"Don't look down!!" The author is shown cleaning the lighthouse lantern at New Dungeness Light Station, Washington, some 65-feet above the ground. (Photo by Jonathan DeWire)
In my lifetime, safety--in every activity and endeavor--has grown into a science and urgent agenda. Safety reminders are everywhere. Our highways are flanked by signs warning us of this and that. The products and services we use aren't complete without scads of safety reminders and liability clauses...in case something terrible happens.
Some of these admonitions and alerts make complete sense. We shouldn't text and drive or use loud equipment without ear protection or stand on a stack of crates and boxes to reach that item high on a shelf. Other safety reminders are simply silly, as in the warning on a bleach bottle: "Do not drink!" Or, the reminder on my electric haircurler to not use it in the bathtub. Really? Who does these things?
June is National Safety Month--yes, another "special month!!". As it comes to a close, the focus on safety should not. Despite a few dimwitted safety warnings that remind us not to do the obvious, I'm glad to see the world has become safer place (in some respects) in my lifetime. We all know living and working conditions in the past weren't so safe, and there have been lots of products and places over the years that have put us at risk. Which makes me wonder...
A century ago, were living and working conditions safe for lighthouse keepers? Were there activities in their daily schedule and the overall job that were cause for concern? Did the government sometimes not care about their safety? Were any lightkeepers ever injured or killed in the performance of their duties due to unsafe conditions?
The level of safety afforded lighthouse keepers depended on when and where they worked...and sometimes who they were. A bucolic assignment on a quiet and mostly clement shoreline like Southern California was much safer than working on an exposed reef in the tempestuous North Atlantic. Lightkeepers in distant places or colonial keepers of non-Caucasian ethnicity often were forgotten, even neglected or forced to live in unsafe conditions. But even at benign light stations and those equipped with state-the-art machinery and comfortable quarters, there were dangers...risks that were part of the daily routine.
What types of dangers did lightkeepers of yore face?
Working inside and at the top of a tower, sometimes on a high cliff, meant risk of falling. Lantern glass had to be cleaned every day. The exterior cleaning was a dicey task, often with a keeper standing on the handrail and reaching high overhead to wipe down the glass. In the middle nineteenth century lighthouse lanterns were designed with special handholds built into the metal framework of the glass windows. Keepers held tight to a handhold and worked with the other hand. Acrophobics need not apply! Still, it was a perilous task, especially in windy conditions or when the rain or snow made the railing slippery.
Remarkably, records show few falls and very few fatal falls. Joseph Andreu of St. Augustine Lighthouse in Florida fell from the top of the tower in 1859 and died. Across the state, at Cape St. George Lighthouse another keeper died in 1875 after falling from the lighthouse. So too, the principal keeper of New Zealand's Castle Point Lighthouse died in 1922 after plummeting from the 75-foot tower.
Others fell down the stairs. (Photo above from St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum.) Keepers often ascended and descended with tools and fuel in their hands. Most stairways were open, to reduce weight and allow air to flow through the tower. If you slipped, tripped, or leaned over the railing and got a giddy feeling, "down" you might go! Benjamin Shane of Port Pontchartrain Lighthouse, Louisiana was that sentinel's first keeper, but he served only a year. In 1840 he died after tripping over a bucket and falling down the tower stairs.
Interestingly, it wasn't just people who fell. I have records of a cat falling off Minots Ledge Lighthouse and a dog falling down the lighthouse stairs at Boston Light. I must admit some lighthouses I've climbed have had such steep, scary stairways I used my hands to and feet to climb!
Painting was a nonstop chore at lighthouses. Sea air and moisture are the enemies of wood and metal and sometimes stone, so everything that could be painted was. A tower daymark had to be bright and vibrant for ships to see it a great distance. Thus, keeping the exterior of the light towers painted or whitewashed was paramount, and it was the responsibility of the lightkeepers a century ago.
Keepers usually lowered themselves over the lantern railing in a makeshift sling--maybe a chair tied to ropes or a homemade scaffold, or an actual bosun's chair--a set of canvas pants used on ships to work over the rails or to rescue someone. Assistants or other family members lowered the painter down foot-by-foot as he painted. Today, we'd recoil at such a practice, but it was common years ago. I remember my father using a homemade rig to paint the outside trim on our three-story house in 1964. It was a kids' swing attached to ropes with hooks that were held fast by whatever he could find to fasten them to!
