Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Everything I Ever Needed to Know...

I learned from a lighthouse.
Excerpted from The Lighthouse Activity Book by Elinor DeWire and specially illustrated for fun.

Stand up straight and be proud of who you are.

Always look on the bright side.

Take the stairs; it's better for your health.

Aim high.
Ian How on Flicker

Don't look down.

Photo by Edward Bolds.
It's okay to wear horizontal stripes.

Cleanliness is next to Godliness.
Coast Guard Photo
Never fall down on the job.
Photo by Canadian Coast Guard.
If you want to be noticed, look conspicuous.

Don't look conspicuous during a thunderstorm!
Friends of Pensacola Lighthouse
Pay your electric bill.
It's okay to stay up late.
Cartoon by Glen Jones
Don't make waves.
Life can be a little stormy now and then.

The taller you are, the harder you fall.
Coast Guard
You can make it through the night.

Keep an eye out for others.
Coast Guard Photo
Write in your journal every day.

If it gets foggy, just say Boooo!

Never fall asleep on the job.

Rise to great heights.

Always keep spare light bulbs on hand.
Do windows.
Nautical Research Center
Hold the handrail for safety.

Don't drink and shine.

Leave a light on for those who aren't home yet.
Design A Emporter

Monday, October 19, 2015

Stinky the Lighthouse Cat Gets a Surprise

Author's Note: Some years back, I worked with a class of second graders at an elementary school in Massachusetts. They had a wonderful teacher who had them read Keep the Lights Burning, Abbie, and she did many lighthouse activities with them. The youngsters were especially fond of Lighthouse Kitty, the mascot of my 1990s-early 2000s column for Lighthouse Digest. They wrote letters to her, sent drawings, and asked for stories. As a result, I wrote a number of cute historical fiction tales for the students. The one that follows was a favorite. It is based on a true account of a cat named Stinky that lived with Canadian lightkeepers on the West Lighthouse on Sable Island, Nova Scotia. I hope you enjoy it.

Stinky the Lighthouse Cat Gets a Surprise

At lonely Sable Island Lighthouse in the 1930s, miles off the Nova Scotia shore, two lighthouse keepers – Mike and Joe – lived a quiet life on the west end of the island.  Their lighthouse was a steel skeleton tower that guided ships past dangerous Sable Island as they headed out to fish the cold waters of the North Atlantic.  Their house sat beside the tower, warm and cozy, and they enjoyed each other’s company.  Occasionally, a visitor stopped by.  It was usually one of the weathermen from the weather station near the other end of the island.

The West Lighthouse, as it looked when first constructed in 1873 and then when it was rebuilt in about the time of World War I. Images from the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. There was also a lighthouse on the east end of the island.

When they weren’t tending the lighthouse, the Mike and Joe wrote letters to pen pals, made ships in bottles, whittled little figures from fish bones for a chess set, and made pretty picture frames with rope, shells, and fancy knots.  Mike was also a very good storyteller, and his favorite story to tell visitors was “Stinky’s Surprise.”
Stinky was the station cat, a friendly gray tabby with big green eyes an extra toe on each of his front paws.  He was given the name Stinky because he had been found floating on a piece of timber from a shipwreck after a storm.  He was wet and covered in seaweed, which made him smell bad.  Stinky seemed the perfect name for the little castaway cat rescued from the sea.  Mike and Joe thought Stinky’s extra toes probably helped him cling to the wooden timber until he floated ashore to safety.
Stinky spent most of his days napping.  Sometimes he caught mice in the pantry in winter, or feasted on tasty bugs in the lighthouse lantern in summer.  Moths were his favorites, though they left a powdery film on his face and whiskers after he ate them.  He also liked to chase the rope the keepers used to tie knots for their picture frames.  And, every so often, Stinky asked to go outside where he could play and breathe fresh island air.  Sometimes he would disappear for several days, as he explored the island.  But he always came back, tired and hungry and happy to be home.
One place Stinky loved to explore was the weather station on the opposite end of the island.  It was a long walk to get there, through tall sea grass and over big sand dunes, but he always enjoyed visiting the two weathermen.  One of the men had his wife on the station too, and she fed Stinky something yummy from her kitchen when he came to visit.  Her name was MaryAnn, and Stinky loved her clam chowder!

