Wednesday, September 9, 2015

The Mystic Lighthouse

I have a fondness for Mystic Seaport Museum in Connecticut. I worked there in various jobs from 1986 until 1995 and then as a consultant and occasional speaker. That's me in the photo above visiting the museum in 2013 with my son's family. For one enamored of maritime history, working at the museum was a dream job! In fact, I went to work there in 1986 just to gain free use of the Blount White Library, whose vast holdings of maritime information included material I needed on lighthouses. Much of what appears in my early lighthouse books was gleaned from old books, old copies of nineteenth century magazines, and the clippings and pictures files of the Blount White Library. Librarian Paul O'Pecko found me many a tidbit about lighthouses!
Beyond access to the library, the museum taught me much about other maritime subjects--navigation, nautical instruments, kinds of ships and shipboard work, maritime industries, marine weather, and more. I worked in various exhibits and then landed in the education department teaching astronomy in the planetarium (all sailors love the stars!) and creating kids' activities and exhibits for the entire museum. One of my extra jobs in summer was driving the horses for the Horse & Carriage venue. This might surprise you--an author, planetarium lecturer, and education guru driving horses??
It came about by chance. One of the carriage drivers passed away unexpectedly from a stroke, and the museum was desperate for someone to drive those carriages. A message circulated through the museum asking if anyone had experience with horses and could fill in until a fulltime driver was found. It happened I had such experience, so I was temporarily hired to dress up like a nineteenth century carriage driver and take museum visitors on rides around the museum's 17 acres of exhibit buildings. Yes, that's me above in about 1988, driving a carriage with Max the quarter-horse. I'd often allow a youngster to sit up front with me and hold one of the reins. Max was so docile, he really didn't need a driver. He knew the route and loved the pettings he got from visitors.
Since I had a good general knowledge of the place, I began narrating the carriage tours. One of my favorite buildings was the lighthouse. As you might can imagine, I had a lot to tell about it too!!! I always stopped the carriage at the lighthouse for a few minutes and talked to visitors about the nature and importance of navigational aids in the age of sail, before electronics. I also reminded them this was a replica lighthouse, not a real one. The museum had it built in 1966 to look like Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket. So much of the museum's interpretation was related to whaling that the curators felt a lighthouse was needed. What better lighthouse than the one at New England's best-known whaling port--Nantucket.
Brant Point Lighthouse on Nantucket was and remains the sentinel for that port. It's heavily photographed, drawn, painted, and idolized in postcards and poems. But it had a hard career. The current lighthouse at Brant Point, pictured on a gift shop trinket with the 1841 wooden whaler Charles W. Morgan (also on display at the museum), is the tenth tower to be built at Nantucket. Wooden lighthouses don't last in harsh coastal conditions--dampness, salt air, storms, shifting sands. Brant Point Lighthouse is proof of the tough life some lighthouse have. Also, fire consumed at least two of the light towers at Brant Point. Incendiary illuminants and live flames in oil lamps were a danger, especially if not carefully handled and kept clean.
Below is a 1901 image of the Brant Point lighthouse with its pant-legs rolled up above the tide (Nantucket Historical Association image), and a current image from Kraig Anderson of Lighthouse Friends.
The replica lighthouse at Mystic Seaport was designed and built using plans from the Brant Point Light. The architect was William Hermann and the builder was Engineered Building of Groton, Connecticut. Mr. and Mrs. John P. Blair of Essex, Connecticut donated the money for the lighthouse because they were nostalgic about Brant Point Lighthouse. It was one of the first lighthouses they saw when they began cruising the New England coast in the 1950s. A fixed fifth order Fresnel lens from the museum's collection was installed in the lantern of the replica lighthouse. During my time at the museum it flashed 24/7. I think it still does!
One of the comments I often heard from visitors to Mystic Seaport was: "It would be nice if we could go inside the lighthouse." At the time I drove the carriage and worked at other museum jobs, the lighthouse was locked. I would see visitors go to the door and try to open it, then walk away disappointed. Staff occasionally talked of putting an exhibit inside the lighthouse, but nothing came of it while I worked at the museum. After I moved to the Pacific NW, however, I got a call from one of the museum curators asking me to help with a film project for the interior of the lighthouse. The curator was planning to make the inside of the lighthouse into a mini movie theater and show a movie about lighthouses!
The project was completed a few years ago. I was pleased to be part of it and had fun re-connecting with old friends at the museum, if only by phone and email. I got to the exhibit in 2013. It's excellent--a fabulous collaboration between people who know about lighthouses and people who know how to present a story. The image below is from the museum's website and shows kids enjoying the movie inside the lighthouse. There are five conjoined screens that tell a narrated story of lighthouses and their importance to navigation in the nineteenth century.
Who hasn't photographed the lighthouse at Mystic Seaport? It's a favorite subject with locals and visitors. If you pass through Mystic, Connecticut and cross the bascule bridge in town, you'll see the quaint lighthouse replica up the river at the museum's waterfront village. Cross into West Mystic and head north on one of the streets for a great view across the river. (Two images below are from www.mysticseaport.og)
Or, you can pay admission to the museum and visit the lighthouse in person. One of my favorite views is from the little steamboat Sabino, a working museum exhibit that gives visitors a ride on the Mystic River.
And, if you're a collector, there are lots of trinkets in the museum gift shop and shops in town to remember your visit to the lighthouse. Cat's Meow Village did a wooden image of it some years ago--

Harbour Lights did a replica of the Mystic Seaport Lighthouse--

Many painters have rendered it too--

Painted by Alfred La Banca
Painted by Richard Ramsey

Painted by Jean Costa

Mystic Seaport Lighthouse. Go see it!!





No comments:

Post a Comment

I welcome your comments, photos, stories, etc.!