Friday, May 29, 2015

Counting Lighthouse Coups

"How many lighthouses have you seen/visited/photographed/climbed?"

It's a question I often get at book signings and talks, from interviewers, and from friends who visit my house and see the endless profusion of lighthouse stuff in my office. I have a penchant for babbling on and on about lighthouses in my PowerPoint programs and delivering information in an authoritative manner (though I would never claim to be an authority on anything). People feel I must keep count of all the lighthouses I've seen. How else could I talk nonstop?

My answer to the "how many?" question is simple. I don't know how many lighthouses I have seen/visited/photographed/climbed. I stopped counting shortly after 500.

I used to keep a notebook of my lighthouse trips and a list of the lighthouses I saw on those travels. That was back in my scrapbooking days in the 1970s, when lighthouse hunting was more of a hobby and not part of my occupation. Then, I began adding notes to the list. The scrapbooks quickly became an unruly collection of sticky notes of every color, photos, slides, and postcards, brochures, and handouts picked up at lighthouses. At some point, probably around 1985, I stopped keeping scrapbooks of lighthouse travel and transferred the materials into file folders in a file cabinet. Scrapbooking had evolved into researching and writing. Today, I have multiple cabinets and crates full of files on individual lighthouses and lighthouse topics. If my house caught fire, there's plenty of paper in those cabinets and crates to fuel the blaze!

But back to that "how many?" question--
I have friends who keep count of the lighthouses they've seen. They'll gladly respond to the question at the beginning of this blog. They'll tell you exactly: "I've visited 489" or "922" or "1,067." "I've seen every lighthouse in Florida!" "I've photographed all the lighthouses in New Jersey!" "I've seen more lighthouses than Carters has liver pills!" And on and on it goes.

I call this pharologic tracking "Counting Lighthouse Coups." It can get obsessive, sometimes comically so. It can get competitive, as in who has seen he most? We love to claim a superlative. It's a human thing to do.

The proof is in the selfie!! Yes, I've visited both lighthouses at Cape Henry, VA.

There are a number of ways to count lighthouse coups. Just deciding what a lighthouse is factors into the process.
I have some friends who claim they've visited every lighthouse in the United States. Of course a declaration like this spurs much discussion about what, exactly, qualifies as a lighthouse. Did they visit that fiberglass pole on a concrete base with a solar-powered, automatic beacon on top? How about the steel framework light tower that gets confused with one handling big power lines? Then there are tripod lights on rivers and Texas Towers standing in the sea and foundations of defunct lighthouses with pole beacons mounted on them. And there are faux lighthouses, built for decoration. Did they visit those too? Is a lighthouse defined by function or appearance?

Another friend says a lighthouse visit is not a visit unless you get close enough to touch the lighthouse. Mega-zoom lenses that resemble Daboll trumpet foghorns can capture a lighthouse a few miles away, but does that count for a visit?

Another says you have to climb a lighthouse to say you've truly visited it. She'll bargain, beg, and sell off all her possessions to get inside a lighthouse and climb to the top. And, she's managed to climb MANY. Go Lighthouse Pixie!

In my experience, counting lighthouse coups began as a hobby and evolved by necessity. I have quite a large collection of lighthouse models--Scassis, Harbour Lights, Goebel, Danbury Mint, Spoontique, Lefton, you-name-it. I have plates, mugs, magnets, jigsaw puzzles, posters, postcards, snow globes, blankets, pillows, greeting cards, paintings, and more....too much more! At first I only collected these items if they featured lighthouses I had visited. Soon, gifts came my way at talks, book signings, at Christmas, Mother's Day, and on my birthday, all in the form of lighthouses. Many of these I had not visited; my collection of lighthouse memorabilia ballooned. (In fact, I had to give away much of it in 2002 when I moved from Connecticut to Washington. Otherwise, the relocation would have required several moving trucks! My lighthouse book collection? I never give any of it away unless I have multiple copies of titles.)

Collections can get out hand. They cost money, need organization, need space, need storage, need dusting. When they grow large, we must inventory; otherwise, we end up duplicating. "Oh, I already had six of that postcard!" I've confined my lighthouse collection to my office and storage spaces around my house. There's a large, heavy box in my crawlspace with about 300 lighthouse mugs in it. Another has a large plate collection. A third is full of lighthouse Christmas ornaments. It's all rather silly, I think these days, now that I'm officially a senior citizen---a latent expression of primeval hunting and gathering urges gone wild!

