Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2022

The Keeper’s Wife: The Tragic Tale of Mary Hamilton

By Debra Baldwin


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It could be said that the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Congress of the United States killed Mary Hamilton.

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It was always a tragedy when a keeper died in the line of duty, but even more so when a member of his family died at a lighthouse just because he had that job. It was particularly appalling when the death was due to negligence regarding maintenance and failure to provide a safe working and living environment for the keeper and his family, as overseen by the district offices, Lighthouse Board and the Congressional Appropriations Committee. Such was the sad case of Mary Hamilton, wife of keeper Frank Hamilton, at Brazos Santiago Lighthouse in Texas.

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In 1940, the Brazos Santiago screwpile lighthouse ...

Mary Hamilton was born in Ireland in 1845. Unfortunately, there is no record available of her maiden name or when she married Francis “Frank” Hamilton prior to coming to the United States sometime during the 1860s. Frank joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service as assistant keeper at Brazos Santiago Light in 1865 and was appointed head keeper in 1867, serving there for the next twenty years.

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The Brazos Santiago screwpile lighthouse was ...

The beacon, located two miles offshore on South Padre Island in the Gulf of Mexico, had several incarnations over the decades from the late 1840s onward due to fire, war, hurricanes or upgrades. The structures ranged from a pilot station light, movable range light and post lantern light, to a wooden skeletal tower and, eventually, a screwpile lighthouse.

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Francis “Frank” Hamilton’s grave monument in the ...

In 1864, the light was reported as having been destroyed by the Confederates, and a 35-foot, square, open-framed, wooden tower was quickly erected post-war in 1865 to take its place. It used a similar construction plan as other lights in the region that had faced the same war-time fate and was viewed as a temporary measure until substantial funds could be appropriated for a more permanent structure.

In 1871, The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board recommended that the then-named Brazos Island Beacon be replaced with a new iron structure “on account of the rotten condition of the present temporary tower being subject to destruction in heavy gales.” But the request went unheeded.

The 1872 report reiterated the timely plea, giving more information and persuasive evidence of the need for replacement: “This is the last light but one that exists on the Texas coast before reaching the Mexican boundary. The present wooden tower is decayed, and is subject to destruction in heavy gales. The vibration of the building in storms causes the breaking of the glass in the lantern, and it is highly important that something be done at this station at an early day.” But again, the appeal was rejected.

In 1873, the Lighthouse Board tried yet again, using other light replacements as argument: “The recommendation of an appropriation of $25,000 found in the last annual report for rebuilding this light-house is repeated. The present tower is one of several, hastily built, to serve temporary purposes, in place of those destroyed during the war. Those at Sand Island, Bolivar Point, and Matagorda, which were of a plan similar to that of Brazos Island, have been or are being replaced by suitable structures, and it is now desirable that this, the last of the kind, should give way to a more durable building. It has already been used a much longer time than was anticipated when it was erected, and in view of its condition something should be speedily done to render the light more surely permanent.”

Rebuffed again with no action taken, in June of 1874, for the fourth year in a row, the Lighthouse Board “respectfully renewed” their request for the $25,000 appropriation to build a new permanent lighthouse.

Still, the Congressional Appropriations Committee turned a deaf ear, and, it appears the Lighthouse Board also did nothing to structurally upgrade what they could of the current tower by replacing the rotted components or adding additional structural braces. Had they done so, the annual report would have made mention of it in the entries sent from the district report to Washington; but all that it noted was the ever-stale request for funding.

Unfortunately, the often-repeated pro­phetic vision of the lighthouse being “subject to destruction in heavy gales” was tragically fulfilled just a couple of short months later, between September 3rd and 5th, 1874, with dire consequences for Mrs. Mary Hamilton.

A severe tropical storm, lasting 60 hours, swept through the region and left a wake of death and destruction behind. Several national newspapers reported that “the custom-house and lighthouse at Brazos Santiago, Texas, were entirely swept away with all records and papers. It is not known whether any lives were lost.” The Austin-American Statesman added: “The storm raged here three days and nights; everything at Brazos Santiago, including wharf and lighthouse, was destroyed . . . Brazos Island is submerged.”

On September 11th, The Brownsville Sentinel gave the following harrowing details: “The loss of life by the storm, so far, as reported along the coast, is larger than was at first supposed . . . We have since learned that Mrs. Hamilton, the lighthouse keeper’s wife, was in the act of carrying oil to her husband, when the lighthouse fell and crushed her to a jelly. Her body had not been recovered.” By the end of the storm, the collapsed, derelict-condition wooden lighthouse had washed away, along with the remains of Mary Hamilton.

In the 1875 annual report given to Congress concerning the Brazos Santiago Lighthouse, it disclosed that, “In September, 1874, this station was visited by a hurricane of unusual violence, during which the old wooden tower was completely swept away and everything at the station destroyed. This accident, unfortunately, was attended with the loss of the keeper’s wife, who was undoubtedly killed when the tower fell. A frame structure has been erected near the site of the former light, and a small beacon-light temporarily exhibited. An appropriation of $25,000 is now available for the construction of a new light-house for this station. As soon as the proper site has been selected plans will be prepared and the work commenced.”

How pathetic that it took a hurricane and loss of life before the approval for the appropriation was finally given. It will never be known what reaction, if any, the members of the Appropriations Committee displayed upon hearing the news of the demise of both the lighthouse and the keeper’s wife after rejecting the proposals for so many years. They were forced to take action and approve the $25,000 replacement since now there was only a temporary light placed on Brazos Island.

Even though the appropriation was granted in 1875, it would yet take another four years before the screw-pile lighthouse was finally completed. Frank Hamilton tended the small temporary beacon light during the interim and was undoubtedly happy to finally have a proper lighthouse to work in. Unfortunately, there is no known account given by him of how he survived the storm or further details regarding his wife’s death.

According to the U.S. Lighthouse Service appointment ledger, Francis “Frank” Hamilton died on October 27, 1887, while still head keeper at the Brazos Santiago Lighthouse. He was 78 years old at the time. The details of his death or names of any other relatives living during that time are currently unknown, but his large monument in the Port Isabel Cemetery shows that someone cared a great deal about him.

What is interesting is the small white pillar stone that is set next to the side of his gravestone, touching along its length. It is unmarked save for a phrase about the hope of resurrection carved toward the bottom. Perhaps this was a monument to Mary’s memory that Frank had originally erected after her death more than 20 years earlier? At least it is comforting to believe that it is. She certainly deserves to be recognized and remembered for her ultimate sacrifice as a lighthouse keeper’s wife.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 2022 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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