Painting the exterior of a lighthouse today is an easy job, thanks to modern cherry-pickers. Photo by Cape St. George Lighthouse Preservation Society.
The paint was lead-based in those days, so there was the added danger of ingesting lead. We all know the problems associated with that. $$Billions$$ is spent every year in the United States alone to safely remove and dispose of lead paint. Some of that money is spent at lighthouses where restoration is being done. Layers of old paint tell the story of keeper after keeper doing the precarious but necessary job of renewing the daymark with lead paint. "Red lead" was the name of the color used at lighthouses!
A funny but scary story about lead paint comes from the reef lighthouses off the Florida coast. These iron framework towers stood right on top of the Florida Reef, their iron legs and feet submerged and screwed down into the coral. If there was a breeze, they were naturally air conditioned! Keepers could fish right out the back door. But freshwater could be a problem. These towers had water systems to capture rain off the roof and carry it by a series of pipes into a holding tank. This was unsanitary and unsafe because all manner of dirt, bird droppings, and other unmentionables got washed off the roof into the water tank, including chips of lead paint loosened by the unforgiving Florida sun. Keepers needed to boil any water used for drinking or cooking and the tanks had to be cleaned regularly, but that didn't remove the lead. Around 1915, specially-designed cocks were installed in the piping system to allow the rain to wash down the cupola for a few minutes before the cocks were switched open to let rainwater run into the water tank.
Another hazard, though its effects weren't really known at the time, was mercury. Some lighthouses had mercury floats for their lenses, to allow the optics to be supported and rotate effortlessly. (Mercury is a liquid of high density, so it will buoy a heavy object like a lens and keep it level. Mercury's low friction lets the lens spin easily.) The mercury vapors rising from the float were not contained, and several times a year a keeper had to remove the liquid mercury from the trough and sieve it with a special cloth to remove impurities, then clean the trough and return the mercury to it. It could easily get on skin, in the mouths, eyes, etc. It got on clothing and didn't wash out. There were no warnings in the sieving and cleaning instructions telling them of the dangers of mercury.
The late Charles Settles of San Juan Island, Washington told me a horrifying story about beads of mercury being his childhood playthings! When his father sieved the mercury from the Lime Kiln Lighthouse lens pedestal and cleaned the trough, little beads of shiny mercury always escaped and rolled about the floor in the lantern and down the steps. Settles and his sister were beguiled by these shiny beads and liked to play with them as if they were marbles, rolling them down the spiral stairs and trying to pick them up and pocket them.
"Sometimes, I kept one for days!" Settles remembered. "I'd take it out of a little tin box and roll it around in the palm of my hand."
When the mercury cleaning job was complete, Settle's father put Charles in charge of cleaning up any stray beads: "I think all that worry over the mercury was a lot of foolishness," Settles told me. "I'm in my eighties and it hasn't harmed me!" (I think he was lucky!)
There are plenty of lighthouse stories to suggest mercury did cause harm. Science validates its danger, and it has been eradicated from our modern-day medicine chest and is banned in many countries. Remember the take-back for mercury thermometers a few years ago? Mercury poisoning can cause all sorts of ills, including rapid heartbeat, skin peeling, kidney damage, loss of coordination, vision problems, wobbly-looking handwriting, excessive salivation (like a rabid animal!), memory loss, and even madness. The old saying, "Mad as a Hatter" has its roots in the madness rampant among felt hat makers in the 1800s who dipped animal skins in mercuric nitrate to form them more easily into hat shapes.
In British Columbia, a lighthouse keeper was removed from his job for madness. Another's wife went mad. Still another keeper's sister leaped from the cliffs at Pachena Point Lighthouse on Vancouver Island. The late author and Canadian lightkeeper, Donald Graham, postulates that exposure to the mercury was the cause, or at least part of the cause. A few old letters and logbooks have that wobbly handwriting! Yet...some lighthouses are such lonely and forlorn places, one could go mad even without mercury poisoning.
Fire was an ever-present danger at lighthouses back in the days when incendiary fuels and lamps were used. Until the late 1800s, lighthouses actually were "lit" with matches! They all had lamps containing various fuels, depending on the time period, and sometimes under extreme pressure. Oil spilled on the wooden floor of the lantern could catch fire, lamps exploded, or heat built up inside the lamps and lantern and kindled a blaze. In April 1925 a lightkeeper died at Hawai'i's Makapu'u Point Lighthouse after the incandescent oil vapor apparatus inside the lens exploded. (It worked similar to a camping lantern with pressurized fuel and mantles.)