Another reason Stinky went to the weather station was to visit Rosie.  She was the weather station cat, and a very special girl indeed.  Rosie was an Angora.  Her fur was long and silky, her eyes as blue as the sea, and her whiskers thick and twitchy.  And, unlike Stinky, Rosie had only five toes on her front paws – dainty little cat feet.  Stinky thought Rosie was the most beautiful girl in the cat world.  The two enjoyed roaming the dunes together and playing hide and seek in the sea grass.  Stinky told Rosie funny stories about his adventures at the lighthouse, and Rosie listened with wide eyes.
And so it went on for months.  Stinky would visit Rosie at the weather station for a few days, then return to Sable Island Lighthouse, tired and hungry and happy to be home.  Each time he returned, Mike and Joe would exchange puzzled glances and say, “Wonder where that old cat has been?”
Autumn came, then winter, and trips to the weather station became harder for Stinky.  Sable Island was very cold in winter, and sometimes ice covered the sand and sea grass, making the path to the weather station slippery.  Stinky visited less often.  He missed seeing Rosie, so one day, when the sun came out and melted most of the ice, Stinky cried to be let out and headed for the weather station. 
When he arrived, he was very surprised to see Rosie.  She was fat!  Very fat!  And she didn’t seem too anxious to play.
“Rosie has been eating a lot lately,” MaryAnn said, as she put down a bowl of clam chowder for Stinky and Rosie to share.  “And she sleeps more too.”  Then MaryAnn winked at Stinky and patted him on the head.  He wasn’t sure what that meant, but he agreed Rosie was getting fat.  He looked again at Rosie’s belly.  It was huge and hung down almost to the floor!  But even fat and ponderous Rosie was a beautiful cat, and Stinky loved her silly!
“Hey, Rosie!  What you need is a little exercise,” said Stinky.  “Come on, and we’ll take a long walk.”
Rosie yawned and suggested a nap might be more fun, but eventually she agreed.  The two cats asked to be let out and began walking.  They enjoyed the sunshine.  It made the sand warm under their feet and was a pleasant break from the winter chill.  After they had walked for some time, Stinky suddenly stopped and faced Rosie. 
“I have a great idea, Rosie!  Why don’t you come to my lighthouse for a few days?  I’d like you to meet Mike and Joe.  They love cats.  And Joes makes delicious cod cakes!!  Of course, the long walk would do you good.”
Rosie thought for a moment.  Cod cakes sounded really delicious right now!  She nodded her head, and the two set off in the direction of the lighthouse.  They walked and walked, and all the while Stinky babbled on and on about his lighthouse and how important it was for ships at sea and what great lightkeepers it had in Mike and Joe.  Rosie listened quietly as she trod along in soft sand.
After several hours of walking, Rosie suddenly stopped and lay down on the sand.  She was breathing a little hard and her eyes were closed.  Stinky ran to her side and licked her face lovingly.
“What’s wrong, Rose?  It’s not much farther to the lighthouse – really.”
“Oh, Stinky.  I feel funny.  I’m out of breath.  My belly tingles, and I don’t think I can go any farther.  I just want to lay here for awhile.”
Stinky was perplexed – he didn’t know what to do.  Soon, night would come and the dunes would get very cold. He sat down next to Rosie and waited.  She slept for a short time, then awoke with a loud “MEOW!”
“What is it Rosie?  Are you okay?”
Rosie got up with difficulty and began searching through the grass.  She found a small hollow in a dune and crawled inside.
“I’m okay, Stinky.  I haven’t told you why I’m so fat – I wanted to surprise you – but now I suppose you need to know the truth. I’m going to have kittens, your kittens – RIGHT NOW!!!”
Stinky leaped in the air, and the fur stood up on his back.  He couldn’t believe his cat ears.  He was going to be a father!!
“K-k-k-k-kittens?  Well….how many…and what should I do?”
“Just keep guard outside this hollow.  I’ll let you know when the kittens are all here safe and sound.”
Like a typical father-in-waiting, Stinky paced up and down, back and forth in front of the hollow.  Every now and then he heard a soft sigh from inside, and then a long low meow.  Then another.  And another. And finally another.  Four meows in all.  After a time, Rosie called softly to him.
“Come see your children – all four of them.”
Carefully, shyly, Stinky poked his head inside the hollow.  Four tiny balls of fur lay curled against their mother’s warm body.  Each one had a tiny pink nose and little ears folded flat on their heads.  Two were tabby-striped, like Stinky, and two were beautiful cream beauties like their mother.
“They’re so beautiful, Rosie!  Thank you!”  Stinky said, a little emotional.  “Are they boys or girls?”
Rosie purred loudly as she washed her new babies.  “Two boys and two girls.”
Just then, something fluttered by Stinky’s head.  A snowflake.  Then another.  Another.  Soon, snow was falling like clumps of cotton covering the sand.  A storm had begun, and it was getting dark.  Stinky knew this was trouble.  Rosie and her kittens would die in the cold if he didn’t get them to safety.
“Rosie, I have to get help!  It’s snowing, and night is coming on.  I’ll run to the lighthouse and get Mike and Joe.  Stay inside the hollow – I’ll be back as quick as I can!”
Stinky climbed to the top of the sand dune and looked out through the blinding snow.  Faintly, to the east, he could see the beam of Sable Island Lighthouse shining through the thick snow.  It would guide him home.  He raced over the sand as fast as his extra-toed paws would go.  It seemed a long time until he reached the lighthouse, but at last he was scratching at the door of the keeper’s quarters asking to be let in.

