Friday, December 29, 2017

The Heroism of Minnie Patterson

Minnie Patterson and her dog, from Alberni Valley Museum

Winter storms in the Pacific Northwest seldom get the same media attention Atlantic hurricanes do, but they can be equally cruel and destructive. The most vulnerable sites are those exposed to the full force of the open sea. The southwest shore of Vancouver Island, British Columbia is such a place, a defenseless margin of water, saw-toothed rocks, and stands of ancient trees. Great Pacific low pressure systems march northward one upon another from November through March and smash into Vancouver Island as if hitting a wall. The result is hurricane-force winds and enormous waves. Firs and cedars topple, rocks are thrown about like dice, and ships are cast ashore as if they are mere toy boats in a bathtub.

December 6, 1906 dawned at Cape Beale Lighthouse with ominous signs of an approaching storm. Lightkeeper Tom Patterson (also spelled Paterson), cleaning the lamps and lens in the lantern room of the 1872 lighthouse, scanned the ocean horizon off Barkley Sound. There were light winds from the southeast and the slate-colored sky was punctuated only by a feeble spot of white—the winter sun struggling to define its position behind the clouds. The tide was running higher than usual and waves were picking up. All of this augured trouble.

Cape Beale Lighthouse as it looked when Minnie Patterson lived there. Jim Gibbs Collection

The topside of a spinning low was beginning to bear down on Vancouver Island with Cape Beale in its path. Patterson knew the night ahead would challenge his nerves and require the help of his wife, Minnie. He had no doubt she would rise to the situation. She had mothered five children, several of them born at the lighthouse with no midwife in attendance. She could handle a boat as well as any seaman, chop wood like a lumberman, hunt deer and elk and turn them into delicious stew, and she knew the operation of every aspect of the light station. Minnie was, in a word, indomitable.
By late afternoon, daylight was rapidly waning and the temperature hovered near freezing. Patterson returned to the tower to light up for the long night ahead. He cranked up the weights of the clockworks that turned the lens, filled the kerosene reservoirs of the lamps, and lit the mantles. A soft glow infused the lantern with light as the flame ramped up with an asthmatic hiss. Patterson let it burn loudly for a few seconds to work out any air bubbles, then lowered the flame to a quiet purr. With a flick, he removed the stopgap from the clockworks and set the opulent prism lens in motion. Its beams shot into the darkness likes spokes on a great wheel of light. Satisfied that all was set, he climbed down to the watch room where he settled into a chair, filled his pipe, and began the long watch.

By midnight, the storm descended with extraordinary fury. Winds pummeled the tower at a steady 50-mph and stronger gusts bowed the lantern panes and drove spray over the cupola. A thick coating of salt encrusted itself on the windows, requiring the keeper to go out on the gallery every hour or so and scrape them clean. Now and then, an errant rock would fly up from the sea and hit the tower, or a shower of pebbles would clatter upon the roof and catwalk. Unflinching, Patterson stayed by the light and fed its lamps in hopes the beams might aid any vessels caught in the storm. But when first light came, Patterson’s fears were realized. Several miles offshore was the faint outline of a ship, its masts snapped like matchsticks and desperate survivors clinging to what remained of the tangled rigging.

From Original owner of photo is BC Archives.

Patterson rushed for the house to tell his wife he had sighted a wreck and to telegraph the town of Bamfield for help. She met him halfway, wearing a grave expression. She had seen the ship too and had already tried the telegraph. It was dead, its lines broken by fallen trees. Without a thought for their own safety, Tom and Minnie Patterson resolved to get help. He would stay at the lighthouse and try to devise some way to reach the castaways; she would run six miles through rain and hail to Bamfield Inlet where the lighthouse tender Quadra had anchored to ride out the storm. Getting there would require all her strength and determination. She knew lives depended on her.
This is the lighthouse tender Quadra, about 1920, after it had been placed in service as a rumrunner vessel.
QUADRA on Rum Row
from the photo archives of S.P.H.S©

Bundled in a wool Jersey coat and hat, and wearing her husband’s slippers rather than the ponderous high-button shoes of the day, she picked her way down the rock-rimmed border of the light station to the treacherous sand spit connecting the cape to the mainland. Parts of the spit were bare at low tide, but about 150-feet of it was awash now. Minnie Patterson sprinted over the spit, waded through the low water, and leaped up the steep bank to the mainland trail.
Her lungs felt as if they might burst, but she pushed on. Rain and hail pelted her. The trail was indistinct from the debris cast down by the storm. At times, she was able to follow it only by locating the telegraph line, strung tree to tree, and threading it through her fingers as she ran. A rowboat lay tethered at Bamfield Creek, and she buoyed her flagging spirits with visions of it. Rowing to the Quadra would be much easier than bushwhacking. When she reached the creek, however, the boat was gone.

