Monday, April 27, 2015

The Functional Lens-Lantern

We all know penny-pinching can stretch a dollar. We also know the size of the tool should match the size of the job. The old lighthouse establishment lived by these two rules. Lights for navigation were built as economically as possible, and seldom was a light brighter or bigger than needed.

In places were a small light would suffice, the post lantern was the tool of choice. These were, as their name implies, simple structures---posts, masts, poles---that held aloft a small lamp. Above is a good example, the 1893 Funck Lens Lantern. Lens-lanterns were in use earlier, though.

Rivers and small harbors had them. There were many on the Mississippi River. The West Coast also had a fair number of lens-lanterns in the early years of its lighting by the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment. These were cheap, and they sufficed in some places until lighthouses could be built.

A tripod structure held the lens-lantern aloft, and a pulley system allowed the lamplighter to lower and raise the lamp to clean and refuel it. After the Civil War, most lens-lanterns were fueled by kerosene. The bottom of the lamp had a reservoir that held a supply of the fuel, usually enough for a week. The lamplighter was a local person who had his or her own residence nearby. The government paid this person to fuel and clean the post light and report any problems with it. Below is a tripod post light on the Mississippi River about 1920. Also shown is one of the river's lamplighters in 1940 with her post light. Photos are from the Coast Guard Archives.

Lens-lanterns provided more light than a simple house lantern. The beacon could be seen a couple of miles in clear weather thanks to the addition of a small Fresnel-type lens that surrounded the light source. This sufficed in rivers and small harbors. Bad weather significantly diminished the effectiveness. Even so, economics dictated their use in areas that would have been better served by lighthouses.

When Hawai'i first began lighting its island coastline, there was little funding for expensive lighthouses and lenses. Thus, many of the early Hawaiian lights were lens-lanterns. Below is Ka Lai Light, on the southernmost point of the Big Island of Hawai'i. It's beacon was elevated on a metal skeleton tower, but the light itself was feeble. A lens-lantern hardly cast a beam more than a mile off the shore. Smoke from the active volcanoes on the island obscured it. Ships went off course looking for it. But it was all the government felt it could afford in the early years of the twentieth century. 

You can see the lens-lantern on the left side of the superstructure in the image of Ka Lai below. This was a bit more sophisticated than a simple post lantern. It had a windmill on top. The building was for storing fuel and tools. The lamplighter lived some distance away and walked to the site until the lighthouse service bought him a horse.

Browns Point at Tacoma, Washington had a lens-lantern to serve the busy harbor until the 1930s (shown below). It was mounted on a small wooden tower that looked more like a privy than a light tower. A fogbell hung above the beacon, which was enclosed in a box on the side of the tower facing the harbor. The rainy climate of Tacoma convinced the lighthouse service to at least protect the lens-lantern. Prior to erection of the tower in 1903, the lens-lantern hung on post at Tacoma Waterway Light, shown below the Browns Point Light.

Structures to support lens-lanterns were more sophisticated at some sites. Point Robinson on Vashon-Maury Island, a few miles north of Browns Point, had two iterations of lens-lantern towers, shown below, each using the same lens-lantern. These were established in the 1880s and 1890s. The site did not receive a lighthouse until 1915.

Howland, Baker, and Jarvis islands in the Pacific Ocean were U.S. territories marked with beacons in the 1930s. They, too, had lens-lanterns for beacons. But these were mounted on lighthouses. The one at Howland Island is shown and was named in honor of Amelia Earhart after she disappeared on her flight around the world. It was accessed by an exterior ladder. The island is so flat, the beacon was needed to help ships find it. Today, only a stub of the tower stands. It was ruined during World War II bombings.
You might wonder if the work of lamplighters who tended lens-lanterns was much respected. It's likely these humble servants got less credit for keeping the waterways safe than their counterparts at majestic lighthouses with huge lenses and on-site resident crews of keepers. Certainly, lamplighters gained no fame. They also were paid less....but then they had less work to do. It could be dangerous work, though, as when a Mississippi River lamplighter opened his lens-lantern one afternoon to find a rattlesnake curled up around it! He used a stick to push the snake off the post, but the determined reptile threaded itself up the ladder and threatened the lamplighter again. It was knocked into the river several times before it gave up the assault.
The service of lens-lanterns and lamplighters was important. I've written about it here to preserve the story, small as it is in comparison to others in the lighthouse service. You can see lens-lanterns on display in a few museums. The one below hangs in the Coast Guard Museum Northwest in Seattle and is the lens-lantern that once hung from a post on Alki Point, the southern gate of Seattle's Elliot Bay.


Friday, April 10, 2015

A Flash of Lighthouse Green

Amateur astronomy is one of my many hobbies. I taught in a planetarium for about ten years in the 1980s-90s and have written several books on skywatching. I find that my skywatching hobby goes well with lighthouse hunting.
(Photo above shows the green flash behind La Perdix Lighthouse on the Brittany Coast of France and is from Astronomy Picture of the Day by Laurent Laveder

Lighthouses usually have wonderful skies over them and unobstructed flat horizons beyond them.  They often afford the chance to observe the skies at their finest—dark, looming, and touched by the hand of an ocean atmosphere that produces intriguing special effects.