Wooden light towers were prone to fire. This was the material of choice in the colonial days and in times when the budget for lighthouse construction was lean. Boston Light caught fire in 1720 when it was only four years old, due to the lamps dripping fuel on the lantern floor. Keeper John Hayes managed to put out the fire and was not injured.
An old engraving shows the Eddystone Lighthouse on fire in the English Channel in December 1775. It was illuminated with a large candelabra, which probably dripped wax on the floor, sparked, and set the wooden tower on fire. The keepers escaped, but strangely one of them suffered a badly burned mouth and throat, due to the fact that he looked up at the blazing lantern from the rocks below with mouth agape, as a gob of molten metal fell. It was hot lead, making matters worse. It went down his throat into his stomach, and he suffered horribly for several weeks before a combination of burns and lead poisoning killed him. Keeper John Hall was 94 years old at the time!
In December 1909, a coal stove caught fire inside Thimble Shoal Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay. The blaze was no fault of the keepers or the stove. The lighthouse was rammed by a schooner, which cut a hole in one side of it and over-turned the stove. Hot coals spilled onto the floor and, fanned by the flue-like effect of the gash in the wall, set the place on fire. The two keepers managed to escape in their small boat and were picked up by the same vessel that had slammed the lighthouse.
Drowning was another danger at lighthouses. The first lighthouse keeper at the first official lighthouse in the United States--Boston Light--drowned while returning to the lighthouse in his boat. His wife, one daughter, and his black slave also drowned.
Before the twentieth century, on average, only one in three sailors could swim. We can probably apply that same ratio to the general public. It was likely worse odds for women and worse still for children. And, there was no regulation stating that lighthouse keepers had to know how to swim.
A big concern for lighthouse families were the children. Living at the edge of the sea, sometimes very close to the edge, meant constant vigilance over the youngsters. Some parents tethered the little ones until they were old enough to trust around the water. Almost all families on islands kept watch dogs. Milo, who lived on Egg Rock Lighthouse off Nahant, Massachusetts in the 1850s was credited with rescuing several people from drowning, including the lightkeeper's son. Milo and the rescued boy were painted by Sir Edwin Henry Landseer in "Saved."
A keeper at Portland Head Lighthouse had a pet parrot who looked after the kids and grandchildren. One day he alerted the family that one of the children had fallen into the sea below the tower. The bird flew madly back and forth over the keeper's head squawking "Man overboard! Man overboard!" The little boy was scooped from the cold water and suffered only a severe reprimand.
A lighthouse keeper and his children at Nantucket's Sankaty Head Lighthouse were photographed on the calm side of the tower. In the distance, behind the lighthouse and dwelling are steep cliffs and pounding seas. The keeper and his wife must have worried terribly that their young children might fall over the cliffs and into the sea. (Photo from the Natucket Shipwreck & Lifesaving Museum)
Logbooks and diaries are rife with sad stories of lighthouse people who drowned. Some simply vanished. The most famous lost keepers story is from Scotland's Flannen Isles Lighthouse where three lightkeepers mysteriously disappeared in 1900. The mystery has never been solved, though there are many ideas about what happened. The accepted theory is that one fell overboard into the sea, and then the other two were washed off the boat landing by waves, one-after-the-other, in attempts to save each other. Their bodies were never found. In 1912 Wilfred Wilson Gibson wrote a ballad about the lost keepers that details the mystery:
Yet, as we crowded through the door,
We only saw a table spread
For dinner, meat, and cheese and bread;
But, all untouched; and no-one there,
As though, when they sat down to eat,
Ere they could even taste,
Alarm had come, and they in haste
Had risen and left the bread and meat,
For at the table head a chair
Lay tumbled on the floor.
Before refrigeration, food storage was a health and safety issue at some lighthouses, especially in tropical regions. Fresh meat and vegetables were considered a treat; most of the food stores were canned or dry goods. Lightkeepers often subsisted by fishing and hunting to keep fresh meat on hand. Chickens were kept, if possible, and a cow. Keepers in cold climates used the ocean itself as a refrigerator, placing perishables in tamper-proof containers and lowering them into the cold seawater.
Marie Carr, who raised her family at Little Gull Lighthouse in Long Island Sound, told me she had a cold can for milk. Her husband would fetch it in New London, put it in the cold can, and trail the can behind his boat in the chilly water as he returned to the lighthouse. The can was then suspended in the ocean in a safe spot below the house. "I made sure my children got milk every day."
Little Gull Light in Long Island Sound was afloat on a rock island. The Carrs stored milk in a cold can suspended in the water to keep it fresh. Coast Guard photo.
Correspondence between keepers and their superiors shows that even the government deliveries of meat and other foodstuff could arrive spoiled. There are numerous letters of complaint about the Canadian lighthouse service's quality of fresh food, including some that mention sickness due to putrid meat. The U.S. Lighthouse Service, and most other lighthouse systems in the world supplied lighthouses with staples like dried beans, flour, sugar, molasses, and salt--all items that could be dry stored. Foods that spoiled were harder to ship, especially to remote light stations, and difficult to keep fresh at the stations.
Were there other safety concerns for lighthouse keepers? Absolutely! The mere fact that they were required to stay on duty 24/7 in the worst imaginable calamites speaks volumes about the dangers of their job. An upcoming Summer 2014 article I wrote for the U.S. Lighthouse Society Keepers Log is about lightning strikes at lighthouses. One photo shows the grave of a lightkeeper who was struck and killed by lightning. His son was hit too, but the boy survived. Included in the article are other stories of keepers killed and injured by lightning. Imagine, if you can, having to work in the tallest structure on the seashore in the midst of a violent electrical storm!
The gravestone of George Mahall, keeper of Barrenjoey Lighthouse, Australia, does not mention how he died. He was struck and killed by lightning.
Storms in general were the biggest danger for most lightkeepers. Wind and waves could tear apart the light stations and injure or kill lightkeepers and their family members. Arthur Small lost his wife in the Great Hurricane of 1938 at Palmer Island Lighthouse, New Bedford, Massachusetts--drowned in the storm surge. The keeper and the lighthouse at Whale Rock off Beavertail, Rhode Island were both lost in the same hurricane. Two keepers on the first Minots Ledge Lighthouse were killed when the great nor'easter of April 1851 knocked down the lighthouse. On October 11, 1846 Captain Joshua Applebee and his family died in a fierce hurricane that washed away Sand Key Lighthouse, 9-miles off Key West. And so it goes...story after story of loss of life due to storms at lighthouses.
A collage of Coast Guard images compares the Scotch Cap Lighthouse, Alaska, before the April 1946 tsunami and after. All five lightkeepers died.
There were oddities too, dangers we might not expect at lighthouses. Five Coast Guard keepers at Alaska's Scotch Cap Lighthouse in the Aleutian Islands died in the April 1946 tsunami when an estimated 100-foot wave hit the light station in the darkness.
The 1906 San Francisco earthquake didn't kill any lightkeepers, but it injured a few and destroyed their stations. The periodic eruptions of the Kilauea volcano on Hawai'i's Big Island caused the lightkeeper at Ka Lae Light woe with smoke and dirt and ash, but he survived.
Oddest of all might be the bird attack at Hog Island Lighthouse in Virginia in February 1900.
Two keepers heard birds pelting the tower that evening--not an unusual thing in itself during the migration period. Birds slam into lighthouses; it's a fact. But on this night the collision of a flock of birds turned into a Hitchcock horror story with hundreds of avians deliberately dive-bombing the tower. They broke the lantern windows and damaged the lens. The keepers tried scaring them away with noise, banging pans and buckets, then went after them with clubs. Finally, in desperation, they fetched shotguns and fired on the berserk birds. The next morning, they counted nearly a hundred birds dead on the ground below the tower, most killed by collision with the stone walls, iron lantern, and glass windows.
Was lighthouse keeping a safe occupation? I think we all know the answer to that question. It's rather like wondering: "Is it safe to drink bleach? Should I use my electric hair curler in the shower?"
Some of the tragic events that occurred and death-defying tasks keepers were expected to do shock us in today's safety-conscious world. I suppose this is one reason we can be thankful lighthouses no longer need keepers and can run efficiently and economically by themselves.
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To read more about the life of lightkeepers of long ago, check out Guardians of the Lights: Stories of U.S. Lighthouse Keepers. (Click on the title.) It's been in print almost twenty years now and has been praised for its conversation, readable style. Lee Radzak, director at Split Rock Lighthouse in Minnesota, flattered me by saying this book is required history reading his museum docents.
Here's the old edition (top) and new edition (bottom). Happy reading!