Thursday, December 18, 2014

Holiday Cards are Arriving!

They're so pretty! Nothing says Christmas like a lighthouse. Has anyone noticed that lighthouses look like candles? Helen Reddy sang about this in the movie "Pete's Dragon" when she sang "Candle on the Water."

There are hundreds of lighthouse Christmas cards circulating. Here are a few of my favorites.

Every December I receive dozens of beautiful Christmas cards adorned with lighthouses. And, I always select a lighthouse Christmas card to send. Here's one of mine this year, a West Quoddy wonderland:


Friday, December 5, 2014

A Major Award!

No, it's not a sexy leg lamp, like Ralphie's father won in "The Christmas Story." It's even better--the "Golden Lighthouse Award," a "coveted honor," according to Julie Pigot, coordinator for the Washington Lighthouse License Plate Committee.

Washington's lighthouse license plate generates about $25K a year in sales that go toward lighthouse/lightship preservation. The grants have enabled 501c3 lighthouse groups in Washington to replace roofs, windows, doors, porches, and more; it's helped with infrastructure like plumbing, septic, and electrical work. And it's funded a few education projects, such as replica U.S. Lighthouse Establishment traveling libraries.

Skip Sherwood took this shot of me am proudly showing off my Golden Lighthouse and a bouquet of flowers the committee presented to me at the November meeting at the Coast Guard Museum NW, my last meeting before leaving the committee to do other worthy work in the lighthouse community. It was all very tongue-in-cheek and fun, but I was pleased, as you can see by my smile/smirk/chuckle expression. Julie confided that she hand-painted the lighthouse herself!

The Washington lighthouse license plate was the brainstorm of Gloria Wahlin and Lighthouse Environmental Programs of Admiralty Head Lighthouse, located on Whidbey Island, Washington. I helped Gloria from the outset with writing and editing the 501c3 application for the grants generated by the license plate and presenting informational programs to the eligible lighthouse groups. I went to Olympia for the unveiling of the plate in January 2006 (I have plate number 12!), and I have served on the grants committee since its inception.

It's a fun group--Julie Pigot and Linda Crow from Admiralty Head Lighthouse and Lighthouse Environmental Programs, architect Gene Grulich--who specializes in rehabilitation of old buildings--and Capt. Gene Davis, Retired, curator of the Coast Guard Museum Northwest. The meetings have been fun and productive. Since 2006 we've awarded more than $150K to eligible lighthouses in Washington and to the state's lightship, Swiftsure.

Skip Sherwood of the U.S. Lighthouse Society will replace me on the committee. Meanwhile, I am moving on to a board position with the U.S. Lighthouse Society where I'll be focusing primarily on education and developing a youth following.

I am thankful to the committee, to the LEP, and especially to Julie Pigot for her cheerful and well-accomplished work as coordinator of the grants committee.

And, I love my Golden Lighthouse Award!!!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Icy Lighthouses and a Keeper's Prayer

December 1--Close of Shipping on the Great Lakes!!

It's not happening this year, thank goodness!! We have the technology to keep the shipping lanes open. But did you know in the era before icebreakers--powerful Coast Guard ships that can plow through frozen sealanes--the Great Lakes and Lake Champlain closed down shipping every December 1st and did not reopen the shipping lanes until April 1st? It's true, and it was very necessary. Ice can pierce a ship's hull or seize up a vessel so it can't move and then crush it. Ice can also damage lighthouses and trap their keepers inside.

White Shoal Lighthouse in Lake Michigan last winter. (National Geographic Society)

There was always a great rush to get all the lighthouse keepers off the lighthouses in the Great Lakes (and sometimes Lake Champlain) by December 1st, before ice entombed them. If the keepers were lucky, the first freeze did not occur before December 1st, as it has this year on the Great Lakes. The November 2014 Polar Vortex--such a sci-fi name for that cold air wafting down from the north--descended on the lakes early this year and plunged temperature well below freezing. There's a lot of ice on the lakes already. Luckily, the Coast Guard can handle the freeze.