At some point I decided that if I wrote about a lighthouse (more than just a short anecdote in a book or article) then I should have a model or nice memento of it. Then, I got sassy and told my husband I should visit every lighthouse I write about.

Negril Point Lighthouse, Jamaica. I saw, I visited, I touched, I climbed, I photographed.       Hey mon, I even interviewed the keeper!

"How can I write about a place I've never been?" I asked.

He grimaced. Already, we design many of our vacations and trips around lighthouse visits.

"No," he replied firmly. "We are not going to the Seychelles anytime soon. Be satisfied with a byline."

And those trips, those lighthouse excursions--so many people love them! The tour industry knows this.  The U.S. Lighthouse Society does fantastic lighthouse tours, as do other nonprofits and tour companies.  Lighthouse people love to get the itineraries and see all the lighthouses on them. Some arrive with maps all marked up with lighthouse locations, and some bring more cameras and lenses than clothing. This excited lighthouse-ilk know there are rules about the tour stops. Everyone gets off the bus and queues up for photos before anyone can walk toward the lighthouse. No one wants Joe's backside in a photo or Mary's bright chartreuse shirt. "Would someone move that hose laying on the lawn please?  I don't want that in my photo."

Lighthouse photos must be pure...except for the group photo before we leave.


State lighthouse societies know about lighthouse hunting folk. These nonprofits design "Lighthouse Challenges" and special "I've Seen the Lights" patches to encourage lighthouse bucket listers to visit! Then there are people who bring mascots--stuffed bears and bunnies and doggies and such--and must photograph these silent buddies at every lighthouse they visit. "What lighthouse is Waldo visiting now?"

Me? I prefer to bring Santa Claus. Here he is at Point Robinson Lighthouse, Washington, visible in the background on the right.

While on such tours, or at lighthouse meetings and conferences, lighthouse fanciers love to compare notes about lighthouses they've seen/visited/photographed/climbed. I always enjoy the lively conversation at these affairs because it's rife with superlatives and fun lighthouse bravado.  It's also informative. You gets good contacts and tips:

"Go in the morning and shoot photos from the southeast side!"

"Don't pick the cow parsnip flowers; you'll get a nasty rash."

"If you climb down the rocks by the public beach and then walk along the tideline, the mean lade with the broom won't come out and yell at you." (Did I mention lighthouse enthusiasts often trespass to count coups?)

"Tell the sentry at the gate you are a member of the American Lighthouse Foundation."

"Show them one of Elinor's books and say you're helping her with research for a new one!"

"Better yet, tell them she's your mother!" (You're laughing now, but this has worked many times for my kids.) 

So...what's in your lighthouse bucket? How many have you seen/visited/photographed/climbed? Maybe it doesn't matter. It's just a lot of fun to "Count Lighthouse Coups" and compare notes.

To end this fun romp through lighthouse mania, I'll mention that I have begun collecting lighthouses on a Pinterest Board. It's called "The Lighthouse Hunter."

I'm not the only one collecting images of lighthouses on Pinterest. Go see; type "lighthouse" in the Pinterest search bar...and then stand back as an explosion of amazing stuff is unveiled!

Pinterest piques my interest and obsession every time I pin a photo. They'll ask which board I want---chickens? pine cones? ravens? owls? donkeys? lighthouses?---and then tickle my fancy with: "Start a new board?"

Maybe I will start a new board. I'll call it "Counting Lighthouse Coups." To make it tougher, I'll insist on proof, like the photo below. That tortoise can tell you I really did visit Vrysaki Lighthouse in Greece! (Photo by Derith Bennett)

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Dancing Fire on the Lighthouse

