfortunately.) Mrs. Cummings had the two towers jacked them up on a low, makeshift trailer and carted off to her beach home where they were positioned at either end of the cottage. It was an anguished family separation. Lighthouses don’t translate well into vacation cottages or other non-historic uses. They lose their mission and cultural integrity, and sometimes they look foolish. These did.

The fate of the Three Sisters--top photo from National Park Service shows two of the sisters used as the ends of a summer cottage. No one knows where their lanterns went. Bottom photo by Jonathan DeWire shows the author in front of "The Beacon," the only sister to keep its lantern, on the beach at Nauset in 1978.

The remaining “Sister,” still called “The Beacon,” flashed her light another five years before she, too, was decommissioned and sold into private hands. She was used for various purposes over the years. When I first saw her in April 1979 she appeared to have hosted a sandwich shop the summer prior. I had read about the “Three Sisters” in an Edward Rowe Snow book—Famous Lighthouses of New England. Intrigued, I set about researching the “Sisters,” and the Nauset Lighthouse, which in 1979 stood a few hundred yards from the defunct “Beacon” and wore a handsome red and white daymark. (The daymark was added in 1940.)

I learned that the Nauset Light had traveled up the cape from Chatham in 1923 to take the place of “The Beacon.” Chatham’s twin lights, built in 1877, weren’t needed any more than Nauset’s triplets were. So the twins were separated, and the north twin at Chatham was removed from its foundation and carried up to Nauset, parked high on the cliff, and painted with her familiar daymark. A sturdy wood-shingled house was built next to it for the keeper.

As automation became the buzzword for the Coast Guard after World War II, most of the cape’s lighthouses were relieved of their keepers and outfitted with self-sufficient beacons and fog signals. Nauset Beach Lighthouse was automated in the early 1950s and the unoccupied keeper’s house was sold into private hands. Business woman Mary Daubenspeck of New Hanpshire bought the house in the 1970s. I met Mary in the mid 1980s and enjoyed a tour of her house and a climb up the lighthouse. The Coast Guard had given her a set of keys to the tower in case anything needed immediate attention. She admitted about the only attention the tower got was tours for her friends and guests and an occasional window washing. It was sturdy, and the Coast Guard checked on it about twice a year to make sure the beacon was operating properly.

Mary Daubenspeck and her dogs at the base of the lighthouse. Mary died of cancer in 2001. Photo from

Mary told me the Cape Cod National Seashore had purchased the “Three Sisters” lighthouses from their private owners and wanted to recoup the “backside’s” lighthouse history. The “Sisters” were in storage awaiting funding for preservation and interpretation. The national seashore also didn’t want to see Nauset Beach Lighthouse lost, either to the sea or neglect.

Everyone, including Mary Daubenspeck, was concerned about the edge of the cliff creeping ever closer to the keeper’s house and the tower.  The Coast Guard was concerned too, so much that they felt the lighthouse would eventually have to be decommissioned and torn down. It wasn’t really needed anymore, not with GPS and better ship navigation in the modern age. There was no way to shore up the cliff without a huge expenditure, and even then the project would only slow erosion. Nature would win in the end. Mary told me she hoped a group might form to move the historic lighthouse to a safer location back from the beach—just as the “Three Sisters” had been moved several times.

It was no surprise in 1993 when the Coast Guard announced that it would decommission Nauset Beach Lighthouse, in spite of the fact that it had been admitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. There was no money in the Coast Guard budget to save it. But a group quickly formed called the Nauset Light Preservation Society, composed of local Cape Codders, and got to work fundraising and making the public aware of the plight of this historic light station.

In the mid-1990s I met the tireless leader of the Nauset Light Preservation Society, Pam Nobili. (Pam died a few years ago and is greatly missed for her energy and hard work.) She established a gift shop on the beach and headed up fundraisers. (She sold my books in the shop too!) Money was raised, grants were obtained, and in 1996 the lighthouse was moved off its foundation so close to the cliff, loaded onto a special hydraulically-balanced truck, and transported to a safer location back from the sea. Additionally, Mary Daubenspeck negotiated an agreement with the National Park Service to donate her house to the Cape Cod National Seashore, and it too was moved back from the edge of the cliff in 1998. The tower’s fourth-order lens was removed and placed on display in the Salt Pond Visitor Center of the national seashore. Mary Daubenspeck wrote a little book about the lighthouse. She died of cancer in 2001. Her generosity in giving back to Cape Cod one of its historic buildings is remembered and honored at the present-day site of the tower and keeper’s house.