Undaunted, Mrs. Patterson made her way along the tortured shore of the creek, over two and a half miles of wrack and slippery moss, to the home of her friend Annie McKay, wife of the former Cape Beale lightkeeper. The two women hauled out a skiff, dragged it down to the creek, and paddled for the Quadra. The tender’s captain was incredulous when he saw the bedraggled pair. They wasted no time with explanations and urged the captain to set sail at once. With the Quadra headed for the wreck, the women rowed to shore and climbed the hill to the telegraph station to summon additional help from Nanaimo.

"The Ways" at Cape Beale Lighthouse in Minnie Patterson's time went down to the isthmus behind the island. This was the tidal area where the Pattersons crossed to get to the mainland. At low tide it was a sandy, cobbly access to shore. Photo from the BC Archives.

By now Minnie Patterson looked a shambles. She was wet to the skin and wheezing loudly. The telegraph operators implored her to lie down and rest, but she only accepted a quick cup of tea before declaring, “I must get back to my baby!” She made a joke about her husband being unable to tend the lighthouse, along with caring for a nursing infant and four other children. She sprinted off on a return trek to the lighthouse, but the telegraph operators insisted they accompany her.

The three rowed out the inlet and south to Bamfield Creek and the head of the telegraph trail. While in the boat Mrs. Patterson suffered dreadful cramps in her legs and began to show symptoms of hypothermia. She said nothing, however, and eagerly leaped from the skiff when it reached the creek and hit the train running. Hours later the group arrived at the lighthouse.

Minnie Patterson, her baby suckling at her breast, watched through her telescope as the Quadra took off the stranded crew of the bark Coloma. Not a single crewman perished. A short time later the ship hit a reef and broke into pieces, disgorging the cargo in its hold. The rescue had been launched just in time. Minnie Patterson spent a woeful night with chilblains and a nasty cough that would remain with her the rest of her life.

Word of the lighthouse wife’s bravery soon reached the press. Reporters flocked to the tiny hamlet of Bamfield only to be captivated by the remote and dangerously beautiful isle where Minnie Patterson lived. They were dumbfounded, too, by the woman herself— slight and comely, in her early thirties, and looking more like a girl “than most women of twenty,” according to one journalist. When questioned about Mrs. Patterson, Victoria’s Marine Agent, Captain James Gaudin, described her as “one of the best and grittiest little women ever I met.”

A formal portrait of the Pattersons, from Alberni Valley Museum

The Toronto Globe presented her with a silver plate. The women of the nearby cities of Victoria and Vancouver collected $315.15 as a reward for Minnie and also gave her a gold locket. A lifesaving metal, gold plate, and prize of $50 were sent by the Canadian Government. The officers and crew of the steamer Queen City gave her a silver tea set and new slippers for Tom Patterson. The pair Minnie had worn on December 6 were nearly without soles.

A copy of an award given to Minnie Patterson, in the Alberni Valley Museum.

Minnie Patterson was dubbed “The Grace Darling of Canada,” after a girl of similar mettle who had rescued shipwreck survivors off Longstone Lighthouse in England in 1838. Sadly, like her English namesake, Minnie suffered a malady common to lightkeepers. The damp conditions of Cape Beale, and the exertions required that stormy day in 1906, weakened her constitution. She contracted tuberculosis and died five years later.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

December at Lighthouses

December has many interesting tales and connections to lighthouses. I thought it might be fun to print some pages from the December section of my out-of-print, 2000 book, The Lighthouse Almanac. At some point, I hope to have it updated and reprinted--the modern way. Alas! My desk is rather full at the moment, so don't hold your breath waiting. In the meantime, enjoy these excerpt pages. They were created using the old method--paste-up pages converted to bluelines  and printed and bound on antiquated printing and binding machines. This was back when the number of pages had to be a multiple of 16, in order to bind properly. I've also added the front and back covers, designed by graphic artist Trish LaPointe of Mystic, Connecticut. The interior design was done by Aline Matthews, one of my multiple personalities, a.k.a. pseudonyms. Authors truly need MPs; how else would they invent characters and do secret things? 😼

Monday, November 27, 2017

Lighthouse Kid Turned Poet

On cold days like this one, I am reminded of living in an offshore lighthouse where the word "cold" gains new meaning! Isles of Shoals Lighthouse, some ten or so miles off New Hampshire, was a cold place in winter and little  better in spring and autumn. In summer, I suspect you'd need a sweater--the cold ocean moderates the temperature, and the breeze cools everything. The wind blows relentlessly here, and the rock ledges hold on to their icy temperatures for a long time. Storms are the worst, throwing waves over parts of the light station, including the covered way that once connected the dwelling to the lighthouse. It was surely thunderous to walk through the covered way when a big wave washed over it! That feature is gone now, as no keepers are needed at the lighthouse these days. It is kept by seabirds that land on its gallery and spiders that crochet webs in the windows. Perhaps there's a ghost or two as well.

