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Collecting Nautical Antiques

Emma and Amos Baker, and the Butler Flats Light Station

By Jim Claflin


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Amos Baker Keeper Butler Flats Lighthouse.

I recently acquired at auction a rare hand written diary written in 1902 by Keeper Amos C. Baker Jr. while Principal Keeper at New Bedford’s Butler Flats Light Station. In it, Keeper Baker reveals his innermost thoughts about his wife Emma, who very soon would become gravely ill. Keeper Baker also provides a wonderful insight into their life and daily routine on this offshore light.

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Butler Flats Lighthouse, c.1900.

Following the demise of the whaling industry, New Bedford in Massachusetts was still an important port in the late 1800s. About 500,000 tons of shipping entered the port in 1890 alone. Butler Flats Light was built in 1898 to replace the old Clark’s Point Light, which had been active since 1804.

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Butler Flats Lighthouse furnished interior, at ...

This caisson type light was built in shallow water with no solid rock for a foundation. The tower consisted of a caisson base – an iron cylinder 35 feet in diameter filled with stone and concrete. The brick lighthouse was built on top. The tower was painted red for a time, but it was changed to white in 1899.

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Butler Flats Keeper Charles Baker.

This “sparkplug” style light had four stories. The basement served as a storage area for wood and coal, as well as for a water cistern. Above that were living quarters which were about 18 feet in diameter, and a watchroom. The light had a fifth order Fresnel lens lit by an oil lamp.

From its first lighting in 1898, until 1942 when the Coast Guard took over from the Lighthouse Service, Butler Flats Light had only two keepers – Captain Amos C. Baker Jr., and his son, Charles A. Baker. Charles Baker served as his father’s Assistant Keeper until his father’s death in 1911.

Amos Baker first went to sea as a 12-year-old cabin boy on the whaling ship Messenger, of which his father was captain. Some years later he signed on in 1862 as third mate on the barque Stafford, where he had his leg broken in two places by a whale and spent 3 months in bed healing. By 1874 Baker had become captain of the barque A.R. Tucker, where he completed two voyages until 1879 when he was appointed lighthouse keeper at Clark’s Point Light in New Bedford.

The station was fairly comfortable in the spring, summer and fall. In the living quarters was a large coal burning kitchen range for both cooking and heating. On it were always a pot of water and two large coffee pots heating so as to be always ready to warm a cold mariner. To the right of the stove was a large window with a double-hung sash to provide a fine breeze on a hot day. To the right of that was a wall shelf with a large clock topped by a rearing horse, and below a calendar on the wall. Beside the shelf was a large hutch, where Emma Baker kept her china and serving dishes, and a host of heavy mugs for coffee when visitors would come by. In addition, a number of lamps would be set on the hutch after they were cleaned and filled each morning, ready for use in the evening.

The Bakers also maintained a neatly furnished home in New Bedford, at #95 Grinnell Street (which Amos refers to in his diary as just “95”), where Emma and Amy would stay during the winter months and when Amy had school.

In a New Bedford newspaper interview of the day, Captain Baker described the light tower: “The main entrance to the structure – leads directly into the kitchen, which is 16 feet in diameter. This room opens directly into the engine room, which can be reached without going outside. In the room are the usual utensils found in a kitchen—stove, sinks, closets, sideboard and locker—for this department is used as a dining room. The drudgery of housekeeping is all on this floor. It is seven feet in the clear, and so well provided with windows that even in the warmest weather it is comparatively cool. Everything is as handy as a pocket in a shirt, and when Mrs. Baker joins her husband next week, for the summer months, she will find everything in readiness for her.” A basement beneath the kitchen held the cisterns that stored rainwater collected from the main gallery roof, plus a storage space and a workroom area. The newspaper described the parlor above the kitchen as the “coziest room in the lighthouse.” The keepers’ sleeping quarters were located immediately above the parlor followed by the watchroom, and lantern room.

Even in the winter, the close and loving Baker family enjoyed their life there together. Son Charles served as Assistant Keeper and Amy divided her time between the station and at the family’s mainland home at 95 Grinnell Street in New Bedford. Amy later would write that even on a squally evening, “… we had some music from the phonograph so we had sunshine inside.”