But before about World War II, it was a race to shut down the lighthouses and get their lightkeepers ashore.

Racine Reef Lighthouse, Wisconsin, was shrouded in ice in early winter 1914. (Photo from the Coast Guard Archives)

The pierhead lighthouse at Michigan City, Indiana, on lake Michigan is pictured above and below in December 1929. These lighthouse keepers were fortunate that they could walk ashore over the icy breakwater. (Photos courtesy of the Coast Guard Archives.)
It's no wonder a Great Lakes lighthouse keeper felt impelled to write the following prayer for himself and his colleagues a century ago. It's possible he was a minister-turned-lightkeeper, which was not an unusual career change, given the religious connotation of lighthouses and the service of their keepers. Lighthouse records list a number of lightkeepers who were former ministers. No matter, the poem underscores the difficulties and challenges of lighthouse keepers and their families, including getting Congress to recognize their plight.
Winter was especially hard in some places. Or not... in this image of idyllic Diamond Head Lighthouse, Hawai'i by Kenny Williams. Barring the occasional hurricane, it was coveted duty among lightkeepers.

So here's the lightkeepers' prayer--
Heavenly Father, grant Thy blessing in a very special manner to the men and women and children in the great lighthouse family scattered up and down the coasts and islands in the Great Lakes and rivers and various seas and oceans in the Great Water World. They are Thy children, oh our Father, many of them a long way from home and living in great solitude where life is a continual tragedy, bitter because it is lonely, especially bitter when they become discouraged and lose hope, and the pitiful little force within them fails to furnish them with light or joy. Oh God, our Father, our hearts are moved with deepest sympathy and our tears of sorrow bedim our eyes as we remember their hardships and deprivations and dangers that are ever with them. Raise up for them numerous friends, especially among Congressman and Senators, that they may enact measures for the improvement of the condition of these, our brothers, and their patient wives and children who so bravely keep their lights burning brightly that our comrades, the masters of ships and sailors, 'Who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters,' may know the right course to take in the storm and fog and darkness of night....

Monday, November 24, 2014

Having Fun with Photos

Some days, a gal needs a diversion from the day-to-day production of pages of verbiage, piles of research notes, and pounding the keyboard! That's when I play with photos.

There are a number of photo manipulation websites where you can create all manner of fun, scary, fake, zany images, even animated ones. One of my favorite photo websites is Of course, I have Photoshop on one of my computers, but Lunapic offers some amazing the spinning picture cube above. (Ugh! I'm getting motion sick.)

Here's a photo puzzle I made of myself at Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville, Washington. Just call it "Pieces of Elinor." I really fell apart making this one. :-)
How about a Warhol tessellation? Upper left is me on a sunny day. Upper right is me on a frigid cold day! Lower right has me in the pink, and lower left...well...let's just say I'm wasn't feeling so when I take bouncy boat rides to lighthouses. 
Here I am in the Gilded Age!
Electrifying! This one might explain some of my weird and whacky behavior! Ouch!
I call this one "Migraine Headache." I look a little like Elvis with that crazy pompadour hair.

Here, I'm being honored on a postage stamp! This might be the easiest way to travel, and maybe the cheapest...if the Postal Service doesn't raise the price of stamps again.
Ben Franklin lost his assignment on the $100!

This guy is painting a wall mural of me...when I was much, much, much younger. Look Ma, no turkey neck! (That's a Thanksgiving joke.)

It's me and Anclote Key Lighthouse in a kaleidoscope!

I love this one! It's a photo of me standing on the breakwater at Victoria Harbor, British Columbia. My husband took this picture, but Lunapic made it look like a painting! That's Ogden Point Lighthouse at the end of the breakwater.

