Other than provisions and fuel, the most important items delivered by the lighthouse tenders to the lighthouse keepers were books and magazines. The more remote the lighthouse, the more important the books and magazines were, especially in the days before radio. However, with the advent of radio, which often promoted books and magazines, the thirst for these items became even greater at the lonely remote outposts.
Since many lighthouse stations did not have access to a library in a nearby community, or in some areas even a post office, in 1876 the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment introduced a portable library that would be delivered to these lighthouses by lighthouse tenders on their regularly scheduled visits. The portable library contained a selection of books that covered a wide area of interests.
Months later, when the lighthouse tender would return on its next visit to the lighthouse, a new wooden library box would be delivered with a new selection of books. The wooden box that had been previously left at the lighthouse would be returned and it would then either be rotated to another lighthouse or returned to the district headquarters to be restocked with a fresh supply of books. These wooden travelling libraries were not exclusive to lighthouses; they were often also installed on the lightships and on the lighthouse tenders themselves, where the crews often spent long periods of time on the high seas.
However just as important as the books in those libraries, if not more so, were magazines which provided current news stories and articles of fiction. Some of the popular titles were Colliers, Harpers, Ladies Home Journal, The Strand, Saturday Evening Post, The Mentor, Vogue, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and Life. However, the government couldn’t possibly keep up with the supply of books and magazines so they sought outside help from the Merchant Marine Library Association in New York. In a report in the June, 1938 edition of the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, they reported the following:
During the 15 months ending March 31, 1938, the association supplied books and magazines to 86 light stations, lightships and lighthouse tenders. These various packages sent to these ships and stations included a total of 2,519 books and 2,140 magazines. Approximately the same number of books, previously sent out by the association, were returned to it.
The literature supplied includes not only works of fiction, but, so far as resources of the association permits, books of a technical nature having to do with nautical and allied pursuits.
The association’s report of its activities shows that its coverage is quite extensive, both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and on the Great Lakes. Through the cooperation of the Lighthouse Service, packages of books are assembled in various large ports and delivered to stations and lightships on the routine trips of the tenders. It is interesting to note that a considerable number of the more isolated stations on the Great Lakes were supplied with travelling libraries through the lighthouse depot at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, where the local facilities and procedure for cooperation with the association are particularly favorable.
Records show 69 deliveries to light stations between January 1, 1937, and March 31, 1938.
Exactly when the travelling library program ceased to operate, or if it was just slowly phased out, is unclear. However, when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, immense changes were made, which may have heralded the end of the travelling library, especially as automation and modern technology evolved. Unfortunately, as time moved on, so did the demise of some of America’s best magazines, thereby depriving future generations of reading these wonderful publications that were loaded with stories by great writers and fabulous artwork by so many talented people.
Fortunately some of our lighthouses have survived as have a few of the magazines, but neither of them will ever again be the same. The biggest loss is the stories and the memories of life at many of our lighthouses, which are gone forever, leaving an immense void in lighthouse history.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2012 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.