What follows is an excerpt from my e-book, Itty Bitty Kitty Guide to the Lighthouses of New Hampshire. If you have an e-reader device, it's a fun book with lots of information and photos, as well as a few unexpected lighthouses on lakes and other places in New Hampshire. Click on the title to find it on Amazon. Included in the book is a detailed profile of the legendary Isles of Shoals Lighthouse on White Island, and also the sidebar that follows about writer Celia Thaxter. Her father was a keeper at the lighthouse. She spent some of her youth there and grew up to be a famous poet. Lighthouses do inspire!

Growing up at a lighthouse often encouraged quiet and solitary pursuits and nurtured an introverted personality. Children of lighthouse keepers spent long hours indoors during winter or in bad weather, reading or doing crafts, playing board games, and writing letters. Such was the childhood of poet Celia Thaxter.
Celia’s father, Thomas Laighton, became keeper of the White Island Lighthouse in 1839 when Celia was four years old. She had been born in Portsmouth, and moving to the lighthouse must have been an abrupt change. It’s likely at first she sorely missed the sights and sounds and smells of the lively city, but she soon grew to love the seclusion and peace of the island and its raw displays of nature. On White Island, her parents constantly worried about the dangers of the ocean—so close to their door and often tempestuous—and kept their children indoors for much of the time. Celia and her brother, Oscar, played games in the house most of the time and did quiet activities.
Celia recalled in winter how the cold keeper’s dwelling formed frost on the inside of the windows. She and her brother “climbed into the deep window-seats” and held pennies in their hands until they were warm and then pressed them onto the frozen windows to make little portholes through which they could look out on the sea, the ships, and the other islands. Dreamy days, the fabled sea forming an apron around her home, the haunting seabirds and fickle weather, and the multitude of books in her ken, soon pointed Celia toward a love of literature.
Her first winter on White Island, she witnessed the wreck of the ship Pocahontas on a bar near the lighthouse. Everyone aboard died. People talked about the gruesome event for months. Celia was deeply affected by this tragedy and later recorded it in her poem “The Wreck of the Pocahontas.” Part of the poem details the lighthouse:
"I lit the lamps in the lighthouse tower,
For the sun dropped down and the day was dead.
They shone like a glorious clustered flower, -
Ten golden and five red."
When she was twelve, her father built a hotel on nearby Appledore Island and resigned from his lightkeeping job. The hotel became a destination for many of New England’s artists, writers, and thinkers. Celia rubbed shoulders with these intellectuals, whose influence certainly helped direct her future. As a hostess in the hotel, she met many famous people.
At age sixteen she married her father’s business partner and her academic tutor, Levi Thaxter, himself a noted intellectual. For a time, she resided with him and their three sons on the mainland, but Isles of Shoals drew her back. She returned to care for her aging, sick mother and raise her sons, while Levi Thaxter remained ashore, too sick himself to thrive on Appledore Island.
By this time Celia had earned success as a poet. Her writings had drawn people to the Isles of Shoals and put this scattering of islands on the map. She began writing for the Atlantic Monthly in the 1860s, and in 1870 collected her essays for the magazine in a best-selling book called Among the Isles of Shoals. The remainder of her life was spent writing and gardening at her island home.

Celia’s Victorian garden became the subject of her last book, An Island Garden, written in 1894. It was one of her most popular books and a wonderful epitaph to herself, though she probably didn’t know it at the time. She died the following year and was buried on Appledore Island. In 1914, her house on Appledore and her father’s famous hotel burned. But the garden endures today. It was reconstructed by the University of New Hampshire’s Shoals Marine Laboratory in 1977 according to Celia’s plans. It is a popular site for summer tourists. 

This image from the National Archives shows what the light station probably looked like in Celia Thaxter's time there. The postcard below shows it later, after the light tower was rebuilt.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A November Tragedy

This article appeared in The Irish Examiner. No author was given, but it's very well written! The Irish lighthouses are many now, but when the Stephen Whitney wrecked, they were, as Robert Hume said, "lamentably deficient."