I love all things nautical, including nautical weather and nautical astronomy. One of the most mysterious phenomena of the ocean skies (and sometimes inland too) is St. Elmo's Fire. Yes, you've probably seen the movie with Rob Lowe, but that isn't the subject here. This post is about the real thing--tiny snippets of lightning seen during storm conditions that seem to dance atop tall buildings and the masts of ships. These also can appear on trees, airplanes, and volcanoes. For example, during the eruption of Krakatoa in Java in the 1880s, St. Elmo's Fire was seen over the volcano and dancing atop buildings and trees in nearby villages and towns. (Image below from The British Library.)
The most common sightings of St. Elmo's Fire occur on ships, old sailing rigs with masts rising high over them and plenty of rigging. Charles Darwin mentioned seeing St. Elmo's Fire on the Beagle, during the revolutionary voyage that took him to the Galapagos and set him to thinking about how life changes due to natural selection and evolution. Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed around the world with Magellan, saw St. Elmo's Fire on the ship's masts off the West Coast of Africa. Coleridge mentions them as "death-fires" in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and Starbuck of Moby Dick (and coffee) fame, shouted: "Look! Aloft! St. Elmo's Lights! Corposants!"
That's another name for the phenomenon--corposants, meaning the bodies of saints. Why? Read on--
The name St. Elmo's Fire derives from Erasmus, or St. Elmo, who was the patron saint of Mediterranean sailors. His image or an icon of him was carried to sea to ashore a safe voyage. Erasmus is said to have died on a ship at sea, but moments before his death he promised his shipmates he would return in a nonphysical form. Hours later, when wisps of lightning were seen on the ship's masts and in its rigging, the crew thought Erasmus had returned. The lights, or corposants, came from the resurrected and saintly Erasmus. (Below, a sailor's medallion.)
Erasmus was shortened to Elmo, probably in that predictable manner in which nautical language evolves when the roar of wind and waves at sea steals away part of a word---boatsman became bo'sun, forecastle became foc'sul, and Erasmus became Elmo.
Sailors of antiquity, especially the Greeks and Romans, were known to be superstitious and believed the dancing St. Elmo fires were the appearance of Castor and Pollux, the twin gods thought to protect ships and seamen. (These gods are known as the Gemini and have their own constellation in the night sky.) It was considered a blessing to have them aboard! The eyes of Castor and Pollux were often painted on the bow of a ship with the idea that they might help the vessel see in the darkness, or in a fog or storm.
Thus, old salts could refer to this ethereal phenomenon as Castor and Pollux, St. Elmo's Fire, or the corposants.
Scientifically speaking, these tiny discharges of electricity are produced during stormy weather when the atmosphere is highly agitated. You might think of them as glorified static electricity--way exaggerated that is! They are actually small, somewhat harmless bolts of lightning that appear reddish or blue-green. They are usually seen near the end of a storm and are attracted to tall objects in the same manner as serious lightning strikes are. They crackle and have an eerie, glowing appearance that is both frightening and awe-inspiring.
St. Elmo's Fire can be seen on lighthouses too and was reported by lightkeepers years ago when lighthouses were staffed 24/7. Lightship sailors also saw it. You might see it too if live near or spend any time at a tall lighthouse. Of course, getting a picture of this elusive phantom of storm conditions is difficult. Hence, you'll see no actual photos here of St. Elmo's Fire on lighthouses. Instead, I've opted above for JM's manipulated photo on Flicker that gives a sense of what St. Elmo's Fire might do to a lighthouse.
Of course, I had to have some fun myself with a photo. This is my version of the worst possible day at Point No Point Lighthouse in Hansville, Washington! It's stormy, lightning bolts are streaking downward, and the corposants are dancing on anything and everything--the lighthouse, the roof eaves, the sea oats, even that nutty gal standing in this bad weather scene. St. Elmo, please protect her!
The typical lightkeeper of yesterday was nothing short of a sailor or fisherman who came ashore for a quieter, less dangerous job. Thus, he probably understood and respected St. Elmo's Fire when storm conditions prevailed and the atmosphere with rife with electricity. Seaman, as we know, often have trouble "swallowing the anchor" when they retire ashore. That's why lighthouse history and lore is embroidered with so many colorful nautical threads!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Covered Way

Architectural styles of lighthouses vary greatly, as do their geographic locations. In colder regions many lighthouses were designed with covered walkways between buildings. These facilitated lightkeeping--lightkeepers could access the light tower from their house without ever going outside--and reduced the work of shoveling snow and keeping a trail to the light tower cleared.

Above is Owls Head Lighthouse in Maine. In 1903 a 60-foot covered way was built between the lighthouse and the oilhouse. Three years later another walkway connected to the first and provided a weather-free link between the keeper's quarters, the light tower, and the oilhouse. The keeper, if he so desired, could tend the lighthouse in pajamas, though I doubt any ever did. The covered way simply made access easier and safer. The keeper still had to trek outside to work the fogbell. Owls Head's covered way is gone today.