Not another earthquake!! Shake, rattle, and roll! This was taken in 1990 in the lantern room of Boston Harbor Lighthouse....where there is almost never an earthquake. But the wind could give the lantern a good shaking. The late Skip Empey took this one.

Feeling the love of family, friends, and fans! This is Cape Meares Lighthouse, Oregon.

Here's President Obama with his favorite author! Did you know he likes lighthouses??!! (If only!!)

And, finally, some holiday cards made from photos. First up is me at beautiful Admiralty Head Lighthouse, Washington.
And back to Point No Point. Let it snow, let it snow!
No, Lunapic didn't pay me to hype their website. I thought you'd like to see how I have fun when I'm taking a break at my desk. Go and play with some of your pictures! Post them on Facebook. And let me know the websites that you enjoy for a diversion from work.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Billy the Lighthouse Parrot Saves the Day

Note: About ten years ago I worked with a class of fourth graders at a school in Massachusetts. We had fun the entire school year, exchanging mail and emails. The students did fun crafts from my Lighthouse Activity Book and read stories I wrote for them. What follows is one of those tales, taken from actual lighthouse history. There really was a parrot named Billy who saved the keeper's son from drowning at Maine's Portland Head Lighthouse...

Joseph Strout became keeper of Portland Head lighthouse in 1904, following in the footsteps of his father who had been keeper of the lighthouse for thirty-five years.  Keeper Strout had with him at the lighthouse his father’s pet parrot, Billy, who was then fifty years old!  The elder Strout had bought Billy at a market on the Barbary Coast in the days when he was a sea captain.  Billy had sailed many a voyage with Captain Strout and weathered many a storm.  Now, Billy enjoyed a quiet life ashore in Southern Maine.  Portland Head was one of the prettiest spots in all of New England, and its lighthouse was the most important beacon Down East, as Maine was called.