On display today in a wooded area behind the current lighthouse. Photo by The Lighthouse People

“All’s well that ends well!” Today, visitors to the Cape Cod National Seashore can expect a treat: The “Three Sisters” lighthouses have been refurbished and put on display in a wooded area near the beach where they once served shipping. Nauset Beach Lighthouse and its dwelling also are preserved for viewing and enjoyment. Plenty of signage helps visitors appreciate this unique chapter in lighthouse history—triple lighthouses and a twin light that metaphorically walked up the “backside” of the cape to work on Nauset Beach.

You can join the group that saved this treasure by writing to Nauset Light Preservation Society, P.O. Box 941, Eastham, MA 02642. Their website is

And if you’re hungry for potato chips, get yourself some free ones at the Cape Cod Potato Chip factory in Hyannis, Massachusetts. You can tour the factory, learn about the company’s involvement in saving the Nauset Beach Lighthouse, and try some its many flavors of chips. The factory is located at 1000 Breed’s Hill Road in Hyannis. Tours are offered Mon-Fri 9:00-5:00. More information can be found at or

Monday, February 10, 2020

February at Lighthouses

Enjoy some February pages from my out-of-print Lighthouse Almanac: A Compendium of Science, History & Fascinating Lore about Our Favorite Seamarks, originally published in 2000. The pages are in no particular order. I inserted them large so they are more easily read. (You might find used copies on Amazon or eBay.)

Monday, January 6, 2020

Culebrita Lighthouse, Puerto Rico

Culebrita Lighthouse sits on a lonely island off the eastern end of Puerto Rico. It took over four years to construct under Spanish oversight. It first shone for mariners in February 1886.

A gentleman in Puerto Rico sent me this difficult but heartwarming story of the construction of Culebrita Lighthouse. It conveys how isolated the place is and how hard the lighthouse was to build. (I regret his name has been lost. The story was passed from person to person years ago and finally to me in the late 1990s.)

In its day, the lighthouse was beautiful and well-kept. That would change after automation. (Photo from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's files.)

At the time that some industrialists from the Capital were negotiating the purchase or lease of the island of Culebra, which at the time did not even had an official name, the Spanish Crown was in the process of approving the construction of a brick and stone lighthouse on top of a mountain in the small island east of the island of Culebra that, would serve as navigational aid to the boats and vessels in the area, and at the same time, serve as an observation post to all navigable waters between this island and the Danish island of St. Thomas.
     By some documents that we have read and by the accounts of some of the people that in their youth worked in the construction of the lighthouse, we know that the lighthouse went into service 1874. Of the numerous incidents, many dramatic and others picturesque, that happened during the course of the project we shall mention a few of them. After the construction of a wooden dock in the south shore of island, the workers started right away to build a long and twisted trail up the steep hill with picks and shovels, in order to get to the top of the mountain where the lighthouse was to be built. All the materials as well as all the machinery had to be transported through the steep and rustic trail in hand borrows and in the shoulders of the workers, since it was not possible the use of carts in such a steep and pronounce slope. Soon after the transportation of materials had started, half of the working force had left.

