Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Life at Great West – Shinnecock Bay Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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We just acquired a wonderful lot of early Coast Guard items from a long time Long Island Coast Guardsman’s estate, and in that lot was an account of life at the Shinnecock Bay (Good Grounds) light station by Ms. Alice Thomas McKenzie, daughter of Keeper George Thomas.

This 3,000-word, typed manuscript was given by Ms. McKenzie and inscribed to CWO4 Alvin E. Penny in Hampton Bays on Long Island, NY. Chief Penny was a 34-year veteran of the Coast Guard, and throughout his life he researched and compiled the history of the lighthouses and Coast Guard stations on Long Island. In this manuscript, Alice recounts the daily lives of her lighthouse family, in which everyone had duties.

George Thomas married Minnie De Bow in 1910 in Brooklyn, New York. The couple spent their early married years, and the girls, Alice M. and Lucy C., their childhoods, at Fire Island Lighthouse, where Mr. Thomas was the assistant keeper. Keeper Thomas loved his family dearly and longed to spend as much time with them as possible. Keeper Thomas had turned down a promotion and transfer to Point Au Roche Lighthouse on Lake Champlain in upstate New York because the living quarters were so limited his wife and children could not live with him at the lighthouse.

Instead Mr. Thomas accepted a position at Shinnecock Lighthouse. Although he accepted a demotion and drop of pay with this transfer, here his family could live together happily in one of the two keeper homes there. The girls helped their mother around the house and made sure to always keep it spotless in anticipation of the lighthouse inspector from headquarters making an unannounced visit to inspect the lighthouse and grade the keeper. Everyone did their part and George Thomas was awarded numerous Efficiency Stars throughout his career.

In 1930 George’s wife Minnie passed away. In a letter believed to have been written in early August 1930, Mr. Thomas turned down a transfer to Rhode Island’s Bullock Point Light Station, which stood offshore on a granite pier in the Providence River. He wrote: “My wife passed away yesterday. I would like to remain here [Shinnecock] as long as possible.”

By March of 1931, Keeper Thomas began looking for a less demanding assignment, involving many fewer steps to climb than the 178 steps to the top of Shinnecock. Thinking of his daughters, Mr. Thomas wrote headquarters: “I will accept any land station with family quarters.”

When the keeper’s position at Sea Girt was offered October 16, 1931, Mr. Thomas responded immediately. By the end of the month, the Thomas family had taken up residence at Sea Girt Lighthouse. By this time, sisters Alice and Lucy were 15 and 20. While George tended the lighthouse, Alice and Lucy took responsibility for shopping, preparing meals, and doing the laundry.

Mr. Thomas retired in 1941. His daughters, who were grown by then, settled in the area. They would be the last women to have lived in Sea Girt Lighthouse.

In the 1950’s Alice Thomas McKenzie penned a wonderful memoir of her childhood at Shinnecock Light. In her account she reveals many facets of day-to-day life that otherwise might have been lost to time. I found it most enjoyable reading and hope that you do too. I have quoted below portions of her account for your reading pleasure.

“In 1919…. Pop was offered the position of second assistant keeper at Shinnecock Bay light station with … a salary of $73.50 per month [a reduction of $6.50 per month from his salary at Fire Island light station] which consisted of base pay at the rate of $600 per annum, the usual ration allowance of 45 cents per day, and a temporary increase of $10 per month [for three months]. There was also a fuel allowance of 17 tons of coal and 1 ½ cords of wood per year for the three keepers….

Shinnecock Bay lighthouse was on Ponquogue Point on mainland of Good Ground. The tower, built in 1757, was 168 feet high and was painted brick red…. It had a first order Fresnel lens, so the light could be seen 19 miles at sea…. About 190 steps of iron led up inside to the watchroom above which was the lantern room. On top of the lantern room was an iron roof with a ventilator and a copper lightning rod which ran down the outside of the tower to the ground. The lighthouse was struck many times by lightning which went harmlessly down to the ground, but one evening it went down the inside of the tower and out the front door. The accompanying noise was terribly frightening. All the paint inside the tower was scorched, but no one was hurt….

Mr. William F. Aichele was keeper and Mr. Peterson was first assistant keeper…. The Aicheles lived in the house on the west; Mr. Peterson on the first floor of the house on the east. Above him, we had a kitchen and living room on the second floor with two bedrooms above that. Mr. Peterson resigned in Sept. 1920 and Pop was made first asst. keeper…. The Aichele family had one outhouse (a three-holer; one papa size, one mama size, and one junior size) behind their house, and families of the two other keepers shared a similar facility behind the other house….

In 1925 Mr. Aichele resigned due to health reasons. Pop became keeper at $1,320 per annum. We then moved into the keeper’s house….

Life, as was usual with most families of the time revolved around work, church, and school. Since Pop had been under the Navy during World War I, he joined the American Legion and Mom the Auxiliary. The first Legion building was not far from the lighthouse… and I learned to play the ukulele (very popular then) and dance the Charleston.

Work for the keepers was never ending. Each morning at 8am the three keepers assembled in the hallway and proceeded up the tower usually carrying a scuttle of coal, a 5-gallon can of kerosene or other supplies. The “light” was a lantern fueled by kerosene, and the wick had to be trimmed and bottom [fuel] filled. All glass and brass in the lantern room was polished daily.

Weather permitting, the glass outside the lantern room was also cleaned. Curtains inside the lantern room were pulled during the day and the ones on the land side were left in place at night.

The “light” revolved by clockwork in that large weights moved down through a large iron pipe (which also supported the circular stairway) in the center of the tower on huge wires, thus turning the gears…. The apparatus needed daily inspection and oiling; the weights had to be wound up every four hours while the light was in operation. During bird migrations or storms, many birds were confused and attracted by the light thus meeting their demise. They, of course, had to be picked up and disposed of.

Beneath the lantern room was the “watch room.” There were no windows in this room. Some cabinets around the wall held supplies, and a small “pot-belly” stove took up some space. A wooden “Morris” chair … and a table were the only furnishings.

The table held a kerosene lamp, a “Big Ben” alarm clock, books, magazines, and ashtray…. Paperbacks by Zane Grey were Pop’s favorite…. I think he read all of the Bible while at Fire Island….

The keeper on watch had to check the light frequently during the night plus wind up the weights.

There was a “speaking tube” from the lower hallway to the watchroom, but it was rarely used…. Mainly Mom used it to tell Pop that Lucy or I was on the way up bringing some special dessert for supper…. During a gale one at the top of the tower could feel it sway….

During the day the keepers also had to maintain the buildings and grounds…. There was the never ending brass polishing and window cleaning…. All the measures from an ounce to a gallon were brass, as well as the door knobs…. Lamps inside the houses were also brass and had to be cleaned, polished and filled….

While the tower, barn and oil house were painted red, there was no choice of colors elsewhere….

For heat, we had an iron range in the kitchen and a small pot belly stove in the dining room which were the main activity areas….

Monday was wash day and was one of the hardest days of the week. It was done in the cellar where there was another iron range, sink and water pump….”

Alice’s wonderful account continues for many more pages.

If you would like a photocopy of the complete 7-page account of life at the lighthouse by Alice Thomas, please forward $2.20 in stamps and I will be happy to mail you one.

There are more photographs in the print edition of the story. To subscribe, click here.

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

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 Sep/Oct 2011 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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