Imagine growing up as a child in an area where life’s amenities were derived from simple pleasures contained within the expansive playground of a salt marsh at bay’s edge? A place where isolation and hardships were not only a way of life but the very essence of tending to a light at Port Mahon Lighthouse on the Delaware Bay. Though such days have long since slipped into the faded pages of time, the memories of growing up as a teenager at Port Mahon continue to burn as bright as ever in the heart of 92 year-old Dorothy Lynch-Morris.
Most people would take one look at Port Mahon with its sticky marsh mud and proximity to the stormy whims of Delaware Bay and insist that there is no way anyone could consider this desolate area a shining memory. Devoid of all social activity with townsfolk and too remote for most modern conveniences, life at Port Mahon was basic in every sense of the word. When asked though whether her eight siblings or her were ever bored at Port Mahon, Dorothy emphatically answers, "oh no!" In fact, her spirits rise when recalling those days, saying, "We enjoyed it out there. We had a radio that ran on batteries, a talk machine (wind-up Victrola with records) and a piano that played the rolls. Sometimes the oystermen would come in the lighthouse and we’d make homemade ice cream. My sisters Helena and Lizzie would crank up that talk machine and we’d have a big time!"
No child has the opportunity to grow up at a lighthouse without first having a parent who was appointed a keeper by the United States Lighthouse Service. In Dorothy’s case, her father, Irvin Lynch, Sr. entered the USLHS in 1902 and received his first assignment at the offshore Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse on Delaware Bay. He would transfer to Reedy Island Lighthouse in 1909, and later to Bellevue Range Rear Light for a brief time in 1912 - both on the Delaware River, before assuming his final position at Port Mahon Lighthouse on September 30, 1912. Keeper Lynch served the next 27 years at the remote light station before finally retiring in 1939.
Like all light stations where families lived together, keeping a good light proved to be a team effort. The Lynch family was no exception. Dorothy, who was born at Bellevue Range Rear Light in 1912, vividly remembers the most important tasks of all at a lighthouse - maintaining the beautiful Fresnel lens and illuminating the light source. Though keeper Lynch would ensure the light inside the fourth order lens was lit at dusk each evening and sending its guiding beam 11 nautical miles out over the bay, it was his wife Janie who made the prism lens sparkle. "Mom did all the polishing, but she never lit the light," says Dorothy. "She was deathly afraid of fire."
The lantern room area might have always been warm and aglow each night, but the keeper’s office just below was anything but friendly feeling - especially for a young child asked to retrieve something from its confines at nightfall. "Sometimes Pop would ask me to go up to his office and get him some papers," says Dorothy. "He kept all his business papers and logs up there. It always seemed like he'd wait till it was dark to ask me. I was so afraid of that room. Every time you closed the door..."eeeekk," and it would open again by itself! I don't mean slow either, it would fling itself open, right in front of you! Mom didn't like that room either. She said it had a strange coldness about it. Well, I'd have to take a lantern and go up there. You couldn't talk back to Pop, but I'd ask him why he didn't tell me to go when it was light outside. I'd go up there and get whatever papers he wanted and then I'd run out of there! I found out years later that was the room Mr. Burton (previous keeper to Mr. Lynch) used as his bedroom when he died at the lighthouse."
Keeping a good light at a lighthouse was just the beginning of responsibilities for the family. The wooden, two-story Port Mahon Lighthouse, painted white with lead trimmings and green shudders, was in constant need of a fresh coat of paint thanks to the ceaseless action of Delaware Bay’s scouring winds and elements. Generally, the keeper would busy himself with this unglamorous task, but under keeper Lynch’s watch, the arrangement was slightly different. "Pop never painted it," says Dorothy. "The boys, my brothers did that. That salt water is hard on it. Paint doesn't last like it does inland."
As for Dorothy herself, she too was given lighthouse responsibilities. Keeper Lynch asked his daughter to help her mother keep the brass jewel cups polished at all times - a thankless job as Dorothy recalls, because "boy would they turn green real fast." Dorothy also remembers polishing the light station’s 5-gallon brass kerosene can and its brass funnel. As a youngster, the task of hauling a 5-gallon container full of kerosene up the stairs of the lighthouse to the lantern room was a grueling job. Dorothy also helped her mother with many housekeeping items and even took care of the light station’s horse. As Dorothy recalls, "it took a lot of pairs of hands to keep it going."
