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....

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