Billy was no ordinary bird.  He was a gray African parrot, as handsome a bird as likely you’ll ever see.  He also was very intelligent.  He liked to sit on Keeper Strout’s shoulder and bob his head up and down in agreement with everything the keeper said.  Sometimes Keeper Strout would utter a loud sneeze, and Billy would flap his wings and pretend a storm was coming!
When he wasn’t perched on the keeper’s shoulder, he sat on a long piece of driftwood Mrs. Strout had fetched out of the sea.  She put it in the kitchen so she could keep and eye on Billy while she cooked.  Sometimes she even sang songs to him.  Billy rocked back and forth on his driftwood perch as if waltzing.
The best thing about Billy was that he could talk.  He said lots of things, like “hello” and “Billy want a cracker” and “Billy need a nap.” He said, “All ashore that’s goin’ ashore,” because he had spent so much time on a ship.  He also said some very special things, since he was a lighthouse parrot.  If the fog rolled in, Billy screeched “Foggy! Foggy!  Turn on the foghorn, Joe!”  If the pressure dropped, Billy shouted “Storm a’coming! Storm a’coming!” And, of course, when dusk fell Billy yelled, “Joe! Turn on the light!”
One of Billy’s favorite activities was watching Assistant Keeper Cameron’s son at play.  Little Don was fun to watch, for he always seemed to be getting into some sort of mischief.  Mrs. Strout warned little Don not to go too near the sea, and Mrs. Cameron forbid little Don to climb on the rocks below the lighthouse.  Assistant Keeper Cameron told Don to stay away from the foghorn, lest his eardrums be split by the loud blast.  Keeper Strout just patted little Don on the head and said, “Be careful, boy!” Day after day, it seemed little Don always was getting into some sort of trouble. And Billy kept careful watch over him.
On the first day of school in September, when little Don was six, his mother dressed him in his best white shirt and green pants and matching jacket.  He was going to first grade!
“Now, go and play until it’s time to head for school,” Mrs. Cameron said. “And don’t get your nice clothes messy!” 
Don wasn’t sure how he could play and still stay clean.  But, then something caught his eye.  A pretty toy boat lay upon the rocks near the lighthouse, probably left by some summer visitor.  Sailing a toy boat wouldn’t be messy.  Don went to the edge of the concrete pier that surrounded the lighthouse, and then he climbed down the rocks.  The little boat was within reach, and Don soon grabbed it, a smile of satisfaction on his face.  But a boat belonged in water.  Don looked at the sea.  It seemed deep and scary, but he wanted so much to sail the toy boat.  Foolishly, he threw the little wooden ship into the water.  Its small white sails filled with wind and it began to bounce and jiggle as the waves tossed it about.  Don gasped, realizing his new-found toy would be dashed to pieces against the rocks. He had to save it!
He dropped to his knees, then sprawled on the rocks on his belly and stretched his arm as far as it would go in the direction of the little pitching boat.   Stretch!  Stretch!  He felt the buttons on his new green jacket scraping the rocks.  Stretch! Stretch!  SPLASH!
Before he knew what had happened, Don slid off the rocks and tumbled into the cold sea.  His head went under, then he came up with a gasp and swallowed a big gulp of salty water.
“Help! Glub! Glub!” he gurgled before his head went under again. Don didn’t know how to swim!
In Mrs. Strout’s kitchen, Billy had been watching little Don through the window.  He knew the boy had gone too near the edge of the sea, and the moment he saw little Don fall in the water, Billy began to squawk and hop up and down on his driftwood perch:  “Man overboard!  Man overboard!”
Mrs. Strout turned from her baking and waved a warning finger at Billy:  “Now, you hush Billy.  You’re not on Captain Strout’s ship anymore.  No one goes overboard on land.”
Billy ruffled his feathers and bobbed his head defiantly.  “Man overboard!” he yelled again.  But Mrs. Strout turned away and ignored him.
Billy jumped down from his perch and waddled out the kitchen door.  Keeper Strout and Assistant Keeper Cameron were in the oilhouse counting cans of oil.  Billy hopped over to the oilhouse and jumped up and down in the doorway, flapping his wings.
“Man overboard!  Man overboard!” he squawked.
Keeper Strout paused from his work, looked at Billy, and chuckled.  Assistant Keeper Cameron wiped the perspiration off his forehead and pointed a finger at Billy:  “You are a crazy old bird-brain, Mr. Bill,”” he laughed.  “There’s no man overboard at this lighthouse.”
Desperate, Billy now looked for Mrs. Cameron.  Surely, she would listen to his cries.  Every mother loves her child, doesn’t she?  He found her hanging wash on the line before she took Don to school.
“Man overboard!  Man overboard!” Billy shouted, hopping up and down on his scaly legs.
“Oh, shoo!  You silly old bird!” Mrs. Cameron said.  “Get away from my clean wash! Shoo!”
Billy rolled his eyes and shook his green head.  He knew he had to do something and do it quick.  Little Don was drowning!
Though he seldom flew anymore, Billy stretched his weak old wings and flapped them wildly until his body lifted into the air.  Mrs. Cameron watched in amazement as Billy went airborne and flew to the edge of the rocks off the lighthouse.  There, he dove and disappeared.
“Yikes!” she screamed.  “That crazy old parrot of Keeper Strout’s will drown! Help! Help!”
Running as fast as she could, she came to the edge of the rocks and looked down at the sea.    A mass of green greeted her – green wings, green feathers, green seaweed, green fabric.  Old Billy was flopping about in the water tugging on a green piece of cloth.  In horror, Mrs. Cameron realized it was little Don’s jacket.  Quickly, she reached down and grabbed the fabric.  Little Don surfaced and was pulled from the frigid sea.  Sputtering, he clutched his mother’s neck and began to cry.
“Oh, Don!  Are you okay?” she asked hugging the boy much too tightly.  He nodded, and she wiped away his tears.  They both looked down at the water where old Billy was still splashing and flapping.  “Man overboard!’ he yelled.  Mrs. Cameron leaned down and pulled the wet old parrot from the water.
“Billy!  You aren’t crazy after all!  Why…why…you were trying to tell me about little Don, weren’t you?” she said. “You saved him from drowning! Oh, you wonderful old bird!”
Billy coughed a little and shook the water off his feathers.  “All ashore that’s going ashore!” he rasped.  Then he waddled over the rocks toward the lighthouse, anxious to get back on his cozy kitchen perch. “Billy need a nap! Billy need a nap!”
By this time, Keeper Strout and his wife and Assistant Keeper Cameron had arrived.  Everyone laughed when they saw Billy all wet and grumbling about needing a nap.  They were glad to see little Don was safe.  Keeper Strout fetched a long hook and pulled the little toy boat from the water.  Mrs. Cameron hugged little Don over and over, and then scolded him for getting his new school clothes messy.
“Why, he looks just like old Billy now!” Keeper Strout said. “He’s a gren, wrinkly old bird! And, he has a great story to tell his friends and his teacher on the first day of school.”
And, indeed he did, for little Don had been rescued by a lighthouse keeper’s parrot.  He wondered if his friends would believe it!



