Thursday, December 19, 2013

From the Archives: Christmas Message 1937

The Commissioner of Lighthouses in 1937, Harold Davis King, sent out the following Christmas letter to all employees of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. I think it has a universal message, even so many years after it was composed.

It ought to be easy for us of the Lighthouse Service to practice 'Peace on Earth and good will toward men,' since the whole purpose of our chosen careers is the rendering of service to our fellow men rather than control or domination over them. So it is, therefore, that we many be gratefully mindful that we are public servants and that there is not only opportunity but necessity for the preservation and cherishing of idealism in a world which nowadays in so many quarters and in so many ways seems beset by the forces of materialism. 'Man shall not live by bread alone' are the words of Him whose advent is celebrated by the Christmas season, and the golden rule, which in various forms has been given expression as fundamental to many the great religious movements in human history, seems more than ever the ultimate hope of humanity to those who retain a lively faith that is is more blessed to minister than to be ministered unto.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Wright Stuff

Today is the 85th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight at Kill Devil Hills, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. In attendance that day was William J. Tate, the lightkeeper of the Currituck Sounds lights. These were a series of small beacons to serve the shipping traffic in one of the protected sounds enclosed by the Outer Banks. Tate was in charge of a total of 42 small lights spread over a distance of 65 miles. These were lighted, mostly, with 8 day kerosene lanterns hung from posts and tripods.

From 1900-1903, Tate served as Postmaster of Kitty Hawk. He is pictured above with his wife and daughters and a friend on the porch of the post office. (Photo from the library of Congress.) Tate gained famed for his lifesaving skills on the Outer Banks, but he is more famous because he assisted the Wright Brothers in their effort to make the first successful flight. He sent weather and topographical information to the Wrights in Ohio, trying to convince them Kitty Hawk was the best place to try out their flying machines. (A piece of his correspondence is below, courtesy of the Library of Congress.) When the brothers visited the Outer Banks for the first time to scout out a place to experiment with flights, they boarded with Tate and his wife. The Wrights assembled their first experimental glider in the Tate's front yard, and Mrs. Tate offered up her sewing machine for the fabrication of sateen wing covers. The sewing machine is now on display in the Wright Brothers Museum at Kitty hawk.

Following the success of the Wright Brothers, Tate developed a great interest in aviation and remained in contact the Orville and Wilbur Wright. He served as the lightkeeper of the North Landing Lighthouse on the Outer Banks from 1919-1939. In 1920 he became the first man make an inspection of lighthouses by airplane. The U.S. Lighthouse Service Airways Division began in 1926, buoyed by Tate's work and an increasing need for ground-based guidance for aircraft. The Division was responsible for providing airway navigation  beacons for all fliers, but especially for airmail pilots. Scott Price, an archivist in the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office in Washington, D.C. has an excellent article on Tate and the birth of the U.S. Lighthouse Service Airways Division.

In 1928, Tate paid $200 to have this memorial erected in his yard at Kitty Hawk. It underscored his pride at having participated in such a landmark event in history. More information about Tate and this picture can be found on

Here's an image of Tate in his later years, from

The Coast Guard honored William J. Tate in the 1990s by naming a Keeper Class buoy tender for him. The cutter is based in Philadelphia.

A bit of trivia: When the Wright Brothers Monument was built years after that first historic flight, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was asked to design and install the beacon for it. The monument features an antique "Fresnel on the Half-Shell," a special optic developed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service in the 1920s for airway use.  (Photo below by Ken Thomas on Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Lighthouse Christmas Card

Every year since about 1973, I've combed the stores for lighthouse themed Christmas cards. I love them, and they say "me" like no other holiday greeting. I was living in Maine in 1973 and had fallen hopelessly in love with lighthouses--their look, their histories, their stories. Maine has many pretty lighthouses to make a girl smitten with them! My favorite was Seguin Island Light, off the mouth of the Kennebec River. Jonathan took me out to the beach facing the lighthouse for picnics and walks and beachcombing. It was mesmerizing, with a hypnotic beam.

Sometimes, I found lighthouse Christmas cards in the Navy Exchange or Coast Guard Exchange, since USN and USCG members love them. Some years, I took pictures of lighthouses and mounted them on card paper, and then drew sprigs of holly, bells and ribbons, or Christmas trees to make them merry. Red Barn Studio in Rhode Island made some pretty ones in the 1980s; I bought them in the gift shop of Mystic Seaport Museum where I worked.

Everyone loves my lighthouse Christmas cards. One of of my sisters-in-law has a Christmas card contest every year, posting all of the cards she receives on her refrigerator along with an envelope for votes. I've won that contest a few times with my beautiful lighthouse cards! Nancy says the family never wonders who sends the lighthouse card every Christmas. They know it's me!

Today, lighthouse-themed Christmas cards are easy to find because lighthouses have become so popular. But back in the 1970s and 1980s, I had to do some serious searching to find them. After about 1990, I began receiving lighthouse Christmas cards from friends and fans, and today I have quite a large collection of them.This year, I decided to scan some of those pretty cards and post them on my author Facebook page day-by-day as a sort of fun Christmas countdown. (You'll find a link to my Facebook page on the right-hand menu.) I'm also posting images of real lighthouses dressed in lights and holiday trims for Christmas. Each year, more and more lighthouses are being dressed up in lights. The public loves this tradition.

Lighthouses are perfect Christmas symbols, infused as they are with the imagery of light and salvation that fits the season. In honor of the warmth and light this holiday, here's a selection of cards and dressed up lighthouses to enjoy--

Mukilteo Lighthouse, Washington, not far from my home.

One of two cards I sent this year.
A card from several years ago. Both this one, and the one above it, were offered by the National Geographic Society gift store.

A screwpile lighthouse decked out for the holidays, courtesy of artist Carol Dyer.

Bob Trapani, Ex. Dir. of the American Lighthouse Foundation, has this pretty lighthouse at Owls Head, Maine to admire out his office window! He and his wife AnnMarie do the decorating.

I have a number of tropical lighthouse Christmas cards. This one shows Florida's Jupiter Inlet wearing a wreath. No artist's name is listed. If anyone knows who did the watercolor, let me know.

A snowy scene of the little sentinel at Edgartown, Massachusetts captures it ready for the holidays. This is a photo from Dreamstime, which supplies me with photos for my articles and books.

This card is a beauty! The lacy white window cover opens up to reveal the scene at West Quoddy Head Lighthouse in Maine.
Here's Nauset Beach Light on Cape Cod. It was moved back from the sea a few years ago and is now a jewel in the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Cathy and Jan Emrick took this shot of the old, decommissioned Halfmoon Reef Lighthouse at Port Lavaca, Texas. I think it's now a museum.

My friend, photographer Tom Gill, snapped this pretty evening at Michigan City Lighthouse in Indiana. Tom is known for his winter photos of lighthouses.

 This has the look of a British Columbia lighthouses, maybe Race Rocks.

A Wysocki painting titled (I think), "A Present for the Lighthouse Keeper."

This is kind of modern and upbeat--one of several cards I'm sending this year.

Just plain pretty!

Enjoy the holiday season. Send me scans of your favorite lighthouse Christmas cards to