With the glow of New York’s lights in the sky, could you be contented out in a waste of waters, or on a strip of deserted beach?
The following is an actual account that appeared in American Magazine in 1924 of what a lighthouse keeper saw and what he thought of the world at that time.
The slender wooden tower shivered under the pounding of a cold nor’easter. The roar of kerosene, burning under heavy pressure, mingled with the howling of the gale. Particles of wind-driven ice sound like distant machine-gun fire against the tower. In front, along the beach, black masses of water rushed shoreward and smashed into white atoms as they broke, booming, upon the beach. The ray of steely white light pierced a hole in the blackness that lay over the Lower Bay of New York. Four nautical miles out, on the edge of Ambrose Channel, the seaward glare of the huge reflector of West Bank Light showed only moth-white in the thickness of the storm.
Three and a half miles down shore, the light on Old Orchard Shoals was a vague radiance in the smother of snow and spindrift. The lights on Sandy Hook and on the lightships at the channel entrances were blotted out. Away to the north a cloud of misty white hung in the sky - the mirage of the Great White Way.
“Doesn’t it get lonely at times? Don’t you want to get away and go to the theaters, to the movies?”
“I see all the movies I want,” said Ed Burge. “The greatest movies in the world - every night.”
He said it so quietly that the force of his remark was almost lost upon me. He says and does everything that way - this big, quiet veteran of the lighthouse service. To him everything is matter of fact - all in the day’s work. He has seen and lived the romance, the adventure, the perils of the service, but he never spoke of them in those terms.
For thirty-four years, ever since June 1886, this man was an operator projecting the light upon the screen of the Lower Bay of New York, guarding the commerce of the world as it moved in and out through the busiest channels on the globe.
His lens shown the pomp of the navy, the pride of great ocean liners, the majesty of great sailing ships, the comedy, the burlesque, and often the tragedy, of fussy tugs, of clumsy tows, of little cargo boats.
What does a man think of the world and its affairs when all alone out in a waste of wild waters, he watches it something as a boy, alone in a top gallery looks down to play.
For thirteen years he was keeper at Twin Lights on Navesink, the first lights that greet the ocean traveler as he approaches the entrance to New York Bay.
For two and a half years he was keeper on Old Orchard Shoals light while West Bank Light, which he christened, was being built near the entrance to Ambrose Channel. He was the first keeper there and served, mostly alone, on that tower for six years. For the thirteen years he was keeper of the Elm Tree Light on the Swash Channel Range.
Elm Tree is a shore light on the New Dorp beach of Staten Island, New York. When a keeper has grown old in the service, the Powers reward him by giving him charge of a shore light - a back light on a range; but it seemed to me Ed Burge was lonely on shore. He didn’t say so. He had the reputation in the Lighthouse Service of never complaining; but he told this story:
Had a little dog once - fox terrier. Got him when he was a pup and I was over on Old Orchard Shoals. Took him with me out to West Bank when it was first built, and raised him out there. You couldn’t get that dog to live ashore. Sometimes when I took him with me after supplies, he’d run down to the edge of the water and look out toward the light, and whine. If the light dimmed at night, or the fog signals stopped, he’d bark and tear around.
He recognized a lot of boats, too, and would bark to the tugs he knew. I used to tie a flag to his tail, and he’d run out onto the gallery and wave signals. He always slept outside on the gallery, no matter how stormy it was, and watched the light and the boats. He was a lot of company.
When I was transferred to Elm Tree I brought him ashore with me, but he wouldn’t live here. He was homesick, so I had to take him out and give him to the new keeper on the West Bank. He lived on the offshore lights for eleven years. Then the keeper brought him ashore, and he died in three days.
I reckon that’s the way with most of us. I know I always was glad to get back after being ashore for a time.
Yes, a fellow has plenty of time to think and plenty of things to think about when he’s on an offshore light; but you can’t exactly call it being lonely. I have been a month alone in a light, and I’ve been lonelier the few times I have been up-town in New York. The fellow who has his work to do, his light to keep in order, his supplies to attend to, his painting and cooking and carpentering and watching his channel, hasn’t much time to fret about what he is missing, or to envy other folks.
Tending to other people’s business is unnecessary work, anyhow and as for being lonely the fellow who can’t keep himself busy and contented wouldn’t be busy or contented anyhow. Seems to me, a big part of the trouble in the world comes from men wanting to tend to other people’s business, or to be something else than what they are. When a man has a family ashore to think of and to earn for, there’s no use wasting time thinking of what he might be doing.
On nice nights when I was out there on West Bank, I would watch the lights way across the bay on Coney Island, or the glow over New York, and maybe think it would be nice to be there; but if I had been ashore I wouldn’t have had the money to go to those places, and if I had gone the chances were that I wouldn’t have fitted in. The way I look at it, there is no use wasting time wishing that you were someone else, or somewhere else, or something else.
