Digest>Archives> March 2009

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Light Tenders

By Jim Claflin


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We recently turned up a rare photo of a bearded gentleman, with lantern, posed at the base of a short white tower of some sort. As you may have already guessed, this gentleman is a U.S. Lighthouse Service Light Tender.

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Lighthouse Service Commissioner George R. Putnam in his book Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States (Houghton Mifflin Company 1933), notes that all of the important navigable rivers in the country were lighted — a total of nearly eight thousand miles of river channel.

There were at times on the Mississippi River alone, over eleven hundred steamboats as well as other craft, with the total value of cargoes at the time estimated at $400,000,000 annually. With such a great need, river aids to navigation were developed over the years. At the time of his writing, the Lighthouse Service maintained 2,082 lights and many buoys and beacons marking 4,226 miles of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers and tributaries.

As you might expect, it would be prohibitively expensive to furnish each of these locations with a standard lighthouse and keeper. Also, the visibility required in this situation was in the order of less than a mile, as opposed to 15 or more miles required of a seacoast light. To meet these rather simpler needs, a smaller lantern was found to be effective to mark the crossings and bends in the channel.

The lights developed were known as “post” lights, and consisted of a flat-wick lamp with a small pressed glass lens on top, in a triangular tin case with glass side panels. These lights were usually shown from a shelf, on a white painted triangular wooden stand, a portion of which can be seen in the photograph. These stands were mounted on the river bank and included two large wooden “wings”, so painted and numbered to provide a good day mark as well.

These small lights were tended by persons living in the neighborhood, employed part time by the Lighthouse Service. The work of lighting the lamp each evening, and extinguishing and cleaning it each morning required but a part of their time. They were paid small amounts per month for the work, and were supplied with the necessary oil, wicks and wick trimming and cleaning equipment. In some cases a number of lights could be cared for by one tender who might use a small boat to reach each one. Light lighthouse keepers though, light tenders were still required each day to fill out the Journal of Light Station, containing daily listings of oil used, wicks changed, important events, bad weather and other special notes. These men worked alone and were almost never photographed while performing their duties.

In some situations it might be necessary to mount a light in the water to mark a turn or obstruction. In this case a hanging “Post Lantern B” hung from a tall inverted “L”-shaped post would be used, with the light tender accomplishing his task from his boat moored to the post. These lanterns were made entirely of copper and brass, and contained an eight-inch pressed-glass lens, on a burner with two flat wicks burning kerosene. Great pains were taken in the design of this lantern to make it wind-proof, and still have proper ventilation for a good light. When equipped with a slip-on oil reservoir, the lantern would burn for eight days without tending — a must for stations that could not be visited on a daily basis.

Thanks to Jeff Shook of the Michigan Lighthouse Conservancy for providing this unusual image.

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Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling (508) 792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@lighthouseantiques.net or visit his web site at www.lighthouseantiques.net

This story appeared in the March 2009 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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