All of the attention to detail around the light station wasn’t just to please keeper Irvin Lynch. The family was always on their toes for the USLHS inspector who would make his random and unannounced visits to the light station. Dorothy has vivid memories of this dreaded experience, saying, "mom had to keep the lighthouse spotless for the inspector’s surprise visits. The "old devil" would get down on his hands and knees to look for dust under the beds. There were 32 brass doorknobs in the house that had to be polished. The varnished hardwood floors were so shiny that you could see your face in them."
"Jelly B," as Dorothy’s father affectionately called her, didn’t like every aspect of life at Port Mahon Lighthouse. With no indoor plumbing, trips to the outdoor privy were kept to an absolute minimum - especially when "Old Man Winter" was blowing his icy winds across the open waters of the bay. In fact, the experience could be quite traumatic for a young child. "I didn't like using the outhouse in a storm," says Dorothy. "The wind would be blowing and I always looked down in between the planks of the wharf. I was scared to death someone was going to grab me. We had a dog named Dick who would walk out to the outhouse with you and wait outside the door. Pop had a Sears and Roebuck catalog out there; we never had no toilet paper."
As for impact of storms at Port Mahon Lighthouse, the biggest fear was erosion. The lighthouse itself stood strongly atop 16 iron pilings, but the soft marshy land around the station was another story. The unabated effects of tidal surge consumed many acres of marshland over the life of the light station - a battle the USLHS never won as erosion caused five separate lighthouses to be built at the mouth of the Mahon River from 1831 to 1903.
Dorothy remembers the unnerving arrival of many storms, describing many of them as "pretty wild." She goes on to say, "I remember the sound of ice churning under the house as it scraped the bottom. The lighthouse was the safest place to be in a storm. I don’t remember any specific damage caused by storms, but I do remember that the highest water we experienced at the light reached the 12th step of the front porch. I also can recall the time mom heard a strange sound during a violent storm and realized it was debris being pushed up by the waves. She said they always believed it was a tornado because mom saw a huge plank flying way up in the air and the wind was fierce."
Living at a lighthouse didn’t mean that life was different from any other family. Keeper Lynch would travel to Dover, Delaware, periodically to buy fruits and vegetables, since as Dorothy puts it, "nothing would grow in the salt marsh." Her mother Janie - with the kid’s help of course, would then prepare the fruits and vegetables for winter. Dorothy remembers helping her mother peel peach after peach before canning the delicious treat for enjoyment at future meals. Family meals were always one of the highlights for the children growing up at Port Mahon Lighthouse, especially since their mother was such a wonderful cook. "My mother’s sweet potatoes and her biscuits were out of this world," recalls Dorothy.
The Lynch children also had plenty of animal friends to keep them occupied and contented. The family had three horses, one cow, a Billy goat, and a host of pigs and chickens. The Billy goat was a playful sort as he enjoyed a game of hide-and-seek with the kids, though he would give himself away by "clip clopping his hooves up the steps to the porch," says Dorothy. The children also loved to blend their toys with creative imaginations for countless hours of fun. "We'd play horseshoes out where the marsh was hard," remembers Dorothy. "The boys played marbles in a great big circle. Ethel and I used to go under the steps in the closet and play store. We'd pretend we were selling beads. Out in the corn shed Lizzie would be our "teacher" for school. Irvin, Sammy and I were the students."
Another family diversion was keeper Lynch’s Model T Ford, which each member of the family took turns driving around the marsh when the mud became hard and dry under the scorching heat of the summer sun. Keeper Lynch also was adept at building wooden boats and it was not an uncommon sight to see a vessel under construction out in front of the lighthouse. During his tenure as keeper at Port Mahon Lighthouse, Irvin Lynch built a total of three Sea Bright dories - all of which he was fiercely proud of.
Sadly, Port Mahon Lighthouse no longer stands along the shore of Delaware Bay. The lighthouse was automated in 1939 following the retirement of keeper Lynch and remained active until 1955 when the U.S. Coast Guard removed the light from the historic structure to a nearby modern skeletal tower. Once the lighthouse was abandoned, its long goodbye of 29 years began. Vandals and Mother Nature took their toll on the wooden structure - and despite the fact that concerned citizens managed to have the site listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1976, the lighthouse was eventually the victim of a mysterious fire in 1984. Today, only 16 rusted iron pilings surrounded by water remain - ghostly reminders of how time was allowed to run out on Port Mahon Lighthouse...a time Dorothy remembers as "good times."
This story appeared in the
April 2005 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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