Digest>Archives> September 2003

Books Recount Lore of Lighthouses in Early 20th Century

By Jim Merkel


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George R. Putnam from an old newspaper clipping ...

It’s easy to look at the 1920s and 1930s as a time of decline for lighthouses in America. Automation was beginning. A president took office who soon would transfer authority for lighthouses to the Coast Guard.

Today, lighthouse buffs can say the ‘20s and ‘30s were the beginning of the end for the tradition they commemorate. But people then might have seen the two decades as a high point of the Lighthouse Service. There were more navigational aids than ever, new technology was increasing ships’ safety and a no-nonsense commissioner of lighthouses brought pride in the service to a new high.

George Putnam was named commissioner of lighthouses in 1910, after Congress reorganized the Lighthouse Board into the Bureau of Lighthouses. By the time he retired in the mid-1930s, the number of aids to navigation had increased from 11,713 to 24,000.

Putnam wrote with pride about the service in two books that unfortunately now are available only in the best research libraries. Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States, published in 1917, is an excellent original source of material about the history and state of navigational aids in this country up to World War I. His 1937 autobiography, Sentinel of the Coasts: The Log of a Lighthouse Engineer, is another fount of accurate data, anecdotes and observations about life at lighthouses at the eve of the transfer of lighthouses to the Coast Guard.

“Although the pay is small and the life often lonely, the work of the Lighthouse Service attracts as a rule an excellent class of faithful men, willing to take large risks in doing their duty, and in helping others in distress,” he writes in the first book. Twenty years later, his second book said, “My confidence in the devotion to duty of the lightkeepers and the light vessel men constantly increased during my years of association with them. Few indeed were the instances where this confidence was misplaced.”

The frequent acts of bravery among lightkeepers are major parts of the books. In 1916, Putnam writes, there were 161 reported cases of the saving of life and property and of acts of heroism by members of the Lighthouse Service. Sometimes, the lifesaving efforts showed the penny-pinching ways of the service. The keeper of the Race Rock Light Station at the eastern entrance to Long Island Sound reported in 1931 that 302 feet of manila rope, 40 feet of heaving line and an old wrench were lost when a man was pulled to safety from a shipwreck during a gale. At the end of that report, he added that he had recovered the manila rope.

Besides tales of bravery, the two books offer big helpings of often poignant and funny human stories of the people behind the lights. “A district superintendent told me of a station where he found the two keepers not on speaking terms,” Putnam wrote. “The cause was that one liked the potatoes fried, while the other wanted them mashed.” At the isolated Cape Hinchinbrook Light Station in Alaska, where families weren’t allowed, tensions became so great between three keepers that they did their duties faithfully, but refused to speak with each other or take meals together.

One force that helped to ease the sense of isolation that keepers and families felt was radio receivers. “When a President was elected sometimes it has been one month before we knew who was elected; this time we heard it as soon as anybody else,” one lightkeeper commented. “It is the most company of anything I have ever seen in the Lighthouse Service,” another wrote.

Meanwhile, automation was throwing lightkeepers out of work. Putnam claimed to prefer to automate slowly, and allow the number of lightkeepers to go down by attrition and not layoffs. “In all the program for improvement and reorganization in the lighthouse work, the welfare of the employees and staff has received constant attention,” he writes.

In the quarter-century he ran them, Putnam maintained, the nation’s lighthouses were almost completely devoid of political influence. While it’s easy to conclude the truth of that statement, another seems more questionable. “During the fifteen years of prohibition there was only one instance where lightkeepers were found to have permitted a station to be unlawfully used,” he contends. Technically, he was probably right. But it’s hard to believe lighthouses were free from the nearly-universal flaunting of the Constitutional amendment banning liquor.

Certainly, Putnam didn’t avoid the racism that permeated so much of society. His references to “darky” cab drivers he encountered when he came to Washington DC to run the Lighthouse Service make a modern reader wince. He notes that a number of female keepers, such as Ida Lewis, have distinguished themselves and that keepers’ wives played a vital role. But, he says, “The more exacting requirements owning to the use of improved apparatus and of power boats, make lightkeepers’ duties rather unsuitable for women in these days.”

To criticize him for those statements may be a case of applying the standards of the 21st Century to an earlier day. It’s best to look at such remarks as flaws in otherwise worthwhile books about the lighthouse establishment.

Readers of the books come away with the sense that Putnam’s quarter-century as commissioner of lighthouses helped make possible many of the acts of bravery and devotion of lightkeepers of the period. Anyone lucky enough to find them at a library should check them out and settle back for a good read.

This story appeared in the September 2003 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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