One interesting phenomena I’ve seen several times from lighthouses is the Green Flash. You’ve got to be patient and observant to see it, and sky conditions have to be just right. Lighthouse locations can provide those “just right” conditions. You’ll need a clear view of the flat western horizon—no trees, mountains, hills, buildings, or any other elements. And Green Flashes occur most often when the air is still and no clouds obscure the horizon.
If such a serene day winds down at the shore, park yourself with your favorite drink, relax, focus, and wait. Wear dark sunglasses too, or better yet, look at the sunset through #14 welder’s glass, as staring at a bright horizon a long time will cause discomfort and may even harm your eyes.
(Photo below is from Colin Legg Photography. It appeared on and shows a sun dome with a green flash setting behind Rottnest Island Lighthouse in Western Australia. What an amazing shot! Find more of Colin Legg's fantastic images of the sky on

Catch it if you can, and you’ll never be deceived by a lover!  So says an old Irish superstition concerning the Green Flash. That seems reason enough to look for it. Even more, it’s one of nature’s special magic shows. Now you see it; now you don’t!! Your eyes can catch it. So can your camera.
The Green Flash is, just as its name implies, a momentary flash of green light that appears just as the Sun's orange disk disappears over the horizon at sunset. It also occurs at sunrise but is less often observed at this time, due to the difficulty of predicting the exact moment when the upper rim of the Sun will rise. But go for it anyway, especially on the East Coast at your favorite lighthouse. Just watching the sunrise at a lighthouse is beautiful enough. Add the Green Flash, and you'll really experience something memorable.
A morning or evening following a cleansing rainstorm is good for Green Flash conditions, as are days when a cold front has just moved down from Alaska or Canada.  Although the ocean horizon works best because of its flat line, the Green Flash can appear on any flat horizon.  Some people have seen it on mountaintops and over buildings, but this is very rare. Your best chance of catching it is at the coast over the ocean horizon. Summer and winter are the choicest times to look, when the angle of the Sun’s descent is shallowest.
            If you’re using welder’s glass to dim the bright sun (and I highly suggest you do!!), you might also see some sunspots, which appear as small dark flecks on the Sun.  These are cooler areas on the Sun’s surface and are associated with its magnetic field.  Very near the moment when the sunset disk is about to disappear over the horizon, look at it intently through the welder’s glass.  If conditions are right, you’ll see green color effects just as the disk disappears. Depending on its intensity, the Green Flash may be bead-like, spiked like a star, or elongated into a dash or ray. 
            What causes this momentary flash of emerald light on an otherwise tangerine Sun?  Unknown to your eyes, the upper edge of the Sun’s disk is rimmed by a green arc of light.  The reason your eyes can’t see the green when the Sun is still up is that green occupies a much narrower part of the visible spectrum than other colors.  Yellows, oranges, and reds have much longer wavelengths and dominate your field of view.  But at the final moment of sunset, the shorter wavelength green gets its chance to shine.  It shows through in a jewel-like flash.
            When you see it, consider yourself lucky.  Not many people catch this elusive phenomenon.  Science can’t guarantee that seeing the Green Flash will keep your love life intact, as the Irish believe, but observing it will automatically admit you to a unique circle of skywatchers.

            If you happen to observe it at a lighthouse, consider yourself even luckier: You’ll see a manmade beacon in the lighthouse and a nature-made beacon on the horizon! Don't despair if the elusive Green Flash doesn't appear. Trade the green "flash" of a lighthouse instead--maybe Portsmouth Harbor's handsome old beacon, seen below. (Lens photo by Bruce "Boondog" Robie, who caught his reflection in the lens as a bonus. Bottom photo by Matt Currier.)

To find out more about the Green Flash, check out this website from astronomer Andrew Young --

Monday, April 6, 2015

Sojourn at the Lighthouse

Meet my newest eBook! Sojourn at the Lighthouse. It's based on a journal I kept during my keeper weeks at New Dungeness Lighthouse on a sand spit off Sequim, Washington. I've served there as a volunteer keeper twice now, and I've visited the site many times with work parties or for a day trip. It's a special place, and being a volunteer lightkeeper is a unique experience.


This is one of the most fascinating lighthouses I've visited. It has a wonderfully rich history, dating back to 1857 when it went into service. U.S. Lighthouse Establishment keepers occupied the station from 1857 until 1939 when the Coast Guard took over operations, and then Coast Guard keepers lived at the lighthouse for fifty-five years. It was nearly boarded up and abandoned when the Coast Guard left in 1994, except for the determination and hard work of a group of local citizens who wanted to keep it staffed. They became the New Dungeness Light Station Association. Since 1994, they have maintained a 365-day-a-yeat presence on the light station with volunteer lightkeepers. I was on their board for several years in the early 2000s, and I remain close with the group.

You, too, can be a volunteer lightkeeper here. The book will familiarize you with the experience and the duties of modern-day lightkeeping. This is a vacation spot--yes!--but it's also a place to do some important work to preserve the history and mission of the light station. The scenery and wildlife alone make it worth the trip.

If you're looking for a lighthouse for a meaningful vacation retreat, or you've booked a week at this one, read my book first. It's written somewhat like a diary and is rife with interesting anecdotes and tidbits of history. If you've had a stay at any other lighthouse, compare your experience to mine.

You'll find Sojourn at the Lighthouse on under Kindle Books for $1.99. Here are some images I included--