The large fog bell was mounted in an enclosure and was sounded by a weight-driven automatic striking mechanism when needed, producing a double blow every 15 seconds. During clear weather, young daughter Amy Baker enjoyed saluting passing vessels with the fog bell when she was able and over time would meet Captains and celebrities from around the globe through her kindness and efforts.

The Baker’s daily life was probably similar to many New England coastal families in 1902: (Aug 12) “About 7am with Emma and Amy, I went on shore. Landed on “Kents” shore. Took electric [trolley] to town. Stopped at 95 [Grinnell St.] Emma remained there while Amy and I went “up street” shopping. Had “sherbert,” went down on the wharves and on board bark “Grey Hound,” brought some ice cream down to Emma. Bought a pearl-handled knife which I sold to Amy for one cent…. Anxious to go berrying again if we can arrange it. “

(Aug 13) “Fresh NW winds…. About 9:30 am Capt. Edward King and a party of his friends in sloop Flash came and visited the station…. Charles started out fishing in the station boat about sunrise and got back about 1:00 pm. At 1:45 pm he started to town for provisions, grocery stores being all closed came back without getting any…. Emma and I commenced to braid and sew a mat. We are talking about going on a huckleberrying excursion on Friday next if the weather is fair. “

(Aug 14) “Charles caught 2 lobsters of doubtful size…. Officer Henry E. Parmenter of the USS Puritan came to take measurements, by sextant, from the Light House tower.” On this date too, we see the first hint of Amos’ wife Emma becoming ill: “Emma commenced to take her new medicine “NuTone” for her cough.”

The keeper’s daily routine recalled when the fine warm summer days of August began to come to an end: “Charles and I washed the clothes – caught no lobsters this morning. Charles went to the City farm and obtained some vegetables…. After dinner I took Amy to the city to have a tooth treated – charming being out of town. The tooth was beginning to ulcerate…. Received some books from Mr. A.H. Bunnell, of Hornellsville, New York, containing illustrations of that place, and views of the Pan American Exposition at Buffalo…. Received Circular letter from Inspector granting permission for War Department the use of the Light House, etc.”

However, Keeper Baker noted that Emma’s ‘cold’ seemed to worsen. On the 16th, he noted; “Emma not feeling well, no appetite, the effects of a grip cold.” And on the following day “Emma is yet feeling miserable.”

On the 19th, the Lighthouse Steamer Verbena came and delivered two cords of fire wood. “Charles sawed wood until 8pm when Emma, Amy and I retired. Amos noted too with hopefulness that “Emma seems about the same. May be a little better, but not much.”

Charles continued to saw wood each day, two cords of pine, out on the balcony, with Amy putting it, after sawed, down the hole to the cellar.

The next few days were “…pleasant…. Went to the city… attended a clam bake. Called on cousin Joshua Baker and … back to the station about 5:30pm. ….caught some fish from the station boat…. Brought check for $1.25 from [Light House] Engineer office for boarding workman…. Went to the city for supplies, provisions, etc.

However, Keeper Baker noted that he “…Found Emma just about the same. I think no better, around but feeling miserable.” By the 25th, he decided that Emma’s illness was deteriorating and more needed to be done. “Amy and I went on shore to find Dr. Leonard, he being out, tried for Dr. Hays, he also out. Took dinner with Mr. Simmons. Niece Miriam came about noon. She and Amy remained at 95 while I went hunting for a doctor to get advice for Emma. At 3 found Dr. Hayes. He prescribed something for her. We arrived at the station about 5pm.”