Tragedy at sea lit the way to safer system of lighthouses

‘Lamentably deficient’ lighting doomed ships off our coast, but led to a proper system of lighthouses, writes Robert Hume.
Fastnet Rock lighthouse, one of 78 lighthouses maintained today by Irish Lights. Picture: Peter Cox
On Monday 18 October 1847, a large, elegant sailing ship, the Stephen Whitney, named after a wealthy American merchant, left New York for Liverpool by way of Cork, on one of its three regular annual voyages. On board were 76 passengers, a crew of 34, and a cargo, which included corn, cotton, cheese, resin, and 20 boxes of clocks.
For the first 23 days of the voyage, nothing untoward occurred. But all this was to change when the Red Star Line packet ship approached Ireland’s perilous south coast.
As the ship rounded Mizen Head on Wednesday 10 November, the weather became “hazy” and the wind strengthened. When the haze turned to thick fog, Captain W Popham from Cork was unable to make out the glow of the Cape Clear light high above them.
Believing that he was already at the Old Head of Kinsale, when he was in reality still at Brow Head, Crookhaven, he began steering towards what he thought was Cork harbour.
At dinner, passengers congratulated officers on a safe journey in difficult weather. All were looking forward to meeting friends and relatives.
According to the Cork Constitution, many had emigrated from Ireland during the winter famine of 1846/47, but being “disappointed in their hopes of settling in America”, were returning home.
Just before 10 o’clock the wind reached gale force.
A cry went out: “breakers ahead!” Suddenly there was a tremendous crash as the ship’s stern struck the western tip of Calf Island, near Skull.
Recoiling from the original impact, she then smashed broadside against the rocks.
After the vessel struck a third time, it was left shaking like a reed.
“All on board were “stupefied with horror and amazement”, declared the Cork Examiner. “It was evident the ill-fated ship was doomed”.
In less than ten minutes, 92 passengers and crew were “hurled into eternity”.
Sixteen of the crew died, drowned or were crushed to death by the ship. They included Popham, a highly respected captain, who was dashed against the cliffs while trying to swim ashore.
Another victim was a local man, Joseph Cleburn of Bandon.
Seventy-six passengers perished. Many of their names were unknown because the ship only carried records of those who occupied cabins, not those in steerage class.
But there were survivors. Among them was a motherless boy, Patrick Patterson of Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Riddled with guilt for not trying to save his drowning father, he had to be restrained from throwing himself off the cliffs.
William Smith from Baltimore, Maryland, a sailor with seventeen years experience, provided a graphic account of what happened: “We had all the necessary boats… but there was no time to get them down”. When the bales of cotton fell overboard, “people began jumping on them, thinking they were rocks, and drowned”.
By chance, others, including Smith, were spared: “A very heavy sea washed us on the rock, and we jumped off, many of us without getting our feet wet… We then crept up the rock till we felt the grass under our feet, and then sat down… We halloaed as loud as we could... but there was no answer… The mate said ‘There’s a house’…” “The people of the house were as kind to us as if we had all been brothers…I had nothing but my shirt on me, and the man of the house took off his own clothes to cover me. They made us some bread, and I believe, used all their own food to make it… They had not any turf or wood, and they kept burning their straw all night to keep us warm…” Some survivors were taken by boat to Schull where people did their best to provide clothes for them.
Meanwhile, the driver of the Skibbereen mail coach took news of the disaster to Cork.
Stephen Whitney (1776-1860) New York businessman.
Next morning, a revenue boat cruising the coast between Crookhaven, Schull and Baltimore in search of lost property from the Stephen Whitney, passed through a “sea of wood” – the remains of the vessel, ground into small pieces by a ferocious tide.
Reports claimed that local people began to flock in thousands to the scene of the wreck to loot its valuable cargo.
During the next few days, bodies were washed ashore: a child picked up at Roaring Water Bay; a richly dressed lady wearing three gold rings; and a sailor with only one shoe, thrown up on the rocks at Calf Island.
One of the crew attributed the accident to the “lamentably deficient state” of lighting, which had led to so many shipwrecks. At Cape Clear the light was too high above sea level to be useful, and was often obscured by mist and fog. “The whole of the south-west coast requires to be properly lighted”, he said.
The year 1847 was a bad one for shipwrecks — there were five others off the Cork coast. But it was by no means exceptional. In 1867, no fewer than 28 ships went down.
But it was the wreck of the Stephen Whitney that resulted in a particularly high loss of life, and highlighted the need for change.
Responsibility for lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland was entrusted that same year to the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Its remit was to provide aids to navigation, which ensure the safety of life and property at sea.
Under its auspices, the number of Ireland’s lighthouses has increased to 78 — stretching from Bull Rock, Co Cork, to Buncrana Light, Co Donegal, and Muglins Lighthouse, Dublin.
Irish Lights still operate a system of traditional lighthouses, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland. It also provides modern radio aids such as radar beacons and GPS. All play a crucial role in maritime safety today, and might have prevented 92 passengers and crew perishing in a few terrifying moments on that foggy, windswept November night.

