Digest>Archives> December 1997


By Capt. Paul J. Bartoszewicz


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Boston Light
Photo by: Sheryl Iovanna

Let me preface this article by saying that I am NOT a published writer, nor am I an accomplished literary editor. I guess you might say I am like you... I have the love for lighthouses and their history. By being a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary, we were offered to stand watch at the Boston Light for a minimum of 72 hours. I jumped at the chance. ME...a LIGHTHOUSE KEEPER...at America's First Lighthouse! WOW!! What an opportunity. I called the number and booked my three days, which were September 25th thru 28th, 1997. (Hmmm, hurricane season here in the Northeast?? The chance I would have to take I guess.) If you know nothing of the Boston Light, I did some "facts and figures" research from our local library 1, and this is what I came up with.

A. The Boston Light is considered to be the First Lighthouse in the Country (not yet the "United States"), lit on September 14, 1716.

B. Was damaged twice by the Americans during the revolutionary war while the lighthouse was under British rule. But the British had the last laugh as they totally destroyed it (blew it up!) under the American rule upon their retreat in 1776. It was rebuilt to 75ft. tall in 1783.

C. The First Lightkeeper was George Worthylake and the Second was Robert Saunders. Both the 1st and 2nd keepers drowned.

D. A cast iron circular stairway was added in 1844. It still stands today.

E. Another 23ft. were added in 1859 to make its present 98ft. height, and it was also equipped with its fresnel lamp.

F. Has had 46 keepers before being taken over by the U.S. Coast Guard. The 67th keeper (a U.S. Coast Guardsman) was installed on June 4, 1997.

Enough with the history. While "on-duty", let me say that I saw NO shipwrecks, NO pirates, and NO ghosts (not even a little one). So why even write this article or have you continue reading on, as there is NO ACTION, so to speak? Well, this was an experience that a lighthouse buff would have to live through first hand. So let me be your eyes, and here is my journal from three days as keeper of the Boston Light.

Thursday, September 25, 1997 at 11:00am - Actually the day started in Boston, at 8:30. I not only felt exhilarated upon wake-up, but apprehensive about what was in store for the three days. I arrived at Hull around 10:15 am at the Coast Guard Station, Pt. Allerton. I was shown where to park, unload the gear to be taken out to the island, and wait until my "water taxi" came. Visions of being ferried over in a nice 47ft Coast Guard vessel were soon dispensed, when around the corner came a 17ft., grey hard-shell inflatable. Some Taxi! The ride over in a 3ft. chop was to say the least -WET. Upon arrival at Little Brewster Island, the "Taxi" was hoisted up on the dock, and secured. (Hopefully it will be there for our trip back). BM1 Scott Stanton, the Official Keeper, (#67) went over the regulations for the stay, and brought out the work list for the three days. (What work list?) He explained that there were some minor maintenance jobs to perform during the three days. There were also some other "duties" at the light, besides turning on and off the light...weather was sent into Boston by VHF radio every three hours from 7am to 7pm. He then conducted a tour of the Island's buildings and explained what each contained. Of course, we finished with the best building....the 98ft light itself. The plaque on the outside reads, "BOSTON LIGHT Has been designated a registered historic national landmark under the provisions of the historic sites act of August 21, 1935. This site possesses exceptional value in commemorating and illustrating the history of the United States." Then he unlocked the door. As I entered I felt a cool breeze upon me (I already said that there were no ghosts). Inside there is a small museum to show what type of lens is used, the bulb type etc. Also the first fog horn is on display-a canon! Through the cast iron doors was the spiral staircase up to the lens room at the top. I now felt I was here. Obviously, the view of Boston and surrounding lights were magnificent, but the feeling of being in the room where other keepers didn't just flick a switch, but brought up oil, wicks and other maintenance items to make the light shine for over 281 years (its birthday of being lit was 2 weeks prior to the trip) was all the history lesson that I needed. After coming down, I talked with the new keeper Scott Stanton. I asked him how did he feel to be the newest keeper of the Boston Light. He responded that he feels that he is carrying on a tradition - "just one more person in a long line. Oh, there will be another after me." The historic significance will keep it that way, as federal legislation passed by Massachusetts Senator Kennedy, keeps the Boston Light manned forever. Scott told me that assistant lightkeeper, MK2 Kevin Staples once said, "Our job out here is to shine a trophy for America, and keep it ever ready for her to visit." Well put. I spent the rest of the "duty" day getting acquainted with my new surroundings. At approximately 6:00 we went to "secure" all the buildings, and to turn on the light. The climb up the 75 stairs to the lens room, up went the shades that protect the light from the hot sun during the day, the motor was fired up to turn the fresnel lens, and, finally, the switch was thrown to electrify the 1,000 watt bulb. I didn't fully realize its beauty until around 8:30 when I went to sit outside and just gazed up at the light...my mind went back to the family days of the Norwoods here at the light...I could almost hear the children's laughter through the pounding of the surf against the rocks...tomorrow is another day.