With Emma still showing no signs of improvement by the 27th, Keeper Baker wrote: “Emma not so well. About 5pm took her on shore. Got her to 95 Grinnell St. and into bed about 6pm. Dr. Hayes came, examined her – pulse weak, temperature 101. Prescribed medicine to be taken every two hours. Miriam and Amy there with us. I remained over night and gave her the medicines…. Dr. Hayes pronounced Emma’s malady Bronchitis of left lung. Charles at station alone. The next day Dr. Hayes came again and “…thought her some better but not out of danger. Thought she had come on shore none too soon.” Keeper Baker then “…returned to the light house about 5:45 pm. Found Charles all right, had hoisted the station boat up alone. Quite a task for one man to do. “

The next day, on the 29th, Keeper Baker “Started for the shore about 6:30am. Got to 95 [Grinnell Street] about 7…. Found Emma not quite so well having had a rather poor night. About 8, after drinking a little cold water – she had a very hard chill – almost hard enough to take her away – but felt better after a while but had a high fever until midnight – after that she caught a little sleep, very little though. Dr. came about 10, after telephoning for him.” As the days go on now, we begin to get hints that Keeper Baker is feeling more concerned about Emma’s condition. He writes: “I feel uneasy in my mind – and some discouraged.

(Aug 30) “Charles at the station alone. Emma having rather a poor day. Quite a lot of fever and no appetite. Took some milk and very little toast in the morning. Dr. came about 1pm. Amy went up to Bates and got some ice cream for Emma. She could eat but little of it…. I came out to the Light House at 2:30 pm and Charles got ready and went on shore to stay the night at 95, while I stay here alone. I feel blue enough tonight.”

(Aug 31) “Dr. came about noon. Mrs. Briggs… went out to hunt for a nurse for Emma. I also went out in the same errand. Neither of us succeeded in getting one after trying at so many places. Mrs. Head also trying to help us.

Keeper Baker continued to care for his stricken wife as best he could and soon he seemed to be encouraged: “About 5:30pm I gave Emma an alcohol bath changed her clothing and bed clothing and she seemed to feel better for it…. Emma seems a little more easy tonight…. (Sept 1) Emma seems some better this morning having had a fair nights rest…. Emma suffering from the heat… takes only milk for food. Dr. came about 10, changed the medicine. Mrs. Briggs hunting for nurse, about 5 came back said thought she had found one. In the evening Nurse Mrs. Andrew came, we were very glad to see her. She went to her home for her grip and returned to stay the night…. Got the refrigerator out, and ice in it to keep the milk for Emma sweet….Dr. Hayes came at 3pm left some white tablets to be taken one each hour and keep on with the other medicine. Considered her no worse.”

Work at the light continued, however, and son and Assistant Keeper Charles shouldered a great deal of the load while the rest of the family cared for Emma. “…. About 7am I started for the station for my monthly reports. Found Charles all right….”

On September 3rd, the Lighthouse Service supply steamer Armeria came and delivered annual supplies. “About 9 Amy and I went on shore, leaving Charles to put away the supplies. Found Emma better. Had a good nights rest and fever most gone. Emma has been in bed one week today.

Over the next few days, “…several War vessels having an engagement with Fort Rodman, but are unable to take the fort thus far…. Commenced stormy rain and wind from S’ward. Fried Jonnycakes, potatoes and bacon for breakfast…. Charles started for the city again….in a rain storm. He reported Emma as being better. Dr. said she could get up from her bed Saturday or Sunday. Now we will see.”

On September 6 the keepers and Amy received a visit that Amy would never forget, and she would write about in future years. Baker noted in his diary: “Pleasant weather. After dinner Amy and I went on shore – just before the Sloop ‘Spray’ Capt. Slocum came to the station, a man in his small boat brought a present for the ‘little girl in the Light House’ (meaning Amy). The book, a history of the ‘Spray’s’ voyage around the world, and an apple attached to it, from Capt. Slocum, because Amy rings the bell whenever the ‘Spray’ passes by.

Joshua Slocum (1844 – 1909) was the first man to sail single-handedly around the world in the Spray – a 36' 9? gaff rigged sloop oyster boat. In 1900 he wrote a book about his journey – Sailing Alone Around The World, which became an international best-seller. It was a signed copy of this book that he had left for Amy.

Over the next few days, station work and care for Emma continued: “I arrived at the station about 4:30. Found Capt. Edwards and a party (mostly ladies) waiting my return – had a very pleasant visit from them…. Painted the white inside of lantern…. Charles … arrived back…. Said his mother was not quite so well to day, hard news for me…. All is sad and gloomy with me….Found Emma no better, having had a slight chill about 4 this morning. Doctor came about 1pm. Says she will have to be sick some time yet, but thinks she will get over it…. Nurse went out on a “little business” after Amy came from school…. I paid the Nurse for her first week … $15. Emma has been in bed two weeks to day.

(Sept 14) Emma feeling no better …have not written in this book for three days, being so occupied with Emma’s sickness. Emma’s temperature at noon to day 103…. Tonight Amy is to stay at Mrs Sarah Briggs, she agreeing to keep her a few weeks. The doctor thought it best to take her away from 95 (Grinnell St.) fearing she might possibly take the disease from her mother, which is now developed typhoid fever. I retire early tonight, having stayed the last two nights at 95.

(Sept 16) “Found Emma not quite so well as when I left her yesterday. She came near having a chill during the night…. After dinner Amy and I went to 95 to see Emma. Amy stood in the door and looked at her mother and Emma said she was glad to see her. Dr. came about 2pm found Emma’s temperature to be 103. It makes my heart ache to see the poor girl laying there in her bed suffering. “

By the 17th, Emma had been sick in bed for three weeks. However, Keeper Baker was somewhat more encouraged as Emma was more comfortable, having had a fairly good night. But his hopefulness would not last for long. The next day, Keeper Baker writes: “Found Emma not quite so well – bowel trouble during the night…. Emma does not seem to be in great pain, sick all over tired and weary of the bed, poor woman. Why should she be so afflicted? I came to the station at 4:20 pm feeling sad, and a gloomy future awaiting me. I don’t see how it can be otherwise…. Charles seems to be getting along alright at the station.”

On September 20, the doctor “…came about noon temperature 102 ½. Thinks she is coming on satisfactorily. If nothing new sets in she will pull through.”

However, Keeper Baker remained unconvinced. Station work continued to be done, thanks in large part to Charles. “Foggy morning, bell in operation…. Charles started for town about 7:20 am to see his mother and get supplies. Made hash for dinner. Several boats fishing for Mackerel near the station, to the south, catching some.”

(Sept 24) “Found Emma about the same…. Temperature 102. Dr. said her pulse was good, but she grows gradually weaker and more helpless, but she is not in much pain, feeling very bad all over…. “

Keeper Baker begins to show increased discouragement at Emma’s lack of progress: “The weather, like my mind, overcast, dark and gloomy.” But he does retain his sense of humor: “Took dinner at Mrs. B’s with Amy. Tried to catch a mouse, but was not successful, we all tried very hard for him…. Had fog in the evening. Bell in operation from 6:30 to 9:00 pm, and again from 1:00 am to 3:35 am.

By October 1, it had been five weeks since Emma had become ill. Emma had not improved but was “getting along alright,” according to Doctor Hayes. However, Keeper Baker was still not encouraged. He had begun to receive more and more letters from friends and relatives, many expressing sympathy for Emma’s plight. He wrote on October 2 “Poor woman, how my heart aches for her… Figured my expenses for last month which accounted to $144.37, not including the Doctor’s bill.” This seems quite a sum on a Light Keeper’s pay.

By October 4, Emma’s temperature had begun to spike to 104 following a “chill.” Keeper Baker found her to be weaker and “wasted away.” To make matters worse, the situation at 95 seemed to be wearing on all present. The nurse, Mrs. Andrew, was “not anxious” for Keeper Baker to stay the night at 95 any longer, and she too was beginning to ‘wear’ on Keeper Baker and the family.

Wednesday October 8 dawned fair with a fresh breeze. It had now been six weeks since Emma had become ill. Emma was now “not quite so well as yesterday, just had a chill. Kidney troubles seem to be setting in with the fever. Poor woman how I feel for her…. Temperature 104. Fever running as high.” Over the next few days work continued, as Emma’s health deteriorated: “N.E. gale attended with rain. Almost 12:30 pm Charles started for the city in boat “Emma” in the rain and gale. Pulling to windward about 3/4 mile, then set his sail, the small one, quite a rough sea, and raining. Wind hauled to about north during the afternoon and blew quite a gale, with rough sea. Charles got back to the station just before sunset, wet through and cold…. [Lighthouse Tender] Azalea took out ‘Handkerchief’ light boat, for her station…. The outlook is gloomy enough…. Emma looks badly. The Doctor came about 10:30 am and gave her different medicines.”