     There were not many of the workers that had been brought up from Vieques and the Capital, that did no have their shoulders peeled, theirs hands bruised, and many sores in their bodies caused by the many stings from the mosquitoes, that constantly attacked them day and night Alarmed by the situation, the engineer in charge of the project urgently requested from his superiors in the Capital, the shipment of mules and horses for transporting the material from the dock to the work site. The following week arrived from San Juan a galleon with five beautiful donkeys, male and females, with their corresponding food and outfits. Because the donkeys were of different sex, some imported from Spain, others raised in the Province, it was rare not see he baskets full of material on the ground, material rolling down the hill, and wholesale kicking and biting. Occasionally a peculiar situation used to come up, for a female donkey to work without resistance, it had to be paired with a male donkey at the beginning of the working day.
     One rainy day, halfway the steep hillside a fiery scuffle began between two male donkeys imported from Spain and soon one them would careen of the cliff with the baskets full of bricks. It is sad to say that the accident was a total loss for the project. Because the terrain so rugged, nothing could save. At the start of the construction of the lighthouse tower the workers started to protest, threatening to walk out of the job if they were provided with shoes to protect themselves from the irritating effects of the hydraulic lime that in great quantities they had to used to plaster the bricks. The engineer in charge of the job, no sooner would he calmed exalted spirits of the protestant workers by promising a shipment of shoes suitable for the kind of work. A few days later, a shipment arrived in the same galleon that months before had brought the donkeys, and among other cargo, there were some wooden boxes containing the shoes.
     Soon the happy and jubilant workers were mum in silence when they saw that instead of shoes they received sandals.
     These were simple slippers made of white canvas with fiber soles; the cheapest shoeing made in Spain. If in those times, it was said to a person of certain social status that he could not have being very high class for having used sandals in his youth, that person would have been profoundly insulted and humiliated. This kind of shoeing was very popular in Spain and in the colonies of the new world.
     In the end, among insults and laughter, and notwithstanding the improprieties made by the old engineer to his superiors in the Capital, because of those ridicule savings, all the workers willingly put on the cheap and plebeian sandals.
     The cook of the project, known as el Gallego (from Galicia), used to buy fresh fish from the Danish fishing boats that frequently came to the island. Besides the fresh fish, the Danish would sell to the cook a variety of other European products imported through the neighboring island of St. Thomas, that as we have said, had been a free port for many years.
     On a certain morning of a regular working day, all the workers on the project including the cook, had not shown to work because they were feeling sick. Fearing that it could be poisoning in mass because of food poison or contaminated water, the engineer was hastily investigating the source of such an alarming situation.
     Shortly thereafter he discovered, that truly, these men were sick to work at daybreak, not because of what he had suspected, but because of a drunken feast the night before. During the night they had drunk a two- and one-half gallon
jug of Jamaican rum that they had bought the day before from one of the Danish boats.
     Another one of this picturesque story or anecdote, told by some of the people that worked in the lighthouse, originated when the galleon that was engaged for the transportation of materials, water and food supplies from the Capital, was forced to stay in port for many days because of bad weather.
     In the meantime, the food supply in the island was dwindling considerably. When one morning the cook announced that the only food left in the locker was a half bag of chickpeas and two gallons of olive oil, the alarmed man went running to the engineer’s tent to tell him the seriousness of the situation. With much aplomb, the old colonel assured the men that nobody would of hunger, because they still had the four donkeys that months before they received from the Capital. My God! Eat donkey meat! Everybody exclaimed in unison. When the group became more excited, the engineer trimming his bulky mustache, stepped forward and in a very grave tone, would exhorted the men to pray to God, that the day would not come that they would have to eat even the skin of four donkeys.
     After hearing the admonition from the engineer, all would become mum in silence, some would cross themselves, they would mumble a prayer.
     The next morning when the cook was making preparations to sacrifice the youngest and fattest of the donkeys, one of the masons working on a platform scream with all the force in his lungs that the expected galleon was remounting Soldier Point at that moment. It was such a happy moment among the workers to see the ship, that all emotional and jubilant embrace each other.
     All the workers were there together, except the cook that when he saw the ship went in haste to the animal pen to caress and to apologize to the donkey he had decided to sacrifice that morning. Thank God! would later say the cook for not having to killed the poor animal to feed a bunch of lambs more stupid than the poor donkeys. At last, and after many disappointments the project had been finished by the end of 1874. (Editor: actually 1886) The majestic red building, with an imposing tower in the center, a cistern to collect rainwater from the roof, and two convenient apartments for two light keepers with their families, became enclaved [sic] at the top of the mountain for centuries to come.
     In times of Spain, the lighthouse keepers were required to lookout with a high-power telescope, the surroundings around a rocky promontory known as El Bergantín. Many years before the lighthouse had been built, English warships started to use the rocky cliff for naval target practice. When Spain and Denmark protested such action before he International Tribunal at Le Hague, Britain immediately suspended the shelling practice.

(Note: I included my version this story in Lightkeepers Menagerie: Stories of Animals at Lighthouses. Find it on Amazon.)

This is Culebrita Lighthouse in 1951, when it still had resident lightkeepers. (Photo from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's files.)

Today, Culebrita Lighthouse is a shambles and is in danger of being lost forever. Hurricanes have punished it year after year, especially hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn.  Windows, doors, floors, and the cupola have been torn away by storms. With no one on site to care for it, slowly it deteriorates. It has not been in service since 1975. Efforts to restore and care for it have failed. This lighthouse is on the National Register of Historic Places. It would be such a shame to lose it entirely.

Color photos are from Wikimedia Commons, Lighthouse Friends, and The Lighthouse People.