Saturday, November 8, 2014

Spend a Night under a Light!

The U.S. Lighthouse Society is about to start its annual raffle for free lodging at lighthouses.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Power of One Book

We all know books can change the world, sometimes in big ways but more often in small ways. One of my favorite childhood books, and one that likely planted the seeds of my fascination with lighthouses, changed the world for one small lighthouse…and for thousands of kids.


The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge, written by Hildegarde H. Swift and illustrated by Lynd Ward, was in my school library when I was in fourth grade. It was 1962, and a new wing had opened that year in the elementary school I attended. It included a spacious library and a fresh-out-of-college, pretty librarian named Miss Hardy. I was smitten with both the new library and all its new books. I asked Miss Hardy if I could be a library helper.

She put me to work re-shelving returned books. They were arranged by call number on a metal cart, which made pushing the cart through the stacks much easier. It was a wonderful job except that I often got distracted looking at the books I was supposed to re-shelve. Miss Hardy was patient and understanding; she was probably the same way as a child.

One day she found me sitting on the floor next to the book cart looking at The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. She sat down on the footstool near me and asked if I had ever been to New York City. I hadn’t. NYC seemed a million miles away from the rural area of Western Maryland where I lived.

“Well, that bridge in the book is a real bridge, and it’s amazing. I took a trip to NYC a few years ago to see it. It’s HUGE, with two decks for cars!! Do you know what river that is?”

I didn’t.

“It’s the Hudson River, named after a famous explorer. And big boats go up and down the river. That’s why it needs lighthouses.”


Miss Hardy then proceeded to fetch me some books about NYC and the Hudson River, and she let me check out The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge. I took it home and read it to my mother that evening after supper as she sewed missing buttons on my brothers’ shirts. I even impersonated the voice of the big bridge as it spoke to its little brother, the lighthouse, telling the small tower that even though it was much littler than the bridge, it still had work to do signaling to ships. Mom smiled at the end and asked me how I thought the Little Red lighthouse felt.

“It was sad at first, because it thought the big bridge had replaced it. But in the end it felt important, even though it’s very little!” I said. “It’s glad it still has a job to do.”

(Can you see the little lighthouse on the right below the bridge tower?)

Mom nodded and reminded me of the things I could do because I was small—crawl under the bed to fetch an errant sock, pick up a dropped sewing needle with my small fingers, reach under the nest boxes in the chicken house when a hen laid an egg there, and squeeze between my big brothers in the back seat of Mom’s old Oldsmobile.