I reckon a man makes himself what he is. Maybe circumstances help to make him, but generally he is what he chooses to be. Circumstances couldn’t hold him if he wanted hard enough to be something else. Generally a man finds the work he is best fitted for, although most men think the other way. If a fellow makes good at the work he is doing, he may have some claim to think he ought to be doing bigger things; but most of those I’ve known, who thought they were cut out for big jobs, aren’t making good at the small ones. The point is that someone has to do every job. It may not sound big, or pay big money, but every job is important. A mud scow is necessary to New York, just as an ocean liner is.
Take being a keeper of a lighthouse, for instance. It’s a sort of easy job - at least those who never kept a light say it is. There isn’t much to do most of the time. But when there is something to do, it counts. It teaches a man to rely on himself and to do things for himself. Maybe there isn’t a big, important thing to do more than once a year; but waiting three hundred and sixty-four days, twenty-three hours and fifty-nine minutes, so as to be sure to be on the job in that other minute is hard enough.
But it isn’t a bad job; though, of course, on an offshore light one hasn’t any close neighbors. Fact is, if it weren’t for the flies I’d think it was a pretty good job... Worst place in the world for flies! They swarm by millions on lights miles off shore until the keepers pray for a gale of wind to sweep them away.
A fellow has lots of time to think, and out there, alone on the water, with the ocean and the sky, the storms and calms, after a while a fellow quits thinking of himself as being important, or fitted to be something else. I never heard of a lighthouse keeper having the swelled head.”
“I suppose you have seen things, had big adventures?” I suggested as the building shook under the force of the gale.
“No I haven’t seen much of anything. No lighthouse keeper sees much, because when big things are happening it is mostly when you can’t see a thing. There have been wrecks, and sinkings, and rescues, and all that sort of thing right near; but on nights when such things happen, when the gale is howling, and the waves are going over the light, when you can’t hear yourself think, usually a keeper can’t see twenty feet beyond the tower.
I’m sorry to spoil some of these romances, but it is true. You hear a wreck, or a collision - hear a whistle somewhere on the water, or a bell, maybe a gun fired. That’s all - but it’s worse than seeing. The keeper of a light can’t leave. He must stick to the job; keep the light going, and a whistle or horn, or bell sounding. It is tough sometimes knowing men are in danger only a little way off, wanting to get out and help, and having to stick right there on the job.
I started in the service down on Twin Lights on Navesink Highlands - the old oil burning lights with four keepers. It was a nice job, most of the times, for the towers are on shore, in pretty surroundings and there is a wonderful view. A man can stand at the light and see every vessel coming and going.
But in those days it was the great coast for wrecks. The coast from Sandy Hook down to Long Beach is strewn with them. On wild nights maybe we’d get a glimpse of a vessel driving across the light, and maybe see a rocket go up. All we could do was to stand to the light, while the lifesavers were busy down on the beach. Once in a while, when I was certain the light was burning and an assistant was at the post, I could run down the beach and help haul when the guards were bringing men ashore in the breeches buoy. But not often.
Around the lighthouses a fellow never can tell when he is going to get it. For all that you love the sea, you know it never can be trusted. The two times that I just missed getting caught came unexpectedly. One day I put a sail on a boat and went ashore to get supplies. Going back I had a kettle of eggs and a box of groceries and things under the seat. The day was fine and warm, but a mile from the light a sudden squall picked up the boat before I could move, and turned it clear upside down with me under it. I kicked loose, dived from under the sheet and came up. A boat picked me up and my assistant came and got me. Never even broke an egg, but my tobacco got wet.
The other time was when I’d been ashore and on the way back to the West Bank again, a blow caught me. It was bitter cold and a big sea running. The waves broke over the boat and wherever the water struck it froze; but finally I managed to get around to the sheltered side of the light. My assistant came out and dropped the tackle down to me, so I managed to hook the boat for him to hoist to the davits.
Then I reached for the swinging ladder and got hold of it just as the wind kicked the boat from under me. There I was hanging onto a Jacob’s ladder, swinging against the side of the tower the waves smashing over me and every once in a while a chunk of ice hitting me. My arms were pretty tired from rowing and handling the boat; and hanging onto the ladder made them worse. The ice had frozen over the rungs so that they were twice as big as usual and I couldn’t get a handgrip. Guess my mittens saved me. They froze to the ice-covered rungs and I held on until I could get an arm over the rung. The waves beat me up against the tower and every minute I thought I’d let loose and drop; but after a time I got a leg over the lower round and from that on up to the gallery wasn’t so hard.
I always have been strong, and I was young and husky when I went into the service. I had been a Bay man all my life, fishing, oystering, and working around the Bay. In those days lighthouse keepers were political jobs and I guess I wanted the job more because it was a political one than for what it paid. Fact is, the pay did not count much. To be the keeper of a lighthouse had been a sort of ambition with me even when I was a kid knocking around the bay in a little boat. It was just the way city boys want to be policemen or firemen.