Find this article at:

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

No Alligator Shoes for the Lightkeeper!

Here's a true story I've told at many a lighthouse presentation. It never fails to elicit gasps and moans of disbelief, and hearty peels of laughter. A speaker like me can't find a better lighthouse tale to tell---a true tale and one that gives my audience a thrill.

Let me introduce you to Joe the lighthouse alligator! The Stone family found the big gator stranded in a sinkhole pit near Cape Canaveral Lighthouse in Florida in the early 1930s. Fred Stone, son of keeper Benjamin F. Stone, recalled that the Stone kids quickly became smitten with the handsome reptile and named him Joe. The kids’ mother allowed them to toss leftovers into the pit, and miscellaneous dead animals and even live ones they caught. Joe was not a picky eater. He managed to survive. In fact, he grew rather fat and developed a taste for Mrs. Stone’s finer creations, such as strawberry pie.

What better pet could a bunch of zany lighthouse kids have than an alligator in a pit??!!

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, photographed a few years after the Stone family lived at the light station.
 (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

When Fred’s father received word in 1937 that he was to be transferred down to Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, he announced that Joe would have to stay behind. Outcry from the kids was loud and insistent, pulling at the keeper's heartstrings. Even Keeper Stone was a bit fond of Joe; the big gator was quite the conversation piece. And so, the keeper relented and told the kids he would allow Joe to go to Hillsboro Lighthouse, but only if they could find a way to safely get the gator out of his pit and transported.
I’ll reserve for your imagination the details of the antics involved in Joe’s extraction from the swampy abyss. Here, I’ll simply say the kids subdued Joe with plenty of food, flipped him on his back---yes, I am told gators go into a trance-like state on their backs---and with lots of brawn and determination they pulled him from the pit and got him onto the roof of the family car. Oh yes, the family car! Tied down securely and sated with Mrs. Stone’s good cooking, Joe was content to ride to Hillsboro.

It’s hard to imagine how that little caravan of vagabond lightkeepers must have looked driving down Route 1, all their belongings in a wagon behind them and an alligator tied fast to the roof. Joe surely did some sightseeing. After all, he'd been stuck in a pit for a long time. His reptilian brain was on overload!

“Keep your fingers inside, kids!” Mrs. Stone probably warned.

"And Benjamin!" she may have added, "Do your best not to stop at any traffic lights or stop signs. Some fool might come near the car and try to pet old Joe. You know he thinks fingers are sausages!"

 It’s doubtful any hitchhikers flagged them down, and the local police probably were too astonished to give them a traffic ticket for running lights and stop signs and hauling a gator across the county line. Onlookers must have thought the circus was coming to town.

At the entrance to Hillsboro Lighthouse (a small dirt road flanked by sable palms and palmetto scrub), the Stone family car turned left into the driveway and wended their way up to the light station. Keeper Stone was assigned two assistant keepers whose families occupied two of the three dwellings on the compound. Imagine their reactions as the boss drove in with an alligator tied to the top of his car. They may have quickly rounded up their dogs and cats and kids and put them inside!

It wasn't long, though, before the story of Joe's rescue and reassurances of his docile nature were shared with everyone at Hillsboro Lighthouse. A makeshift enclosure was fashioned for the big gator. Joe was mollified with lots of food and then lulled to sleep inside his fenced area with some songs from the kids. The Stone children made sure to splash the big gator with water every hour or two to keep him happy and hydrated until a better cage could be built.

It wasn't long before the Stone family had a gator palace completed to rival the Taj Mahal. Joe was carried inside and lovingly put on display. A sign on the fence said his name--"Big Joe the Alligator." He, being bitten by the hubris bug, absolutely loved the attention. Pictured above with young George Stone and Eugene Santos (courtesy of the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society), Joe had his own cement swimming hole and a sturdy fenced area around it in which to roam, nap, roar, strike a gallant pose, or whatever other activity might satisfy his simple reptilian needs.