The message of Hildegarde H. Swift’s story had gotten through, not only for me, but for all kids who read her story. There are big things and little things, and though we are often impressed by big things, they are no more important than little things. Every kid wants to be big, and sometimes she feels unimportant because she’s small. That was me at time. I was the youngest child in a large family, and the smallest. Time and again I heard admonishments like: “You’re too little to do that” or “When you get bigger you can try that.” Hoyt made me feel important, like the Little Red Lighthouse.

There’s a story behind her book. It’s a tale of a tale—one that started a groundswell of protest about the possible loss of one small, beloved lighthouse. After the George Washington Bridge was completed in 1931, its bridge lights superseded the small beacon of Jeffries Hook Lighthouse, sitting on the east side of the river almost under the bridge. The tiny lighthouse and its beacon seemed inconsequential next to a giant bridge shimmering with lights. Aiming to reduce costs, the Coast Guard announced in 1948 that it would discontinue and sell the little lighthouse.

Hoyt and Ward had published The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge in 1942, and it had been read by thousands of kids. Though Swift never gave a name to the bridge or the lighthouse in her book, everyone knew she had written about the George Washington Bridge and the Jeffries Hook Lighthouse. When newspapers reported that the Little Red Lighthouse was going away, a cry went up from children and their parents. How could the Coast Guard even consider destroying such a beloved icon of children’s literature?

A few years later, the Coast Guard relented, and on July 23, 1951, the lighthouse was given to the New York City Dept. of Parks & Recreation.

For years, it languished; then, the burgeoning lighthouse preservation movement took hold in the 1970s. Jeffries Hook Lighthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and made a New York City Landmark in 1991. Funds were raised—some by children who donated pennies, nickels, and dimes to the effort—and the lighthouse underwent a $209,000 refurbishment in 1986 and was relighted in 2002.

Today, it is well-maintained by the City of New York and opened for tours on occasion. The Little Red Lighthouse Festival is held every September with music, food, games, tours of the diminutive 30-foot sentinel, and celebrities reading aloud The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge.

While everyone knows the lighthouse by its nickname of Little Red, its history as Jeffries Hook lighthouse is not well-known. The tower started its career in 1880 at Sandy Hook, New Jersey as the Sandy Hook North Beacon, showing a red light and sounding a resonant gong on its 1,000-pound fogbell when the area turned murky. This beacon, along with the larger Sandy Hook Lighthouse, guided shipping in and out of New York Harbor and past a dangerous strand of unpredictable sand extending north from Highlands, New Jersey.

In 1889, the Lighthouse Service erected a simple pole beacon on the Hudson River at Jeffries Hook, a finger of soil and rocks jutting out into the river and posing a significant danger to shipping, especially the steamers of the day that hugged the east shore of the river on their way north. As early as 1895, the U.S. Lighthouse Board began requesting funds from Congress to upgrade the pole beacon to a better, more useful navigational light, but the wheels of government turned slowly at this time, and funding took twenty-five years to be approved.

Meanwhile, the Sandy Hook North Beacon had lost its usefulness, due to changes in the shoreline and the shipping routes in and out of New York Harbor. It was extinguished in 1917. The Lighthouse Service decided this tower could be moved to Jeffries Hook on the Hudson River for less money than a new tower would cost. In 1921, the Sandy Hook North Beacon was dismantled and moved by barge to Jeffries Hook. It was made somewhat self-sufficient, with a battery-operated red beacon and a fogbell with a striking mechanism. A keeper, who lived off-site, was hired to check on it periodically to be sure it was working properly.

Seven years after its relocation, workmen arrived and began building the George Washington Bridge. From 1931 when the bridge was opened to traffic until the 1970s when the public demanded it be saved, the lighthouse was in limbo. Hildegarde H. Swift surely noticed this and felt sad for the little sentinel. She gave it immortality in a simple, heartwarming story.

Today, that story is revered by schoolchildren around the nation. They know, their voices may be little, but they can be heard...and even something as small as a Little Red Lighthouse under a gigantic bridge is important.