The door cracked a little, and Stinky squeezed through, panting and wet with snow.  Mike was standing beside the door with his hands on his hips.
“So, you decided to come home where it’s warm, have you?  Good idea, old Stink-a-Roo!  It’s going to be a dilly of storm.  The barometer is reading very low.”
Stinky jumped up in a windowsill facing west and meowed loudly, looking out in the direction of Rosie and the kittens.
“I know, you want to be fed.  You’re tired and hungry, as usual,” said Joe, who had just finished making a picture frame from rope.  He tossed the leftover rope to Stinky, but the tabby cat ignored it and pawed at the window.
Mike opened a can of sardines and put some in Stinky’s dish, but the cat ignored the food and scratched at the window.  He jumped down and went to the door, frantically pawing to be let out again.
Mike and Joe exchanged glances.  “What’s wrong with him?” Joe asked.  “He doesn’t want the rope or the food.  It’s not like Stinky not to eat or play, and he doesn’t want to nap either.”
Joe went to the door and opened it a crack.  Immediately, Stinky sprang through the door and out into the storm.  He stopped a few steps from the lighthouse and turned to face the keepers.
“He’s crazy,” said Mike.  “What does he want?”
“I don’t know,” Joe replied, but I think we should follow him.
The men got their coats, gloves, boots, and flashlights and headed out after Stinky.  It was slow going in the slippery snow on the sand.  They trudged after Stinky, led by his urgent “meows” and his small paw prints in the snow.  They walked for more than an hour, then Stinky abruptly stopped.  He began digging in the snow against a steep dune.
“That cat is bonkers!” Mike said.
“No, I think he’s trying to find something,” Joe said.
The men knelt down and helped Stinky clear away snow.  A moment later, a small hollow opened into the dune.  Stinky poked his head inside, then popped out again and cried, “MEOW!”
Joe and Mike shone their flashlights into the hollow.
“Whoa!  It’s a beautiful mother cat and four kittens!  Holy mackerel!” they both said in unison. 
Carefully, they lifted the kittens from the hollow and stowed them in pockets, then each man picked up one of the adult cats and slid it inside his coat for warmth.  Slowly, they made their way back to the lighthouse, listening to the sound of grateful purring as they went.
Back at the lighthouse, the kittens were placed in a blanket inside a laundry basket.  Stinky and Rosie shared a meal of canned sardines and milk.  Then Rosie climbed in the laundry basket and cuddled her kittens closely, nursing them and washing their tiny bodies.  Stinky took his place next to the basket and sat watching Rosie care for the kittens.  He was the proud father!
“Well, if that isn’t a scene!” Mike chuckled. 
“Yeah,” Joe agreed.  “Now we know where Stinky has been going on his jaunts outdoors.  He not only has a wife; he’s a father too!”
“And I think I know where Mrs. Stinky lives,” said Mike.  He picked up the phone and called the weather station.  MaryAnn answered, since the weathermen were in the radio room monitoring the storm.  The two chatted for a few minutes, then hung up.
“Yep!  MaryAnn has been very worried about her cat, Rosie.  I told her we rescued Rosie and her four kittens from the storm and that all are safe here in the lighthouse.”  He turned now to Stinky and tickled his ears.  “And we have this old boy to thank for their safety!”
Stinky purred and uttered a sweet “Me-ow.”  Yes, he was strong, clever, and brave.  Yes, his wife was beautiful.  And, yes, his four children were the cutest, most darling kittens in the whole wide world.  But he knew what had really saved the kittens and Rosie. 

It was the bright beam of Sable Island Lighthouse!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Man Who Moved the Lighthouse Service into the Modern Age

Today, October 8th, Commissioner of Lighthouses, George R. Putnam, gave a radio talk in 1925 called "Our Lighthouse Service" at Station WRC in Washington D.C. I quote part of that talk further down in this blog, but first let me tell you a little about George R. Putnam.

