Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Lighthouses & Lantern Room Romance

Lighthouses often are described as romantic, meaning they fire our imaginations and lend themselves to stories that tug at our heartstrings. The landmark PBS series, "Legendary Lighthouses," described them this way: "What’s not to love about a lighthouse? Whether it’s for their beauty, romance or usefulness--or a combination of all three--most of us would admit to a fascination with lighthouses."

Lighthouses are romantic places indeed, but in the more familiar sense they're great settings romance--engagements and weddings and quiet getaways. Lighthouses with overnight accommodations like to bill themselves as "romantic hideaways." Events like a "Full Moon Climb" and a "Champagne Tour" appeal to those in love. I admit Jonathan and I (married 41 years now!) have taken more than one picture of ourselves at a lighthouse with happy married faces and arms around each other. The one below was a "selfie" we took at Barnegat Lighthouse in 1998.

If you don't believe that lighthouses can inspire romance, check out the Goodreads "Listopia" called "Light of Love." It lists 72 romance novels set at lighthouses. You'll find them here: 
Lighthouses seem to be romantic even in the literal sense. I read Susan Wiggs The Lightkeeper several years ago, because it takes place at Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, the oldest sentinel in Washington and one of the oldest on the West Coast. Wiggs did a decent job with the historical information about the lighthouse and its wild watch at the entrance to the Columbia River,'s a romance novel...rife with unrealistic scenes of a lonely lightkeeper rescuing an unconscious and beautiful, scantily clad woman who washes ashore at the foot of his luminous home. He ends up obsessed with her and devotes much more time to wooing than work. No doubt, the local Lighthouse Inspector would have fired him! (Especially if the inspector knew the two were in the lantern having....)

Couples like to get married at lighthouses. The symbolism of strength and safety and caring seems just the right backdrop for tying the knot. In fact, many lighthouses offer wedding packages. It's become a popular practice and provides a tidy stream of income that helps maintain the old towers. My friends, Bill & Vivian Hendersen, were married at North Head Lighthouse. Here they are posing in the lantern, looking wistfully out to sea and dreaming of many happy years ahead. (Photo by Mark Severn)

Lightkeepers got married at their lighthouses; so did their daughters and sisters. Often, there was no time to go ashore to a church or vacation to be had. The honeymoon often took place at the lighthouse too. (This isn't a bad idea, we now think! There are lots of lighthouses where you can have an idyllic honeymoon. Here in Washington we have five of them with romantic lodgings.)

(Photo courtesy of Mystic Seaport Museum, taken in front of their replica of Brandt Point Lighthouse on the Mystic River. There was never an official lighthouse here, but when you're in love, what does it matter??!!)

These joyous events usually received a quick notice in the station logbook, something like: "Assistant Keeper Henry Johnson was married today to Miss Laura Hobson, Principal Keeper's daughter. Principal officiating. Second Assistant James Lambert witness." It wasn't always easy to find a minister, so many principal keepers had the authority to perfom marriages. In lieu of that, someone might row ashore and fetch the preacher. I remember one story that noted the preacher was given a hearty meal after the ceremony, paid a dollar, and taken back ashore that afternoon.

Lightkeeping was a lonely, demanding, and often tedious job, and a wife was not only a companion but a helpmate too. The U.S. Lighthouse Establishment expected a lightkeeper to find a spouse to keep him company and to assist with the work. But finding one wasn't always easy...

(Photo from Jim Claflin, Lighthouse Antiques, of a lighthouse keeper at Nauset, Cape Cod about 1903.)

I interviewed Marjorie Congdon Pendleton in the 1980s about her parents--Lawrence and Amy Congdon--who worked at Little Gull Lighthouse in the 1920s and Watch Hill Lighthouse in the 1930s, both in the Long Island Sound area. (This material went in my book, Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers.) Marjorie grew up mostly at Watch Hill Lighthouse near the town of Westerly. She told me she was smitten with the handsome Coast Guard men at the station beside the lighthouse. Her parents discouraged any flirtations or serious relationships with the Coast Guard crew, since they were "from out of town.". Their vigilance worked, but under their noses Marjorie struck up a friendship with a carpenter who came to the lighthouse to do some repairs. "One thing led to another," and she married Clifford Pendleton in the living room at the lighthouse in 1937 when she was twenty. Her sister was her maid of honor. (Photo below of the Pendleton wedding shows Marjorie on the right, courtesy of Marjorie Pendleton.)

A year after the wedding, the September equinoctial hurricane of 1938 caused horrendous damage at the lighthouse and also to the community at Watch Hill. This area of Rhode Island was hit the worst when the hurricane came ashore at high tide. Marjorie was stuck in her car during the storm surge with her infant son and was rescued only minutes before the water washed the car into the sea. Her parents dutifully kept the light going during the storm, but their home was badly hit. One of the items damaged beyond repair was Marjorie's wedding dress, which her mother had kept at the lighthouse. So much for lighthouse romance. It was a tough life.

One lighthouse has become synonymous with romance. It's the Minots Ledge Ligthhouse off Cohasset, Massachusetts. This tower has a fascinating history that I'll detail in a later blog entry. For now, I'll simply say the granite tower's flash pattern of 1-4-3 means "I Love You." Couples park on the beach that looks out at the lighthouse, a mile offshore on a submarine foundation of jagged rocks. Sometimes they get engaged or married on the beach. Gift manufacturers have capitalized on the romance of this sentinel and have created all manner of Minots Ledge 1-4-3 trinkets for lovers. One fact about it that might bear mentioning: It's one tough, strudy, and reliable lighthouse...traits that could symbolically represent the "right stuff" needed to be married or together successfully for a very long time.

If you're thinking of making your sweetie a handmade Valentine, check out these from They're clever and cute, with Hershey's Kisses for beacons. I think I want one of these!


Happy Valentine's Day to all the world's lovers!
And a special hug and kiss for my Valentine of many years--
Jon DeWire.

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