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.


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