Lighthouse keeping has been a way of life at Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor for 300 years.
Although the tasks required to keep the light ablaze have evolved over time, and technology has made Boston Light burn brighter and reach farther, the unchanged component has been the individual who is the keeper of the light.
Today, that lighthouse keeper is Sally Snowman.
“I think of keeper Snowman as a one woman station,” said Capt. Claudia Gelzer, commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston. “She truly embraces her job,” said Gelzer. “She grew up in Hull, Massachusetts and as a little girl she looked out across the water at the beam coming from the beacon. It’s an incredible story that she ultimately became the light keeper.”
Being a 21st century lighthouse keeper requires a unique set of skills. Snowman, who holds a PhD and previously worked as a learning disabilities specialist, not only maintains the light, but also oversees all of the tours. In 2002 she played a major and integral role in helping to plan the “International Lighthouse Conference - Kids on Beam” that developed a lighthouse educational program for lighthouse groups and teachers.
From the moment Sally Snowman greets her visitors, the same way she always does, wearing period accurate dress and waving her handkerchief (a gesture that has greeted generations of mariners returning from sea), the guests to the island are immersed in a full Boston Light experience. Her passion for the rich history of the lighthouse is evident to all who meet her. Without question, Sally Snowman probably knows more about the history of Boston Lighthouse than most living people. She’s even co-authored a couple of books about Boston Light.
During tours, visitors have the chance to see the museum exhibit at the base of the tower that was first established there by the late Ken Black, a former Coastguardsman, who became known as “Mr. Lighthouse.” Then they get to see the inner workings of the light, and climb the spiral staircase to view the historic and valuable 1859 Fresnel lens up close.
The lens, which produces 12 beams of light that stretch for up to 27 miles, hasn’t always been a part of the lighthouse. “Boston Light’s first light was a two-tiered chandelier with seven candles on each one,” said Snowman. “Today you wouldn’t be able to see that against the backdrop of the bright city lights.”
People visit the island for various reasons, said Snowman. Some are interested in the maritime history aspect and others are simply drawn to it. “A very unique thing occurs every night when the sun goes down,” said Snowman. “There are 12 separate rays that go out, and when there is any moisture in the air it really magnifies those beams, and they appear to drop down onto the horizon. It’s just an optical illusion. It feels so safe. Nothing is going to harm me. Those are the guardian lights.” For Snowman, seafarers, and scores of visitors, the light is a transcendent symbol. “Think of everything that you’ve ever seen with a lighthouse,” said Snowman. “So many use the lighthouse symbol for their business. And why? Because people trust it – it’s the hope, it’s the light.” The light keeper is as much a part of the symbolism of hope as the light itself. For early mariners, the light was the first glimmer of civilization, and in many cases, the lighthouse keeper was the first person seen after perilous journeys. Snowman embodies that legacy. The importance of the lighthouse keeper was officially recognized in 1989 when the Congress of the United States passed a law stating that Boston Light must always have a lighthouse keeper.
Like her predecessors, the Wickes of yesteryear, Sally Snowman keeps the beacon burning at Boston Lighthouse – lighting the way for the next generation.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2016 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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