Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Keeper Fannie May Salter, Turkey Point Lighthouse

By Jim Claflin


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We recently acquired a wonderful lot of period photographs dating from the 1930s and 1940s, disposed of from a newspaper archive, featuring Keeper Fannie May Salter at Turkey Point Lighthouse in Maryland.

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The 35-foot conical Turkey Point Lighthouse, the highest lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay, stands on craggy cliffs overlooking tributaries to the bay. Originally built to work in concert with the Concord Point and Pooles Island lighthouses, the light station commenced operation in 1833. The Turkey Point Lighthouse is very similar in design to other towers built by John Donahoo and was built using the plans from the Concord Point Lighthouse.

Clarence W. “Harry” Salter was appointed keeper of Turkey Point Light in 1922. Keeper Salter moved in with his wife Fannie May and soon began his duties. Keeper Salter served as the keeper of Turkey Point Light for only three years, until his death in 1925. At that time, Fannie applied to the Lighthouse Service to succeed her husband as keeper, but because of her relatively young age, Civil Service ruled that she could not succeed her husband. The government thinking at the time was that women could no longer be appointed to be lighthouse keepers because the work was too strenuous.

Fannie then appealed to her Senator, O.E. Weller, who brought the matter before President Calvin Coolidge in the White House. The President decided that despite her young age of 43 years, she could perform the strenuous duties and subsequently ruled in her favor.

Before the station was electrified, Fannie would fill and light one of the two lamps at dusk, climb the tower and place the lamp within the lens, then recheck it about one hour later, and again at 10 pm before going to bed. From her bedroom in the keeper’s quarters she could see if the light was functioning properly and would immediately awake if the light ever went out. Fannie stated, “Oh, it was an easy-like chore, but my feet got tired, and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches.”

Fannie raised three children at the small light and was able to grow fruits and vegetables and raise fowl and sheep. Cleaning and polishing the Fresnel lens was a weekly task, as was polishing brass work including tools, oil cans, dustpans and more. Many times her children could be seen helping in the garden, polishing doorknobs or other brass work, sweeping or a myriad of other household chores.

In 1932, when another female U.S. lighthouse keeper retired, Fannie Salter became the last female lighthouse keeper in the United States. Naturally, this brought Fannie a certain amount of fame, especially after an article by Lighthouse Commissioner George Putnam appeared in National Geographic Magazine (August 1936) picturing her filling the lighthouse lamp. She was even featured in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and many newspapers such as the ones where these photos originated.

Fannie would continue serve as keeper until October 1, 1947 when she retired at age 65. She had served 22 years as lighthouse keeper, and another 23 years previously assisting her late husband, who was keeper at several stations. After Keeper Salter retired, she built a house six miles from the light station, and continued to watch the ships in upper Chesapeake Bay. She passed away in 1966 at age 83.

This wonderful photo lot shows Keeper Salter cleaning the lens, cleaning and filling oil lamps, filling out the station Journal and much more, and provide an unprecedented look at a keeper performing the daily shores, as well as a great look at some of the equipment at the light station. The two photos shown were taken in October of 1946.

In one photo we see Keeper Salter filling out the Coast Guard Journal of Light Station. This is the identical form that keepers had filled out in the Lighthouse Service years, except now in a brown Coast Guard binding. Behind her we can see the radio-telephone for communicating with District and other area stations.

In the second photo shown, Fannie is seen polishing Aladdin Model 12 oil lamps for use in the dwelling. The Aladdin model 12 was an entirely new model of oil mantle lamp, introduced in 1928, and was the last Aladdin centre draught lamp design. The model 12 introduced the Lox-On mantle as well as the Lox-On chimney. Prior to the Aladdin burners coming on the market, the Lighthouse Service had used a Hains Modified Design lamp for use as a standby lamp for the lens, and a modification of the Funck lamp design for use in the keeper’s house. However, early in the 20th Century as Aladdin perfected their burners, the Lighthouse Service began to convert some of their dwelling and standby lamps to use the more efficient and brighter burning Aladdin burner. They also purchased additional Model 12 lamps complete for use in the dwellings.

Also in this photo, we can see high on the shelf a number of Harden Star Fire Grenade extinguishers. We had known that such salt water extinguishers were used at Life-Saving Service stations, but this photo is proof that they were used at light stations as well (Indeed, they were probably used at most government properties.) Below the grenades are the large clear electric light bulbs for the light (The light was electrified in 1943.).

Today as the news media (and ourselves) continue convert from print to digital photographs, I think a great deal of history will be lost to future generations. While Fannie Salter’s photos have lasted over 65 years, it is doubtful that most digital photos will last a decade. Indeed, after 10 or 12 years, one finds that software programs have changed and many earlier images or text are now unreadable without specialized programs.

Printers and ink available to the average photographer may begin to fade within only a few years. One questions whether such important images will be available to future generations. I began collecting historical stereoview and cabinet photos in the 1970s, when they were already 80-100 years old. Today they are over 120 years old and most are still as clear and crisp as the day they were taken. Something to think about as we continue to “progress” (?).

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

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 Nov/Dec 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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