It turns out Joe's favorite activity, besides mealtime, was meeting visitors. They came from all around Hillsboro to see the famous "Lighthouse Alligator." If ladies came with alligator purses or men wearing alligator shoes, these biased folks were told they surely would upset old Joe, since he was dumb enough to think those purses and shoes were lost family members. More than one such visitor left a purse or a pair of shoes in their car for fear of offending the great gator!

"All's well that ends well," Shakespeare reminds us. For Joe, it meant one more trip, this time north. After the Stone family moved away from Hillsboro Lighthouse, they donated big Joe to Gatorland, not far from present-day Orlando, Florida.

There, Joe took up retirement from lighthouse life but increased his visibility as a tourist entertainer. He also met LOTS of other gators--a good thing, since the Stone family often wondered if Joe thought himself to be a dog or cat. After all, those were normal lighthouse pets, and there were no mirrors in Joe's pen.

Joe, you'll be glad to hear, lived to a ripe old age, ripe for a gator that is. He spent his sunset years napping, eating chicken wings (no Buffalo Sauce, please), lounging in the Gatorland pools, and flirting with the lady gators. They simply loved his tall tales of life at two Florida lighthouses and his famous ride down Route 1. He even told the girl gators how the Stone kids used to sneak him marshmallows and jelly beans for a treat. Ah, that was the life.

And that is precisely why I love Joe too. His story has brought much laughter and warm feelings to my audiences, young and old. Thanks, Big Joe!

"Joe, old boy, sit up cute now, and I'll give you some pie!"

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Guest Blogger--Dave Gamage!

Whitehead Lighthouse and dwelling, Maine--Coast Guard Photo

I've never met Dave Gamage, but I so love his Facebook posts. They are always full of interesting, sometimes techie, lighthouse material, not to mention lifesaving info too. He sent me an essay of sorts about a year ago. It's called "What the Heck are Lighthouses Anyway?" I think you'll enjoy it. Do leave comments if you wish, and check out Dave Gamage on Facebook.

Here's the bio he wrote for me--

I am a Mainer, born and brought up on the coast, an amateur historian and author of several articles regarding the Lighthouse Service and the Life-Saving Service. My grandfather was for ten years assistant keeper of Matinicus Rock Light and twenty-one years head keeper at Whitehead Light.  I also have two uncles who served as civilian keepers.  My father during his twenty five year Coast Guard career primarily in search and rescue also served as officer- in -charge of the Rockland Breakwater Light and Portland Head Light.  I am fortunate to have lived at lighthouses and visited others when they were manned and lived at CG small boat stations in Maine and Mass where my father was o.i.c.
And here's his essay called "What the Heck are Lighthouses Anyway?" Enjoy!

People say they love lighthouses. But for many if not most this is passive love, not active. How then do we change passive support to active participation in lighthouse preservation?

The more people who learn of the important role lighthouses played in the history and development of this country the more likely they will support preservation of these and the associated structures, this support by needed contributions of money and by active participation in preservation work at these many lighthouses.

To that end effective lighthouse education would be appropriate for school kids and even for adults. I note that for example the Lighthouse Society has a Teachers Lighthouse Resource for K-4 and there are a few others I have seen.  I do not believe any these will be very effective to excite school kids long term or adults.

To be most effective to teach this history it is most important to begin with something that everyone is most familiar with today. And this is the grocery store that even the youngest child is familiar with and has visited often.  And with this what if one went to the store to do one's week worth of grocery shopping and then to discover the store the store shelves were empty? The store manager tells says he does not anticipate replenishing the shelves for another week or perhaps two. Big problem!

The following is what I believe would an effective approach to teach the importance of lighthouses that could be adapted for various age levels from young children to adults.

    The grocery store. Where and how does the store keeper acquire all the items on the store shelves? These come today mostly by truck, some by railroad and maybe some by air plane to a nearby airport. What if the store shelves went empty and for many days at a time?

    Now imagine living in a small coastal village many years ago. This village with houses, a school, a church and most importantly a store. This was a general store. It was a grocery store, shoe store, hardware store, book store, toy store and other stores all in one and also post office in this store.
This store was very important to the people in this small town. This town could not exist for long if not for this store. This store was a source of things needed for food, clothing and shelter.

    Many years ago there were no planes, no railroad and no trucks. Instead there were horse drawn wagons. But then only very poor dirt roads, no bridges over shallow rivers and streams.  And the wagon would have to stop on occasion to rest the horses. And without lights they might not travel at night.  It might take several days of travel to bring supplies to the village general store. In winter these roads often blocked by snow, very muddy in spring and the shallow rivers and streams flooding during spring runoff.  If depending on wagons the store shelves in the town would often become empty.