I’m not sure what the fascination of lighthouse keeping is. Maybe it is the freedom. A Keeper is his own boss - and you can tell the young fellows for me that when they pick the hardest one to work for is yourself. It may be the love of the sea. You know the sea fascinates a man, some men more than others. You are a little in awe of it always, and sometimes afraid of it, but you never can get away from it. After a man has been in the service for a time nothing else ever satisfies. Those who quit usually drift back into it.
I met a lady once who was all filled up with what she called the romance of the lighthouse. She said she often longed to be a keeper and live alone in a tower on a rock far out in the sea, and have peace and quiet. She couldn’t understand why I snorted. Peace and quiet! A lighthouse is about the noisiest place in the world. Out there on West Bank, for instance, with a gale blowing. When I was there the tower rose right out of the water, with no footing at all around it, so the waves crashed against the whole tower; shook it until sometimes the mantles over the burners in the light broke. Sometimes the waves went clear over the gallery, and the spray over the light itself.
Forty or sixty tons of water, driven by a fifty-mile gale, racing in with the tide and slamming against a solid tower of stone and iron makes it about as quiet as when two railroad trains butt each other head on. Down at the floor level, there is a gas engine pounding away, with the exhaust exploding outside, the iron plates in the tower groaning, the fog siren screaming, and the bell ringing, and up in the light a stream of kerosene burning under a hundred pound pressure, and roaring louder than gale. Nice, romantic spot - so quiet that the keeper can scarcely hear the whistles of steamers and tugs in the channel.
I remember one night that was like that. It was clear as crystal and bitter cold, and a nor’east gale was ripping through the channel, blowing the tops off the seas. A man couldn’t stand on the gallery, the wind was so strong; and my pup was around to the sheltered side. The light was burning all right, so I turned and went to sleep. A keeper never worries for fear he will sleep and the light will go out. In a racket like that about the only thing that will wake him is for the roar of the gas or the pounding of the engine to stop suddenly.
All of a sudden I walked up, out in the middle room, with the barkentine Carrie Winslow, of Boston, shoving her nose halfway through the tower. She was coming down in tow when the gale drove her against the lighthouse. She tore out one side of the tower, ripped free and drifted down in tow when the gale drove her against the lighthouse. She tore out one side of the tower, ripped free and drifted on, leaving that gale pouring through my bedroom.
Nope, I didn’t do anything heroic. A man can’t be much of a hero without his pants. I just saw that the pup was all right and the light burning, and that the barkentine hadn’t sunk, and hunted another room that wasn’t busted wide open.
When the West Bank Light was new, we used to have a lot of that kind of visitors, especially during heavy weather. The tower has been raised fourteen feet since then and a rip-rapped base built around it; but at that time any ship that got out of the channel could bump right up against us. There was a four-masted schooner, the S.S. Hurst, I think, that came along in a fog one night and raked us. Her yards broke off against the tower and she carried away my boat, which was hanging on the davits under the gallery.
I’ve never had a day’s sickness since I’ve been in the service. It’s good, healthy work, plenty of open air, and plenty of exercise too, especially going ashore to get stuff he wanted. I used to wait until the tobacco pretty near gave out. That was the signal to go, but often it was too rough to make it. Discouraging work to row a couple of miles until the arms began to give out and couldn’t pull the boat and the wind shifted, and I had to turn back. And landing at the West Bank light before the rip-rap foundation was put in was as neat a trick as you ever saw, especially when there was big sea running. There was no place to beach a boat. You had to make the landing square against the side of the tower with the waves trying to bang the boat to pieces against the stonewalls. Had to leave the ropes down and trick the boat around, and keep maneuvering and keeping her off the stones until the ropes were hooked, then wait to just the right second and haul the boat up before the next wave could catch and smash her.
Sometimes keepers get caught in the ice and carried away, and all the time a fellow has to keep watch for fear the wind will shift. It shifts quick down at this end of the Bay, and the sea kicks up quickly, especially when a big tide is running.
I remember one evening I got caught. I had been down to Deep Kills for provisions, and was coming back when the wind shifted and it came on to blow hard. I was in a little boat with a bit of sail and a pair of oars. I hadn’t gone far before the wind and the sea were too strong for me. The water was cold, and the wind was bitter cold, with snow driving and the ice crunching around. It blew me clear away. I couldn’t see anything or hear anything. This Bay is the busiest place in the world, always full of vessels; but ships are like friends - when you want them mostly they aren’t there. Seemed as if there wasn’t a tug or a schooner or anything on the water that night. All I could do was hang on and bail.
I reckon I bailed the Bay through the boat. I drifted for hours not knowing where I was and finally fetched up plumb against Old Orchard Light and crawled on the rocks with the boat almost full of water. Had to stay there, too, until I could get the tender down from the station to take me out to the West Bank. The light was all right though. I’d fixed it, and it was still burning.
“That isn’t anything; lots of keepers get blowed away. It’s all in a day’s work.”
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2004 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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