Photo in the files of the U.S. Lighthouse Society

Putnam, born in Davenport, Iowa and trained as an engineer at Rose Polytechnic Institute of Indiana, was forty-four years old when he was appointed the first Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910. For more than half a century, the U.S. Lighthouse Board, composed mostly of military officers, had controlled the lighthouses of the United States. The Board had done its own form of modernization by applying state-of-the-art technology of the time. It also gave the Lighthouse Service a quasi-military bearing by instituting uniforms, training, inspections, rank, and more. But change was in the air...
By the twentieth century, politicians in Washington, D.C. were looking for a less rigorous and more thrifty approach to lighthouse management. Putnam had impressed a number of government officials, including future president Howard Taft, under whom Putnam served when Taft was Governor of the Philippines. Thus, in 1910, Taft suggested George R. Putnam to lead the re-organized lighthouse service.
George Rockwell Putnam was a quiet but determined man. He set about making reforms that benefitted both the nation, its navigational aids, and his employees in the Lighthouse Service. For example, he instituted a pension for retiring or disabled employees--a long overdue reward. Putnam educated himself about new technologies, among which were the use of reinforced concrete in lighthouse construction and early automation equipment.
He detailed the reinforced concrete work in National Geographic Magazine after the 162-foot tall Navassa Island Lighthouse was built in the Caribbean in 1917.
Navassa Island Lighthouse under construction and completed.
Little did he know his fascination with automatic gadgets would someday lead to the extinction of lighthouse keepers. At the time, he simply wanted to save money and de-staff dangerous light stations. Navassa Island Lighthouse itself was an early choice for automation, its keepers removed in 1929 and the tower equipped with light sensors to run the beacon self-sufficiently.
During his 25 years as Commissioner of Lighthouses, George R. Putnam doubled the number of navigational aids in the United States and developed a corps of efficient workers to maintain them. He added more tenders and lightships to the existent fleet and build many state-of-the-art lighthouses equipped with radio and telephone and modernized beacons. He also published a monthly bulletin for all employees that detailed all aspects of the service. It is a go-to research tool in my files!
He instituted a program of fair and productive operation that his successor, Commissioner Harold D. King, and the Coast Guard would embrace. King took over in 1935 and the Coast Guard assumed control of lighthouses in 1939.
Putnam gave lighthouses and their keepers and lightships and their crews, plus many background employees, much-deserved public praise. Putnam was a one-man PR office, an endeavor his successors never quite equaled. He wrote articles and books praising the work of the service and was an eloquent speaker much in demand for talks. He helped the public understand and appreciate the work of the organization in way that no one else ever did or will do. He set the bar high!
His October 8, 1925 radio talk included special credit for the people who worked to keep the nation's shores safe:
The human element is most important in any organization. Although the pay is small, the life sometimes lonely, and the work often hazardous, the Lighthouse Service attracts an excellent class of faithful men, willing to take large risks in doing their duty and in helping others in distress. The whole service is on a strictly merit system, and there are no politics in it. A high degree of discipline is maintained. At all important light stations there are two or more keepers and on the lightships there are six to fifteen men. Many provisions are made for their welfare, including retirement for age and for disability.
Such a service is exposed to serious risks. This summer the light station at Santa Barbara was completely wrecked by an earthquake. A West India hurricane reaching the coast usually does much damage, and a severe gale and ice storms carry away buoys and lights. At these times the duty of the lightships and tenders is severe and hazardous. The small number of accidents to these vessels is evidence of the skill with which they are handled.

George R. Putnam, third from right, was among a group of government workers invited to the White House by President Calvin Coolidge for special recognition.

Putnam's alma mater honored him in 1933 with an autobiography in the Rose Polytechnic Institute magazine. This is a signed copy for sale at

George Putnam retired in 1935 from the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses. He was seventy at the time, his face weary-worn from years of great responsibility and hard work. He and his wife Marta moved to a rural farmhouse in Vermont. He spent his twilight years enjoying his grandchildren and life in the country. He died October 30, 1953 at the age of 87. His gravestone in Maple Hill Cemetery in Dorset, Vermont is basic and plain, much like the man himself. (Photo below from Lighthouse Digest and Judi Kearny.)
Putnam knew how to simplify things and introduce progressive ideas. He followed the lead of the highly efficient U.S. Lighthouse Board,  yet in a less caustic , more amicable manner. The Lighthouse Service, then and now, owes him a great debt of gratitude.
For a more extensive biography of George Rockwell Putnam, visit Lighthouse Digest:
Where not otherwise noted, all b&w images are courtesy of the Coast Guard Historian.

Friday, October 2, 2015

The Lighthouse Keeper's Chickens

Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe to get to a lighthouse!
Almost every lighthouse in the world, even those in cramped, distant, and wild places, had a chicken coop of some sort. Lighthouse keepers wanted to have some degree of self-sufficiency, so raising chickens for meat and eggs was a good option.