    Instead of wagons, the supplies needed for the store and other items were brought to this village by ships with sails to be unloaded at the wharf at the village harbor. A ship could carry as much as could many wagons. Ships routinely sailed up and down the coast delivering supplies to villages and towns.

    Not only did this town and others depend on ships to deliver the various things they needed but people in this town produced products to sell at other towns. There was a saw mill that produced lumber. There were fields for growing potatoes, squash, carrots, etc. that could not be grown at locations of other towns. For being a town on the coast there were fishermen who in those days with no electricity and thus no refrigeration would dry the fish for shipment. The people in this town depended entirely on these ships to carry the products of their labor to market. This is how they earned a living.

    There was a challenge for the ship captain at night to find the harbor entrance at this village so he may pass it by many miles.  To help the ship captains find the harbor at night the people in this village put oil lamps at the shore near the harbor entrance. That the light from these lamps could be seen at a greater distance they constructed a tower of wood or stone with a room with windows at the top and placed these lamps in this room. This tower was the house for the light, a lighthouse. The room at the top was the lantern. They also had a person from the village to attend to these lamps, to light them at dusk and turn them off at dawn. He also prepared the lamps for the next night and he cleaned the lantern window glass and free from winter snow, frost and condensation. This person was the lightkeeper.

    The keeper stayed at the lighthouse most of the time. He had a wife and children so they built a house for them near the tower. This was the keeper's house.  His family also helped take care of the light tower and the house. This is much like a family farm where each family member participates in the daily activities. If the keeper was taken ill and bedridden the keeper's wife or an older son or daughter would attend to the lamps until he was well again.

    A captain navigated his ship using a compass, a weight on a rope to determine the depth of water, and a float on a rope with which to determine his speed through the water.  During daylight he continuously observed the various features of the coast he was passing, there being many identifiable landmarks such as a hill, and open field, perhaps a random farm house.  It was from this chart that he could identify the safe waters and the hazardous waters to avoid. By observation of two landmarks at the same time a captain could determine his exact location on the navigation chart. This is but one of many ways lighthouses are used by mariners in coastal navigation, aka, coastal piloting. At night none of the many natural land marks could be seen. The only landmarks to aid his navigation at night were the lights of the lighthouses. Lighthouses contributed to preventing the loss of ships and loss of life by significantly aiding the captain to effectively navigate his ship both day and night. What captains did not do was head first for one light and then to the next in connect-the-dots fashion. This was a sure way to be wrecked.
    And regarding the fisherman, many were fishing many miles off the shore and for two or three days and nights. And late that last day or early evening head back to their home port and guided by the welcoming light of the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor.

    Because they were needed the Lighthouse Service was created to take responsibility for all the lighthouses.  And in this to supply and maintain them and to hire the keepers. The Service had a small fleet of ships, lighthouse tenders that traveled the coasts to supply the lighthouses. Many light stations were given one or two small rowboats, a launching ramp and boathouse. This enabled getting to town to pick up the mail and acquire groceries when roads at times were not passable. The landing ramp would also be used by the crew of the lighthouse tender when delivering supplies.

    It should be mentioned that the lighthouse tower, dwellings, associated structures such as the small oil house for storing lamp fuel and land combined was known as a light station. This the facility where keepers were stationed, their duty station. An assistant keeper at one station would sometimes be promoted to the position of keeper at another light station where a keeper vacancy occurred.

    To become a light keeper a person would apply for this job position and if accepted he most likely would be assigned to a station quite distant from his home. The Service would provide transportation to his assigned station, often by lighthouse tender, for this new keeper and his family and their household possessions. And would do likewise for a keeper and family when transferring to another duty station. Some lighthouses were located in tidal waters with no separate dwellings. The keepers lived in the lighthouse and these did not have room for the keeper's families.
    The Lighthouse Service constructed many more lighthouses at harbors and ports and including places along the coast where there were reefs, ledges, sand bars and islands extending out into the waters that the ship captain would most want to avoid. Many ships were wrecked on these and their contents lost into the ocean. Lighthouses were built at remote locations for the benefit of the ship captains at both day and night. Some of these were on islands several miles off the coast. At some hazardous locations off the shore where a lighthouse could not be constructed a ship, a lightship with captain and crew remained anchored nearby to show a light at night and sound a bell or whistle during fog.