Safety was a great concern at some lighthouses. At White Island Lighthouse in the Isles of Shoals, New Hampshire, situated on an island several miles off Portsmouth, the covered way (seen in the old postcard and HABs b&w view below) protected the keepers from the sea. Waves could breach parts of the island during severe storms. The walkway itself was damaged on several occasions by storm waves. The keepers reported how fearsome the sound of the waves was at they crashed over the walkway.

While most covered ways were found in New England, smaller ones were seen in other parts of the nation, such as the Great Lakes lighthouses.
Fairport Harbor Lighthouse in Ohio still has its wooden covered way connecting the house and tower, seen in this travel book photo. So does Beaver Island Lighthouse, Michigan, seen below. (Coast Guard Archives photo)

Terry Pepper of the Great Lakes Lightkeepers Association took this picture of the covered way at St. Helena Lighthouse, Michigan.
Here are some other examples of covered ways at lighthouses--
This vintage postcard shows one of the twin light towers at Thachers Island, Cape Ann, Massachusetts. Only one of the twin towers had a covered way running from the house to the tower. The other twin light was accessed by a rock path several hundred feet long.

This old postcard shows the covered way at Burnt Island Lighthouse, Maine. The way was not connected to the bell tower, seen on the right, but there was a plank walkway and bridge to the bell tower.

Of course, development of the integral lighthouse/keeper's house made access to the light tower exceedingly easy. Here are some examples--

New York's Selkirk Lighthouse was built with the tower rising from the roof of the keeper's home.

Block Island Southeast Lighthouse in Rhode Island had the light tower connected directly to the house. (Coast Guard Archives supplied the b&w images in this section and the next)
Of course, if you lived in this lighthouse below, at Barbers Point, Hawai'i, there was no need for a covered way. In fact, a jaunt from the quarters to the light tower was pleasant and clement!!


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Kipling's Love of Lighthouses

Joseph Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) saw many lighthouses in his time. They found their way into his works, along with buoys, ships, sea captains, and other nautical emblems.

He was born in Bombay during British rule and then sailed to England at the age of five to live with friends and of his parents in the naval port of Portsmouth and be properly schooled. At the age of seventeen, unable to get a scholarship to Oxford, Kipling returned to India and began work as an editor for a newspaper in Lahore and, later, Allahabad.

At the end of his newspaper job, he returned to England via the Pacific route, landing in San Francisco. From there he traveled north to British Columbia and then through the Midwest to Boston where he sailed for England, arriving in 1889. He was a celebrity by this time, at the young age of 24.
Kipling saw many lighthouses on this trip. Farallon Light probably greeted him as he approached San Francisco, and then Point Bonita Lighthouse and the famous sentinel on Alcatraz Island. Up the West Coast he may glimpsed St. George Reef Lighthouse, then still under construction, and Cape Disappointment Lighthouse as his ship entered the Columbia River, bound for Portland. In British Columbia he surely saw Race Rocks Lighthouse.
At Boston, his ship passed the historic Boston Lighthouse and then sobering Minots Ledge, where a masonry lighthouse stood on a submarine shelf of rock. American lighthouse builders had learned to construct wave-washed lighthouses from the British and Scots. Minots Ledge, Kipling no doubt knew, mimicked Robert Stevenson's great Bell Rock Lighthouse, built by the father of one of Kipling's favorite writers, Robert Louis Stevenson. (NOAA image of Minots Ledge Lighthouse)

He took another sea voyage, this time for his health, and then married. He and his wife settled in Brattleboro, Vermont where he started a family and wrote many of his most famous pieces, including The Jungle Book and Captains Courageous.  The Kiplings returned to live in England in 1896 in a home in Devon overlooking the English Channel. Undoubtedly, the twinkling lighthouses of the channel influenced his writing.

In 1897 he moved to Sussex. A decade later he won the Nobel Prize for literature—the first English language author to do so. Even so, he is remembered as a controversial figure for his political views and his acceptance of British Imperialism. He died at Sussex on January 18, 1836.

Kipling’s many travels at sea influenced his work, as did the British reputation as a sea-going nation and its work in the Crown Colonies where Trinity House, the British Lighthouse Authority, erected many handsome and enduring lighthouses.

