On January 29, 1964, the mayor of Morgan City, Louisiana, Mr. C. R. “Doc” Brownell, issued a proclamation declaring Godfrey Kiff Day in Morgan City, Louisiana in honor Mr. Kiff’s retirement after 40 plus years as a lighthouse keeper.
His retirement celebration was attended by dignitaries from far and wide, including Coast Guard Rear Admiral James D. Craik, in a ceremony held in the Court Room of the City Court Headquarters Building in which he received many accolades.
Other than when he got a little local publicity from his retirement, and later when he presented a lighthouse model that he built and presented it to the local library, stories of his lighthouse life and the photographs to go with them slipped away into the dusty pages of time, and his long years of dedicated service were forgotten by most lighthouse historians. That is until now, when we decided to do a little research on him so that he may never be forgotten.
Records indicate that Godfrey Clarence Kiff was born on October 12, 1903 and in 1923 at the age of nineteen Godfrey Kiff joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a substitute keeper at the 1859 Ship Shoal Lighthouse in the Gulf of Mexico, and then he became an assistant keeper. Many years later, he told how he actually got the job. “William H. Oliver had hired one man – went as far as the mouth of the river and they had to return on account of the weather and the man quit the next day. Then he hired another one and they were going to leave the next morning and that guy quit him. That’s when I met keeper William Oliver. First he asked me if I could handle a boat and I said I was raised on water and boats, but the only thing is that I didn’t have much of an education. You needed a fifth grade education and I only had a second grade education, so that’s why I signed on as a substitute - so I didn’t have to fill the forms out.”
Godfrey Kiff continued, “We had a Mr. F.Z. Cuvillier out there at Ship Shoal. He had been in the lighthouse service two or three times. He went up to the district office in Morgan City one day and they asked him why I didn’t fill out the papers and he told them that I didn’t have a fifth grade education and they said, “Well, tell him to fill those forms out because if he likes it out there we want him out there. That’s how it was.”
In 1926, the same year he got married to Maria O. Breaux, he was sent to the Point au Fer Lighthouse near Berwick, Louisiana where he remained until 1931 when he was sent to Oyster Bayou Lighthouse. Then he was sent back to Point au Fer Lighthouse, where, on February 2, 1948, he was promoted to head keeper. But seven months later, on August 30, 1948, the government decided to automate the lighthouse and they sent him to become the head light attendant for the aids to navigation on the Atchafalaya River. William H. Davidson, who had served under him at Point au Fer Lighthouse, became his assistant. At that time, he and his assistant were assigned to 31 aids to navigation lights on bridges from Belle River, Bayou Boeuf, Morgan City, up Bayou Teche to New Iberia, and as far as Weeks Island, including bridges across the Intracoastal Canal.
Kiff’s lighthouse keeping career was always at offshore lighthouses, ones that stood on legs out in the water. He once told a reporter how he and the others would travel to the lighthouse in a small boat. “Sometimes, in the winter, we almost froze to death.” When that same reporter asked him how he could stand the silence at the lonely lighthouse, he replied, “It was not silent. There was always noise - waves washing against the side, fish bumping, sometimes a loud bump as a large fish chasing small fish overshot its mark.”
In the early days, Kiff said they did not have a TV or radio for entertainment and not even a two-way radio for communication. The only conversation was with other keepers. One time, while at Ship Shoal Lighthouse, another assistant keeper got ill and was sick for two weeks. Kiff flashed an SOS from atop the 105-foot tower, but with stormy seas and heavy overcast no one saw the signal. Kiff said, “I wasn’t feeling too good about that either – it made me sick - the way he was cutting up you know, I couldn’t even rest – When I went up to light up the light, he would follow me up there every time – up on all fours. I had to bring a mattress up there so he could sleep and call me when he needed me.” His sole help was a book called “The Ship’s Medicine Chest” which said little about stomach pains, or appendicitis, as the case was later diagnosed. He did what he could; he flew the flag upside down - a sign of distress; he flew a white sheet, and he burned kerosene in an open bucket. But nobody saw his signals. Eventually, someone showed up and took the assistant keeper off and the man survived.
Kiff said, “There was always something to see. The sunrises and sunsets were breathtakingly beautiful. I have never seen anything more fascinating and beautiful than a total eclipse I saw one year at sunrise.”
Godfrey Kiff also recalled that it was a hard life at those lights. In the winter, it was always damp, and the forlorn days were spent polishing brass, painting, and then repainting. In the springtime, he experienced loneliness while waiting to get time off to go to the mainland. In the summer, the heat, humidity, and the mosquitoes were enough to drive a man crazy. But the nights were cool so he could sleep while listening to the gentle rhythm of the tide.
Godfrey Kiff had a lot of down time while he was a lighthouse keeper for more than 42 years at some of Louisiana’s loneliest light stations. That type of life at a lonely outpost out in the water did not suit some men, but Godfrey Kiff made the best of it. Like some of the other talented keepers who served at remote lighthouses, he used his time wisely by learning to carve things from wood, mostly boats, and in Kiff’s case, he made them from local Cypress trees.
When Godfrey C. Kiff, Sr. retired in 1964, after being a lighthouse keeper for 42 years, three months, and twenty days, he was presented with the coveted Secretary of the Treasury’s Albert Gallatin Award for his many years of dedicated service.
In 1983, he donated his lighthouse papers and other items to the Morgan City Library in Morgan City, Louisiana. At the time, while he was reminiscing, he told of how he liked to read the old log books from other lighthouses and recalled Julius Herbert, who was a lighthouse keeper at Southwest Reef Lighthouse from 1875 to 1899, saying, “He had one of the finest hand writings I have ever seen.”
During his retirement years, as well as building models and restoring old furniture, Godfrey C. Kiff spent his time growing vegetables and flowers. At the age of 86, Godfrey C. Kiff, Sr. died at the Franklin Foundation Hospital on October 19, 1990, and he was buried in the Morgan City Cemetery in Morgan City, Louisiana.
Thanks to this story in Lighthouse Digest, Godfrey C. Kiff Sr.’s life as a lighthouse keeper has now been told in story and photographs to be saved for future generations. Otherwise, his years of dedicated service might have been forgotten forever.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2018 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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