    Fog was a problem for ship captains. Fog at some locations might persist night and day for several days. To aid mariners during fog the Lighthouse Service provided a large bell in a bell house at many lighthouses for the keeper to operate in addition to the light. And at some locations a helper was provided, an assistant keeper who with his family also lived near the lighthouse. Later some of the bells were replaced by steam whistles, two whistles and two boilers, one to operate and one a spare, in a building known as the whistle house. And here another helper, a second assistant keeper might be added. Lots of water was needed for the steam boilers so the Lighthouse Service at some lights constructed a long A-frame structure, a rain shed, such that rainwater from the roof was collected in water tanks for use in the steam boilers.

    It was desired to have lighthouses so located that the ship captain would always have one in view, passing one and when it was well behind him there would be the next one come into view. For this reason many lighthouses were constructed, and at remote locations on the coasts from Maine to Florida, on the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Coast, the Great Lakes, and Alaska.  Lighthouses were also built on some of the rivers.

    The first lighthouse in this country was on an island in outer Boston Harbor. Additional lighthouses were later built in that harbor and to the north and south of the harbor and several lighthouses along the entire length of Cape Cod. In the later years of the age of sail as many as 10,000 ships entered Boston Harbor each year. And all of this lighthouse building was to help ship captains have a safe trip, that the store shelves in many coastal cities and towns would not go empty and the products produced at these locations could go to markets where needed.

    Not only did lighthouses aid mariners navigating the coasts but there were many large ships under sail with freight and passengers arriving here from crossing the ocean from Europe.  At night when making land it would be the light of a lighthouse first seen. And when it was identified the ship captain would then know which way to proceed to his port of destination. If no light were seen he would not know where he was and might proceed on into hazardous waters. There were many incidents where a ship ended a successful trip across the Atlantic Ocean only to be wrecked on our shores with the loss of many lives. Most significant was having a good system of lights on our coasts that made our country a more attractive place with less risk for ships from overseas to do business.

    Ships under sail were entirely dependent on wind. If and when the wind ceased the ship could not move. Ships under sail were sometimes overcome by strong storms and were wrecked when driven ashore by the winds and waves and often with lives lost. When winds became too strong the captain might attempt take his ship to place of refuge such as a sheltered harbor to wait for the wind to subside. And with some storms he might have to wait as many as two or three days before proceeding on.

    In time, however,  steam powered ships came into use, with side paddle wheels or propellers. These ships could travel faster and in higher winds, and when there was no wind, and thus maintain schedules of arrival and departure. So not only did these ships carry freight but also had meal and overnight accommodations for many passengers to travel from place to place for business or for pleasure in much less time than overland by stage coach on the very poor roads. That now suppliers and customers could easily meet face to face, business relationships improved to the benefit of both. And if for example the lumber customer visited the sawmill and liking what he observed he may order even more lumber.
    Ships powered by steam striving to run on schedules for the benefit of the convenience and safety of the many passengers they carried had a greater need for the aid provided night and day by lighthouses than did ships under sail powered by the inconsistent winds.

    It was because of the many ships and the lighthouses that helped guide them that this little town and many others and people not only survived, but prospered and these towns grew to become large towns and perhaps small cities. Not only the lighthouse at this one small town was important to the people living here but important also to them the many other lighthouses further up or further down the coast aiding ships to and from their town.

    If you visit a lighthouse stand beside the tower and look out the waters beyond. Then imagine many ships under sail and steamships passing in both directions, one hundred or more night and day aided by this lighthouse and the dedication of its keepers and their families.  And this is but one of the many lighthouses that not only ship captains depended upon but also all the people living in towns and cities all along the coasts.  And also people living inland whose supplies came from coastal towns and the products of there labor was shipped from these towns.

    Lighthouses helped save many ships and the lives of those on the ships and aided successful trips up and down coast to significantly enhance the lives and livelihoods of many hundreds of people on shore and inland. This enabled this country of ours to grow and to prosper. This is what lighthouses were all about.
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A presentation of this type can easily and effectively be supplemented by a variety of possible visual aids.  It can be adapted for presentation to various age groups. It not necessary to delve into the details of the Argand lamp, lighthouse clockwork,  Fresnel lens, or lighthouse characteristics, sectored lights, range lights, buoys, fixed markers, numerous post lights on some rivers and the various designs of lighthouse structures. These lighthouses, our history, and hopefully from this comes not just knowledge of individual lighthouses but conceptual understanding of our system of multiple lighthouses and with this the increased willingness and desire to actively contribute to their preservation.           DG 5/29/16