Few people today know of F. Hopkinson Smith, a popular author and painter of the late 1800s who was also a highly respected structural engineer.
He wrote many magazine articles and a large number of books with such titles as Caleb West: Master Diver, The Veiled Lady, The Underdog, The Tides of Barnegat, The Fortunes of Oliver Horn and many others. Today, if you search the internet auction sites such as E-Bay, it appears they can hardly give his famous works away and most of his books sell for amazingly low prices.
On the other hand, some of his watercolor paintings and charcoal work are selling at high prices. In fact, from 1875 to 1878, he served as treasurer of the American Watercolor Society.
Original copies of some of his articles published in such magazines as the Saturday Evening Post, with some of the stories actually illustrated by him, can be found very cheaply on the auction sites.
However, even most lighthouse buffs don’t know his role in the building of America’s lighthouses. In an 1894 interview with writer Gilson Willets, he was asked to sum up what he had accomplished in his
life. As he lit up a cigar, he said, “Well! Nothing really satisfying, except, perhaps, the
Race Rock Lighthouse.”
What little we really know about Smith, the individual, can be taken from the interview in which Willet described him with the following remarks: “Tall and broad shouldered, hearty and magnetic, with power and strength lurking beneath the gentleness of a dress suit, seemingly not a moment beyond his fortieth year, yet a man of worldly experience and savoir faire, he looked just the sort of man whom men like to know and women to admire.”
Smith had built a number of other lighthouses such as Butler Flats Light in Massachusetts, Ponce De Leon Lighthouse in Florida and helped in the construction of Barnegat Light in New Jersey. He also had worked on many other government projects including the foundation of the Statue of Liberty. He also built a number of life-saving stations from the coast of Maine to Florida. But it was Race Rock that he loved.
When asked why he didn’t write a history of the construction of the lighthouse, he replied, “Couldn’t, without appearing egotistical. The plan was my own, and a novel one for me for I had no real experience at the time. It was a difficult problem, though. It took six years, and I lived on the rock all the working months with my men, whom I made my companions.”
Taking a drawing of the Race Rock Lighthouse off the wall and placing it on an easel, he said to the writer, “There’s a rough sketch of Race Rock during its construction. Now, each of those big stones forming the foundation weighs not less than 10 tons. Well! When we began laying them, the top button of my coat came off and I said to myself that I wouldn’t have it sewn on till the stones appeared above water. And I kept the contract. Then something else would occur and I would resolve upon something equally foolish. I would not get my hair cut, for instance, till the course was finished. As a result, I went about with my hair nearly over my collar.”
He continued by saying, “When storms came and it looks as though a year’s work would be swept away in a single night and neither button nor hair would do any good, I just worried. I always worry when I am absorbed in work which is in danger.”
When asked about his writing, his books and paintings, he said, “Engineering and contracting is my business; it always has been. It gives me my bread and butter. As an engineer, I make my living; as a writer, painter and lecturer, I enjoy my living. I never had any instruction in art or literature.”
Although F. Hopkinson Smith became famous in his own lifetime for his books, magazine articles and works of art, few people would ever remember him for his engineering marvels, until he wrote the book, Caleb West: Master Diver, which is an account of sorts of the building of Race Rock Lighthouse. But, as time went on, few got to know him and even fewer got to read his books.
However, you now know why we remember him and honor him as the genius who built lighthouses in the most difficult of locations and under circumstances of extreme hardship without the modern conveniences and tools that we have today.
The lighthouses and other structures
F. Hopkinson Smith built are still standing today.
This story appeared in the
November 2005 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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