Helgoland Lighthouse in Germany is shown on this old postcard with a chicken coop, a chicken yard, and a pretty flock of white free-ranging chickens.

This bucolic image of Tarpaulin Cove Lighthouse in Massachusetts shows a small flock of chickens scratching around on the lawn.

My Facebook friend and lightkeeper's daughter, Seamond Roberts, remembers her mother's chickens in the 1940s at Cuttyhunk Lighthouse on an offshore island of Massachusetts. Pictured is Cuttyhunk Light and an image of the family's chicken coop, courtesy of Seamond Roberts. The chickens were beloved pets, in addition to providing food for the family.
Connie Small, wife of Maine lightkeeper Elson Small, wrote a book of her memories of life on the lighthouses. I interviewed her several times and photographed the memorabilia she had from her years on the lights. She kept chickens at almost every lighthouse where her husband was assigned, including St. Croix Island and Seguin Island. She is pictured below feeding her chickens at St. Croix Island in 1946. They had a sturdy coop--a necessity in Northern Maine where winters are harsh and long.

During Maine's long, cold winters, Connie quilted. Here's a scene from one of her quilts showing the chicken coop and a hen racing across the yard

Even if lighthouse keepers were assigned to an offshore lighthouse, they found ways to rig up a small coop for a few hens. I think we can all agree; chickens are pretty easy to keep and they provide a steady supply of breakfasts and dinners!
The image above of Keeper Yeatman and his kids at Drum Point Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay has a chicken shown, in front of the keeper's right foot. Cluck! It's possible the Yeatman family kept chickens ashore in a small coop and let them free range on land in the daytime. Note the ladder and narrow walkway the family used to get to the shore. (Some would say the lighthouse itself resembles a large chicken coop!) I'm guessing one of the chores assigned to those kids was going ashore every day to feed the chickens and collect the eggs.
If a family assigned to a waterbound lighthouse couldn't keep chickens close by on shore, they could house them in a small coop on the under-pinnings of the lighthouse. Notice the various boxes and containers stowed beneath the lighthouses in the pictures below. Some of the objects are water tanks and storage containers, but there also might be a small chicken coop tucked in the iron legs for two or three hens .

Laurel Point Lighthouse, North Carolina had a screwpile lighthouse many years ago. A ship was approaching it in this photo, probably the supply tender. Notice all the things stowed beneath the lighthouse. There could be a coop and some salty chickens!

Tangier Sound Lighthouse, Maryland


Middle Bay Lighthouse, Alabama

Those who love lighthouse history know the story of Abbie Burgess and her rescue of the hens at Matinicus Rock Twin Lighthouses, located on a desolate ledge more than 20-miles off the coast of Maine. Abbie, as I detailed in an earlier blog, was at the light station with her sick mother and small sisters during a fierce 1851 nor'easter in the Gulf of Maine. Her father, the lightkeeper, was ashore getting supplies and medicine and could not return in the storm. Knowing the family might run out of food, and fond of her pet hens too, she braved the wind and driving rain to rescue the hens from a makeshift coop in the rock ledge. She is pictured below doing the deed.

A romanticized image of Abbie Burgess shows her rescuing her hens during a nor-easter in 1851. (Century Magazine) Below is a National Archives image of her home on the twin lighthouse of Matinicus Rock.

Modern woman I am, I don't have much in common with lighthouse keepers. I live a pampered life, get my provisions easily from a grocery store, live in a spacious and comfortable house near to civilization, and don't do much physical work. But I do keep chickens. They make my breakfast every morning and remind me of my childhood and helping care for my mother's big flock of Plymouth White Rocks. I have such great memories of those experiences (including one very ornery rooster named Putter!) that I set them down in an eBook a few years ago titled The Funky Chicken: Memories, Truth & Tribute. You can find it on Amazon.
My hens are various breeds, including Barred Rocks, Australorps, Wyandottes, Sex-Links, and Rhode Island Reds (my favorites). Having chickens is about my only link to lighthouse keeping beyond all the research, speaking, and writing I do about lighthouse. But...if I was a lighthouse can bet I'd have a very large flock!

Feeding my girls a treat--fresh corn on the cob. Photo by Jonathan DeWire
Circe, the Little Red Hen, is my favorite. I'm holding a piece of cantaloupe rind she cleaned completely of its fruit until it was barely an eighth of an inch thick. Somehow she got it over her head and wore it like a necklace. She's our comic chicken! Circe is six now, getting old for a hen, but she still lays eggs and likes to be petted.
All b&w images, where not otherwise noted, are from the collection of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian.