Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Who doesn't love stairs? They lead somewhere, sometimes a mysterious place. As a kid I loved to play on the stairs in our old, drafty house. The stairway was enclosed, because there was no heat upstairs, but it had a window at the bottom overlooking the front porch. It was great fun to hide in the semi-dark stairway or hop my stuffed bears up and down the steps in a pretend game of mountain-climbing. Those stairs were synonymous with morning--coming down at daylight and opening the door to wonderful kitchen smells of breakfast--and bedtime too, trudging up step-by-step in pajamas and slippers. Latr, as a teenager, I lived in an old house with a beautiful oak staircase. The second to last step before the landing creaked loudly. The trick when coming to bed very late was to skip that step so as not to wake my mother! Perhaps this childhood fascination with stairs is why I like lighthouse stairways.

Stairs are a feature of almost every lighthouse, and they come in myriad styles and lengths. I always take photos of the stairways in lighthouses I visit. Stairways tell us a lot about the character and purpose of a lighthouse. I climbed tiny Lake Kootenay Lighthouse in British Columbia last summer. It has wooden stairs, very steep (pictured below). The local historical society keeps the interior of the lighthouse crisply painted and clean.

The big lighthouses of the Outer Banks--Cape Hatteras, Bodie Island, Currituck--have long, spiral staircases made of cast iron. These were made in foundries in the mid to late nineteenth century. They are open framework, a design meant to reduce weight and allow air to move freely through the towers. There's no central column around which the stairs are fitted. They are anchored into the inner walls of their lighthouses. Leaning over the railing and looking up or down is a thrill.

A central column spiral stairway is common is small lighthouses though. Below are the stairs at New Dungeness Light Station in Washington, where I've served as a volunteer keeper numerous times. For such a tall lighthouse, it's surprising to see this style of closed, central column stairway. It's a long jaunt to the lantern!

Here's the stairway in another small lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. Notice I got my foot in the photo, which isn't such a bad thing. It gives some sense of scale to the image. The treads are a modern addition, I'm sure, probably installed by the Coast Guard for safety. The old U.S. Lighthouse Establishment didn't care much about safety; better worded, they weren't fixated about it like we are today.

Some lighthouses have stone stairways. Amelia Island Lighthouse, Stonington Lighthouse, and Concord Point Lighthouse in the United States are good examples. They're small lighthouses made of stone, and the stairways are built into their walls. Below is Keoghi Lighthouse in Greece. It has a marble stairway! Architects and builders used whatever was available and cheap. In Greece, marble is abundant.

This stairway is also marble. It's in Greece's Kakokefali Lighthouse where I spent almost a week in 2008. The checkerboard pattern floor is marble too. I was surprised to find that the marble stairs and floor were painted! I suppose painting kept the keepers busy on slow days, so they weren't tempted to get into trouble. Kakokefali's stairs were installed in the 1880s when the lighthouse was built. They have depressions where feet have worn them down.

Cap Arkona Lighthouse in Germany (Baltic Coast) has a really pretty stairway. Below is my friend Darlene Chisolm on the final course of stairs leading to the lantern. It's a tight spiral.

There are all manner of fun stories and sad stories too about lighthouse stairs--
The late Charles Settles of San Juan Island, Washington, told me he and his sister used to play with beads of mercury on the stairs of Lime Kiln Lighthouse when their father sieved out the mercury from the float where the lens rested. The high density mercury made the lens revolve effortlessly, but the mercury got dirty and had to be cleaned. Always, a few beads escaped during the sieve process, and the kids had fun rolling them down the stairs like tiny marbles. Mercury is poisonous, I reminded Mr. Settles. He just laughed and said he was proof it wasn't as bad as everyone claimed.

Many lighthouses have ghosts on their stairs. While I don't believe in ghosts, I do understand how one could believe they exist in lighthouses. The stairways often are shadowy, damp, and full of echoes. I climbed Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse many years ago with a Coast Guard keeper. He dropped his pen down through the stairs by accident as we neared the top of the tower. It made the strangest sounds as it worked its way down through the tower. In Ponce Inlet Lighthouse, the air currents can feel like a clammy hand touching you as you climb. St. Simons Lighthouse has a stairway ghost, reputed to be the spirit of past keeper, and the creak and moan of the metal stariways in the Reef Lights of Florida have, understandably, spawned ghost tales. Metal expands when warm and contracts when cold and makes sounds as it does so. This might explain why those poltergeists are most often heard at twilight or just after sunset. As the temperature changes, the metal responds in a noisy manner.

There were occasional falls and other accidents on stairs. Sally Snowman, who was caretaker of Boston Light for many years, had a dog on the station with her that fell down the stairs. He survived with minor bruises. A lightkeeper at Bodie Lighthouse in North Carolina  was hit by a bolt of lightning that discharged down the metal stairway. Thankfully, he also survived.

A sordid activity in years past, when lighthouses were left open to the public without docents on duty, was throwing items down lighthouse stairs. Spitting and urinating down the stairways was popular with vandals too, and disgusting. Huntington Island Lighthouse in South Carolina used to be left wide open 24 hours a day. When I climbed it in the summer of 1983 the smell of urine inside was overpowering. There were soda cans and other garbage in the base of the tower, and the lens that was sitting in the base was missing prisms. I'm glad to report the lighthouse is now cleaned up and cared for by the park and the lens is in a better place.

One of the wildest stairway stories concerns old Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne. Seminoles set fire to it during the 1830s with the keepers inside. The wooden stairway burned out completely and left one surviving keeper stranded on top. The other keeper was shot. The survivor was rescued, but was badly burned and injured. The old engraving below depicts the event.

Modern stair-climber exercise machines might keep us in touch with the exertions of yesterday's lighthouse keepers as they daily ascended and descended lighthouse stairs, sometimes a dozen times or more. At the very tallest lighthouses, duty was a cardio-vascular adventure! It's funny how we'd rather take an elevator or escalator than stairs these days, yet we go to the gym and get on those exercise machines.Old lighthouse keepers would laugh at this contradiction in modern behavior!

One final note from science:
A spiral stairway is a very old invention that combines several simple machines, the screw and the inclined plane. A spiral stairway is actually a special version of the ladder, which is a ramp with steps. A spiral stairway is a ramp wrapped around a pole. It's a screw with steps. Mindboggling!

Spirals are ubiquitous forms in nature, from a chambered nautilus shell to the shape of a galaxy to a small bone in our inner ear. The mathematician Fibonacci came up with a special numbering system to explain spirals.

Who knew lighthouse stairs were so complex??!!

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