Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2021

From the Personnel Files of the U.S. Lighthouse Service

By Ralph Krugler


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This picture from the lantern of the Hillsboro ...

One prevailing myth about the lighthouse is that the lens started many wild fires in the early days. This is easily debunked because, not only were they required to lower shades or draw curtains in the daytime hours, but also the physics of the sun’s rays hitting the lens and then bending downward are completely contrary to the refraction patterns designed into Fresnel lenses. Nevertheless, that story persists, whereas the real reason of lightning strikes in the dry season is ignored.

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Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse as it appears today.
Photo by: Francine Dollinger

In the keeper’s logbook a requirement was that the daily entries had wind and weather conditions notated. The Hillsboro keepers also added when smoke was prevalent coming from wildfires. Being located on a peninsula, for many years the fires were a breathing nuisance and nothing more.

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Judson B. Isler, known as “Judge,” was the 2nd ...

That all changed in 1921.

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Hillsboro Inlet lighthouse keeper Thomas Knight ...

At that time, the Florida Everglades extended near to the lighthouse. The villages of Pompano to the southeast and Deerfield to the north were very small, and clustered around Flagler’s East Coast railroad tracks. The rest of the immediate area was still wild scrub.

Smoke was noted off and on, beginning in January of that year. Despite a couple of heavy rains, fires continued every month. Breathing for the families at the station was difficult at times, but no fear existed of anything worse. That was until May.

Keeper Thomas Knight notes in the logbook on the 3rd of May “Mod. N.W. wind, cool and hazy,” which was repeated the next day. When the winds changed on the 5th “Mod S.W. to W. wind,” no haze or smoke was noted. This possibly came as a relief, or it could have been completely ignored by the families due to the frequency of the fires.

The situation would change for the worse on the 6th as the winds shifted to “Mod. W. to NE wind, smoky.” Though the keepers were busy painting in their cottages, they most certainly were keeping an eye out for the fires burning around the area.

On the 7th of May the logbook greatly downplays the events of the day. “Mod N.W. to N wind, smoky. Keeper and 1st Asst. went to Deerfield in A.M., Keeper and 2nd Asst. fought fire in P.M. that was endangering Station.” Just going by this, it’s impossible to realize the overwhelming effort that Thomas Knight and 2nd Assistant Judge Becton Isler put in to save their homes and the tower.

It’s uncertain if their trip to Deerfield was for supplies, assistance, and/or reconnaissance. The fires would have been visible from the top of the tower, so their journey past it to Deerfield is a bit puzzling. Whatever the reason, the fact of the matter was that an uncontrolled, raging, and potentially deadly fire was bearing down on the light station. Lives and property were in increasing danger. Thinking quickly, the keepers devised a clever plan to save the station. The two men would labor against time as the fires bore down upon them. Knight noted the effort in correspondence to District 6 Superintendent H. L. Beck where he wrote to him the following: On Saturday May 2nd, the assistant keeper and myself spent several hours cutting a trail across from Canal to Ocean north of Station and back-firing against a forest fire that had been set to the north and which was coming rapidly down on the light station. The weather has been extremely dry and a fresh north wind caused the fire to burn so rapidly that the station was in danger. We had a hard time stopping the fire and preventing its getting into heavy growth just north of the light station.

Even though it was a short note, it really underscores the tremendous effort the two men made to stop the fire. Sadly, the exact location they did this work is unknown, but consider the distance covered.

After receiving the report Knight had sent, Superintendent and Inspector of Lighthouses H.L. Beck felt that the keepers deserved commendations for their efforts. In a letter to the Commissioner of Lighthouses on May 16, 1921 he stated, “It is believed that the services rendered by Principle keeper Thomas Knight and assistant keeper J.B. Isler to endangered property of the Lighthouse Service is worthy of commendation, and it is recommended that the above named employees be commended by the Department.”

The recommendation of commendation was approved and written by the Secretary of Commerce. Taking over that position in March of that year was the future 31st President of the United States who wrote:

“Referring to report of services rendered by you on May 7, 1921, in extinguishing a forest fire in the vicinity of the station by the cutting of a trail, thereby preventing any damage to lighthouse property, the Department is pleased to commend you for the services rendered on this occasion, which will be noted on the records as part of your official history. Respectfully, HERBERT HOOVER, Secretary of Commerce.

Thomas Knight, Keeper,

Hillsboro Inlet Light Station, Fla.

(Through Commissioner of Lighthouses).


Bureau of Lighthouses, Wash, Copy to 6th Supt.

Enclosed is copy of letter of commendation addressed

to Second Assistant Keeper J. B. Isler.”

After all the excitement of the 7th was over, Knight’s logbook entry the following day indicated that the fires still burned. However, the light station was safe. May 8 – Mod. N.E. wind, smoky. Sunday. 2nd Asst. Keeper on duty. Apparently being the 2nd assistant keeper ensured that you didn’t get a day off for helping to save the station.

Without having the supplementary documentation, the notation in the logbook would have seemed to be a rather minor event.

Editor’s Note: Ralph Krugler, the author of the book The (Almost) Complete History of the Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse added this note.

“In researching materials for a comprehensive history I was writing on Florida’s Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, I obtained copies of all the documen­tation in the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Due to this being a self-funded project and the Personnel Files costing $75 each from the Archives in St. Louis, I chose to focus on the head keepers in the Lighthouse Service era. Lighthouse keeper Thomas Knight fell into this category, having served at Hillsboro Inlet from 1911 to 1936, with a brief transfer of 6 months in 1919 to Jupiter Inlet.

“For those interested in doing your own research, let me advise you to obtain Personnel Files as they can elaborate or even unveil stories not found anywhere else.”

This account is one such event where in the Personnel File elaborated and was then completed with a notation in the keeper’s logbook.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2021 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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