Hildegarde Hoyt Swift died in 1977. She didn’t live long enough to see The Little Red Lighthouse restored. Illustrator Lynd Ward saw the first preservation efforts before he died in 1985.
A footnote to this blog—
I have never visited The Little Red Lighthouse! Yet, it launched my interest in lighthouses. Now, that's the power of one book!

I think it’s time I do go see it. After all, it subtly inspired my successful career as a lighthouse historian and author in the lighthouse genre. I think I’ll go see it next time I visit my granddaughters in Connecticut and take them with me. It’s time for a new generation to get inspired by a cherished, timeless story.
(Photos of Little Red are from Wikimedia Commons and Architectural Digest.)

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Scary Words Every Lighthouse Keeper Knows!

For Halloween week, I’ve been posting blogs about lighthouse ghosts and the overall scariness of lighthouses. Fortunately, our vocabulary is rich in words to describe this haunted milieu; the possibilities are numerous.  And, of course, I love words. All writers do. We are logophiles!

Just for fun this Halloween week, here’s a roundup of words that might be categorized as “scary,” in the right context, and some anecdotes about lighthouses to go with them. Would-be lighthouse keepers beware! This All Hallows Eve lexicon could apply to you!

Nyctophobia: If you suffer from this anxiety, don’t even consider being a lighthouse keeper. Nyctophobia is “fear of the dark!” Yes, a lighthouse is supposed to banish the dark with its bright beacon, but you’ll be up all night communing with it…walking back and forth from your house to the tower to check the light, climbing dark stairs, chasing moths away from the beacon. Before electricity was introduced at lighthouses, the interior of light towers was dark, very dark…..except for the hand-held lantern a lightkeeper carried. It didn’t provide much light—not like modern-day LED flashlights—and it made curious shadows on the wall and stairs. You couldn’t see very far ahead of you or behind you. You were boxed into a small space of lamp light. I suppose people who lived before electric lights were accustomed to this limited sight distance. Maybe they didn’t mind the darkness as much as we do today. Our world is full of light and, frankly, our night isn’t very dark.

 Stygian: This is another great word for Halloween, as it describes the worst sort of darkness, truly black. Lighthouses stand in some of the most remote places, devoid of artificial light. So, if the beacon in the light tower went out on a cloudy, moonless night, you’d find yourself in stygian darkness. You’d have to wade through unimaginable blackness to relight the beacon. The human eye takes fully ten minutes, on average, to adjust to darkness, and even then the rods in our eyes—the light receptive cells—aren’t very efficient.  You know how scary it is when the power goes off in your house and you stumble in the darkness to find a flashlight. It was much worse at isolated lighthouses. Keepers carried a small house lantern to find their way and hoped the wind didn’t blow out the flame.

Murk: Few lighthouses are without fog, at least for part of the year. It’s creepy stuff. (Creepy! There’s another nice Halloween word!) You can’t see far into the fog, and as objects emerge from it, they appear ghostly. (Another nice Halloween word!) Several lighthouses in the United States hold records for hours of fog. The sentinels at Saddleback Ledge and Petit Manan in Maine and Point Reyes, California are sometimes socked in with fog a third of the year. Point Reyes had a loooooonnnnng stairway down to the light tower and fog signal building. On foggy nights, it was a long, murky walk for the lightkeepers. Such an unsettling experience it must have been for them to make their way through the murk on that seaside stairway several hundred feet above the waves. One errant footstep, and they could easily tumble onto the rocks and into the sea! Add to this, the strange appearance of a lighthouse beacon in the fog, and it will surely raise the hair on your neck.