Friday, September 26, 1997(entire day) - Life at a manned lighthouse begins early...like sunrise. After the initial sunrise, 6:38am today, the light gets extinguished, ah, turned off. Then the prep for the weather forecast to Group Boston on the mainland. I had briefly mentioned this in yesterday's entry. The weather is sent into Boston VHF radio. You may conclude that the lightkeeper then is a weather forecaster? No.. just a reporter of the weather. The Coastal Station of the Boston Light reports sky condition, visibility, wind direction and speed, state of the sea height, air temp and pressure as seen and compiled at the light. Group Boston will pass this information on to NOAA weather for their reporting and forecasting to mariners. Every three hours, from 7 to 7, this mission is accomplished. So, even before you've had your first cup of coffee, the light has been shut off and the first weather report was given. Breakfast now takes place and on to the morning work detail. Today, new shades are being installed in the lens room. Why shades in a lighthouse? Since the lens isn't turning during the day, if there weren't shades up there, the sunlight coming through the outside glass and through the lens would be greatly magnified, causing damage to wiring and even the bulb. Remember, the magnifying glass on the sidewalk tricks as a kid? Same effect. The rest of the day was spent cleaning and sweeping up, getting rid of cob webs (they'll be back tomorrow), and keeping the grounds clean from washed up debris. Spit and polish, but she's worth it. After all, she's a grand 'ole lady...of 281!!

Saturday, September 25, 1997 (entire day) - Ahhhh, SATURDAY - sleep late, relax, goof off...NOT. Weather still has to be given, the light to be shut off, and today's assignment is to fill the keeper's water supply tank in the basement of the house. You see, drinking water is brought onto the island in containers, but we bath, wash clothes, fill the toilets, wash dishes with rainwater. All the buildings have copper gutters that collect rainwater and fill a 20,000 gallon cistern, located in the building to the left of the light. From there, through a long hose, this water is pumped into the basement tank of the keeper's house. This tank can hold up to 2,250 gals., and from this tank is drawn the non-drinking water, just as in your house, and is heated through a conventional hot water heater. Electricity comes from Hull, and there is a modern furnace in the basement. Everything is maintained by the Coast Guard staff here... If water pressure drops, you have to fix it; if the toilet doesn't flush, you have to fix it; and if the light doesn't light, that DEFINITELY has to be fixed. To the ordinary citizen, this is great duty for three "Coasties," but it is a real responsibility - one that has gone on for 66 other keepers. Although this last evening was a little cooler than the other two, I couldn't help but take a walk around the island. Standing beneath the light on this cool September evening brought back many thoughts of life here in days gone by. Life in a 1800's era with 1997 tools. I said earlier there are no ghosts on Little Brewster Island. But now I felt the presence of those who went before...as if they were saying "You are doing well...kept up our legacy...because of you and future keepers, our work will never die."

Sunday, September 28th, 1997 (up to 11:am) - Time to pack it up into the "taxi" for our trip back to the Pt. Allerton station. People must see this island as a "bed and breakfast," but after spending this time out here, I have realized that it is a job. A job to keep-up not only a tradition, but to keep-up a national landmark. As we pulled away from the dock and headed in, I couldn't help but steal a look over my shoulder at that white tower, I now had the same feeling as when I gaze at the Statue of Liberty, my beacon will shine on forever as long as I am taken care of.

So there ya have it. 72 hours at a lighthouse. I wrote most of this article while sitting at a desk in the keeper's house looking out the window at the skyline of Boston, 9 miles away. In the preface of her book Kindly Lights, 1991, Beacon Press, Sarah C. Gleason wrote, and I quote, "Our conquest of the sea indeed is wondrous. But today, when even outer space is not too far to journey, we can easily forget where we have come from. Lighthouses are reminders for some of us of a simpler, slower time that was not so very long ago. When much else is changing so rapidly, these spare, functional towers have the power to make us pause and reflect on what has been."

I had that simpler, slower time for 3 days in September. I thank the 67th keeper, Petty Officer Scott Stanton, and crew-member MK3 Jeremy Rohanna at the Boston Light, who made my stay welcome.

This story appeared in the December 1997 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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