On Saturday October 17, Emma was failing. Amy stopped by to see her mother, “who did not seem to know her.” That evening Emma became worse. “Frank Taber and John Paul came to the light in cat boat Triton, for me to go ashore, as Emma was worse and Dr. thought I had better be there. I was in bed but did not take long to dress and get away from the Station. It was blowing a gale from the south and rough sea…. Found my poor Emma very sick indeed. Grew better toward midnight, and at 4 am this morning she knew me when I gave her her medicine. Amy came to see her Mother, then went to Sabbath school. Emma quite bad all day. Charles came to see his mother at 10am, leaving Walter Styles at the station…. Dr came three times that day…. Dr. had said she was getting along all right, but I can not see it that way. Seems to me she is failing all the time.

Emma had now been ill for eight weeks. The situation with the nurse continued to wear on the Bakers: “Had trouble with the old nurse in the morning, went to hunt for another one. Went to Sarah’s and after breakfast she started out to get me a nurse. Emma is failing, poor girl. In the afternoon she seemed as if she were passing away. Sent for Dr., he came and left medicine then came again in the evening, but I can see that death, that cruel monster, has laid his hand upon her. She could not swallow her medicines much during the night.

By the 23rd, Keeper Baker writes: “A sad day for me at 95 Grinnell St. My poor Emma is breathing her life away, and the day, rainy and gloomy, agrees with my mental condition. Dr. came out twice today but saw no chance to save her life. Had several callers during the day. Charlie came to see his mother in the afternoon. Amy here too…. Amy did not go to school…. Mrs Pierce came to relieve the Nurse but thought she had better not remain, so have to put up with the old hateful thing longer.

(Oct 24) “Poor Emma still breathing her life away, and oh so changed – we could do nothing to relieve her.” It appeared that the end was near.

(Oct 25) “Old nurse still here. Dr. came at 11am said she could not last long. At 12:15 pm she breathed her last and was at rest. Charlie, Amy and I were with her at this dreadful moment. The Nurse had gone out, thank fortune. Sent for Mr. Bennett Undertaker…. Paid the nurse and got rid of her….”

Over the next few days, the family mourned the loss of Emma. On October 28, “Emma was laid in her casket at 95 Grinnell St., where they continued to receive many friends and callers. Last Rites were given at 2pm…. Visited the cemetery. Grave completely covered with flowers.”

On October 30, Keeper Baker went back to the station, where Charlie Clark was staying with Assistant Keeper Charles Baker. Over the next few days as work around the station continued, Amos and Charles got back into their routine, but now without his beloved Emma. “Charles purchased provisions and returned to the station, then went to Sconticut Neck [in Fairhaven] for scallops. Returned before sunset – and we had some for supper. I retire early…. Ran the fog bell six hours and five minutes last night – calm and thick this morning.

In mid November 1902, at the end of this volume of Amos’ diary, we see Amos, Charles and Amy as they continue to miss wife and mother Emma and they work to settle her affairs. The day-to-day station routing went on as well: “Damp weather. I have some cold. Went to town about 8:30 am found Amy about the same. May be a little improved [from her cold]. Met Mr. Gill at ‘Lawtons Corner’ at 11:20 am we went to the court house on County St. and Mr. Gill acknowledged his signature to Emma’s will. We came down town and took dinner. Then we went to 95. I gave him a pair of whales teeth. I went to Dr. Hayes office and paid his bill $100, then came to Sarah’s. Almost 3:15 came to 95 changed my clothes and came out to the station arriving about sunset. Amy has been lying on the couch most of the day…. My cold seems some better tonight…. A gloomy day out here….”

When Amos Baker died in 1911, his obituary recounted his fascinating life at Butler Flats Light Station and his love for his family there. The writer noted that “For 13 years he lived in Butler Flats Lighthouse. Visitors occasionally came alongside, and Captain Baker’s cheery, “Come aboard!” always made them glad to obey and see the old seaman’s comfortable house.”

Visitors’ signatures in the station log while Amos Baker was keeper included that of President Grover Cleveland.

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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 May/Jun 2013 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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