Kipling’s 1896 volume, The Seven Seas, included many nautical poems. Below is “The Coastwise Lights,” extoling the lighthouses of England, which Kipling considered the best in the world.


Our brows are bound with spindrift and the weed is on our knees;

Our loins are battered ‘neath us by the swinging smoking seas.

From reef and rock and skerry—over headland, ness, and voe—

The Coastwise Lights of England watch the ships of England go!


Through the endless summer evenings, on the lineless, level floors;

Through the yelling channel tempest when the siren hoots and roars—

By day the dipping house-flag and by night the rocket’s trail—

As the sheep that graze behind us so we know them where they hail.


We bridge across the dark, and bid the helmsman have a care,

The flash that, wheeling inland, wakes his sleeping wife to prayer.

From our vexed eyries, head to gale, we bind in burning chains

The lover from the sea-rim drawn—his love in English lanes.


We greet the clippers wing-in-wing that race the Southern wool;

We warn the crawling cargo tanks of Bremen, Leith, and Hull;

To each and all our equal lamp at peril of the sea—

The white wall-sided warships or the whalers of Dundee!


Come up, come in from Eastward, of the guardports of the Morn!

Beat up, beat in from Southerly, O gypsies of the Horn!

Swift shuttles of an Empire’s loom that weave us main to main,

The Coastwise Lights of England give you welcome back again!


Go, get you gone up-Channel with the sea-crust on your plates;

Go, get you into London with the burden of your freights!

Haste, for they talk of Empire there, and say, if any seek,

The Lights of England sent you and by silence shall ye speak.
Above is the W. Heath Robinson painting done in 1909 to illustrate Kipling's poem, "The Coastwise Lights."


Monday, May 4, 2015

Wolfe Lighthouses

Every school year I visit local schools in my area to talk about lighthouses. Most are elementary level, and second grade is popular, primarily because Keep the Lights Burning Abbie is a second grade level book. Nothing is more fun than a group of exuberant second graders learning about lighthouses!
I enjoy the school visits for many reasons---I once taught elementary school and miss hanging out with the youngsters, I'm the education guru on the board of the U.S. Lighthouse Society and education chair for the American Lighthouse Council, I know that the citizenship attitudes needed for tomorrow's lighthouse preservationists start young, and kids need to rub elbows with passionate people. I tell them everyone needs a passion in life, something to get excited about, learn about, share with others, and work to save and appreciate. They quickly see that for me it's lighthouses.
I visited Wolfe Elementary School in Kingston, Washington last Thursday for a day of fun with the second grades. We met in the library and shared a PowerPoint about lighthouses, learning that they are all different shapes, sizes, and colors and that they stand watch all around the globe. Then I headed to each classroom and helped the students build their own paper cup lighthouses. (You can find my video on You Tube about making the lighthouses here:
We learned all about lighthouse signals too, including optics and the daymarks lighthouses wear to differentiate themselves during the day. One class lined up their lighthouses on a windowsill (photo above). To quote their teacher, Mrs. Johnson: "This was such a fun activity, and they're adorable!" (Both the lighthouses and their builders, I think!)
Adorable, yes!....but even more, the fun experience of learning about lighthouses and building them was cemented in the kids' minds in a place I call the "Fun Center." With luck, that experience will remain with them for years, and they'll recall it whenever they see a lighthouse or an image of one, and as adults they'll want to visit lighthouses and take their kids to them. With even more luck, they'll someday join in the effort to save lighthouses. We always remember with pleasure the fun times in life. I know these kids will remember their day with me and the fun they had building their own lighthouses.
Here are a few more images from Wolfe Elementary--
These two second graders teamed up to build Abbie Burgess' twin lights at Matinicus Rock, Maine. They were quite creative in their method of joining the towers together. Abbie would be proud!
Here's a pleased, excited lighthouse builder!
Her lighthouse is finished. Now to make the island for the lighthouse!
She needed to glue the cupola on the lantern room! All the students loved the new word "cupola!"
He worked hard on the daymark so ships can see his lighthouse during the day!
Hey Mrs. DeWire, how does this look?
As always, I learn things from the students when I visit schools. Wolfe Elementary has a "quiet" hand sign--important when kids are gathered in large groups having fun. I saw the students making this sign to alert each other about being quiet--
They were quiet wolves from Wolfe Elementary, on the hunt for lighthouses!