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.

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