 Photo by Tyler Wescott
Eerie: Lighthouse are eerie! I’ve been inside hundreds of them, many at night, and they are truly eerie—like an attic and a basement rolled into one. Air moves up and down inside the hollow tower, and it’s clammy. You get goose bumps from the moist cold air. As drafts of air move up and down inside the tower they softly sigh, as if some sad unseen presence is with you. This air movement is necessary for the health of the lighthouse, to keep it dry inside. Lighthouses are said to “breathe” when air moves through them correctly. Yikes! A breathing lighthouse??!! Shadows lurk all around you and any type of noise is amplified by the confined space and the reverberation of sound off the walls. The echo of your footsteps makes you think someone is following you. You’ve got to keep your wits about you, or you’ll swear you’re surrounded by ghosts.

Moan and Groan: These are classic Halloween words. Wooooo! Every tour I’ve given of a lighthouse has someone saying Woooo! as we climb the stairs to the top. It’s irresistible. But did you know some lighthouses moan and groan on their own? The tall, iron screwpile lighthouses of the Florida Reef are known for this phenomenon. Tall masonry lighthouses with iron stairways moan too. How do they do it? It’s a property of the metal, which expands in the heat of the day and contracts when the air cools. As metal expands and contracts it makes noise—moans, groans, shrieks, screeches, bangs. If you grew up years ago when we had metal radiators in our homes, then you remember the clanking and banking of the radiators as they heated up and cooled down. Carysfort Reef Lighthouse, standing with its iron legs screwed into the coral of the Florida Reef, is famous for this noise. Lightkeepers knew the cause, but they loved to initiate a new keeper or frighten a visitor by telling the story of the ghost of an old lightkeeper named Capt. Johnson. He was a great sinner—a drinker and womanizer who sometimes let his light go out. When he died, his punishment was eternal purgatory as a lighthouse ghost. At night and at dawn, he is often heard groaning, moaning, and generally clanking and banging about in Carysfort Reef Lighthouse.

 Photo courtesy of NOAA
Gruesome: It’s a horrible word, enshrouded in blood, injury, and violent death. Lighthouse history is replete with gruesome events.  Shipwrecks, drowning, falls, fires, earthquakes, tsunamis, suicides, murders—these are but a sampling of the horrors lightkeepers experienced. And such ghastly events often spawned ghost tales.
At St. Simons Lighthouse in Georgia, one lightkeeper went berserk (berserk—a wonderful Halloween in itself!) and shot and killed another keeper. Not long afterward, the dead keeper’s ghost was heard walking up and down the tower—a lighthouse poletergeist!
Another lighthouse ghost is in the person of Blackbeard the pirate, who was killed by beheading near Ocracoke Lighthouse, North Carolina, so naturally we hear of his headless specter seen in the area searching for his head.
A phantom ship, lost off New Haven, Connecticut centuries ago, sometimes appears in the misty harbor sailing above the water, just off the breakwater lighthouse. Similarly, the Palatine Lights are seen off Rhode Island’s Block Island Southeast Lighthouse, the place where the ship Palatine burned at sea.
A woman who drowned off Point Vicente Lighthouse, California walks the grounds of the light station nightly, her luminous hourglass form moving in a circle around the lighthouse. (The Coast Guard has identified the source of the ghost as a reflection off the tower’s huge lens.)
And so it goes, story upon story of lurid events at lighthouses that gave rise to their famous ghost tales.

 Photo by Studio 950
Macabre: And then there’s that spectral cat I told you about in an earlier blog, the one that haunts the upstairs of the keeper’s residence at Fairport Lighthouse in Ohio. The reputation of the little feline ghost was given a boost when workers found the desiccated skeleton of a cat in the walls of the house. The little corpse is, itself, a fright to see; it’s on display in the lighthouse museum. Cats are so much associated with Halloween! Considered the familiars of witches, their mysterious eyes and silent paws can give us a fright. I’m the first to admit I jolt when one of my felines jumps on my bed in the middle of the night. Read “Things that Go Bump in the Lighthouse” to learn more about this ghost cat of Fairport Lighthouse—a very macabre story!

I could go on, but your timbers are likely shivering enough by now. Chilling, shocking, mysterious, macabre, terrifying, creepy, supernatural tales about lighthouses abound!