The image of the “Old Time Light-House Keeper” is indelibly etched in the minds and memories of countless Americans, whether they have an interest in history or not. An often nameless servant to the vulnerable mariners at sea, the keepers of yesteryear staffed their lights through wind and weather, often in lonely and isolated places. Surely, there is truth to this image, although we know that the life of a keeper and their families also had many rewards. Tales left behind by the keepers themselves, and particularly those told by “lighthouse kids,” children of keepers who grew up in these sometimes exciting, sometimes boring, but always magical places, reveal much of their fascinating history and contribute greatly to lighthouse lore.
From the very beginning, lighthouses have attracted visitors, so often, that rules for their treatment and conduct had to be promulgated. “Visitors will be courteously and politely received and admitted into the tower and lantern when it will not interfere with the proper exhibition of the light,” so said the 1869 rules for visitors signed by Light-House Board Chairman Rear-Admiral William Shubrick. In some cases, extra keepers had to be on duty just to deal with hordes of visitors. Keepers actually resigned because the throngs of visitors kept them from their more important duties.
Keeper James McCobb, who served at Burnt Island, Maine, from 1868 until 1880, made the following entry in the station log book: “Much company around visiting the station. Some days occupied most of my time not engaged about the light house in waiting upon them. Sometimes almost make themselves troublesome.”
A 1936 letter from the district lighthouse superintendent to Keeper Franklin Covell at Minnesota’s Split Rock Lighthouse clearly stated that the keeper was expected to “cultivate the good will of the general public in every way practicable to show the facilities and equipment of the station.” This was the standard expectation of keepers at all locations as well.
An interesting change from the visitor rules of earlier days is that today most, if not all, sites charge a fee to tour the lighthouse, an obvious necessity to help with operation and upkeep. Olden-days keepers, however, were expressly forbidden to charge visitors. “Employees are forbidden from accepting fees or other remuneration for courtesies extended,” stated the 1911 version of Instructions to Light-House Keepers, promulgated by the then Department of Commerce and Labor. There are anecdotal tales of a few keepers, and especially the children of keepers, who were known to make a dollar now and then giving tours, a practice perhaps conveniently overlooked. However, a keeper in Maine was actually fired when it was discovered he was charging visitors a fee to row them back and forth to his island light station.
The era of the old-time keepers, and even of the Coast Guardsmen who supplanted them, is long over. Thankfully, many of the lighthouses that still stand today are cared for by folks just as dedicated to their preservation and upkeep. Lighthouses are still major tourist attractions wherever they remain open to public visitation. Staff and volunteers at many of these sites are often far more than tour-guides. They are truly educators as they present and interpret the history, operation, and lore of these iconic reminders of our nation’s maritime past to the stream of visitors that continues unabated today.
The East Coast – Absecon, New Jersey
The Absecon Lighthouse, in Atlantic City, New Jersey, is one of the tall brick giants of the mid-Atlantic Coast. At 171 feet tall, it is New Jersey’s tallest lighthouse and it is a 228-step climb to the top. Visitors are often led up those stairs by docent Buddy Grover. Now 92 years young, but as spry as a man much younger, Buddy is a locally famous fixture at Absecon, where he has been a docent for 11 years now. A New Jersey native for most of his life, Buddy is a Marine Corps veteran and a Postal Service retiree, and now a busy volunteer in several pursuits, including helping with the restoration of a 33,000-pipe organ in Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall. “I’m quite old,” says Buddy in quite an understatement, “but it seems to work well for me.”
Jean Muchanic, Executive Director of the Absecon Lighthouse, considers Buddy, “a treasure to Atlantic City and to the Absecon Lighthouse. His shining (pun intended!) personality is a joy for fellow volunteers, visitors and the staff of our dear Abby. People come back just to see him again! We even had a T-shirt made with his image on it, in his keeper’s uniform, so folks have a souvenir of him to bring home with them.”
The North East – Boston, Massachusetts
Is there anyone in the lighthouse community that doesn’t know that Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor was the site of the first lighthouse built in the original thirteen colonies? The lighthouse there now, reconstructed soon after the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, is certainly among America’s most historic sites. Within the boundaries of the Boston Harbor Islands National and State Park, Boston Light is also unique in that it is the only lighthouse in the country that is required by law through an Act of the United States Congress to have an official “Keeper.” Sally Snowman is the 70th keeper, and first woman, to have cared for the lighthouse here. Sally is a civilian employee of the United States Coast Guard and has served in this position since 2003, overseeing a cadre of Coast Guard Auxiliary assistant keepers and historical interpreters.
A learning disabilities specialist by trade, and a former college professor, Sally holds Ph.D. degrees in both Psycholinguistics and Metaphysical Sciences. She is the author of Boston Light, A Historical Perspective, and of the children’s book Sammy, the Boston Lighthouse Dog, a true story of the last official Coast Guard dog in the country.
When the island is open to visitors, Sally can usually be found in her 1783 vintage costumes (the year the present tower was constructed), sharing in the duties of interpreting the history of not only Boston Light, but the lighthouse system in the United States, to the many visitors who flock to this historic site. Offsite visits to community centers, libraries, schools, and museums are also a frequent part of the duties of Sally and her staff.
Down South – Ponce de Leon, Florida
Many lighthouses have one or two volunteers or staff members who are costumed docents/interpreters, but if you want to experience a whole bunch of them, the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station is the place to be. Staff there have been doing first and second-person interpretation of the station and the community for about fifteen years. The program was started by the late Programs Manager, Bob Callister, and continued with Lead Docent, John Mann, and the male volunteers bringing the old-time keepers and assistant keepers to life for the visitors, focusing not on specific individuals but rather on the 1930s period. This allowed for introducing the Bureau of Lighthouses era as well as the post-1939 changes brought on by the Coast Guard years. Soon, the ladies on staff wanted to get in on the fun, too. Before long, visitors were interacting with the keepers’ wives, the town schoolteacher, the first woman doctor in town, and even the wife of the local boarding house owner. Lucky visitors to the lighthouse even get to meet Nelly, the lighthouse cat. This cast of characters can be found not only at the light station, but also in pre-tour and post-tour workshops at many local schools.
Famous lady lightkeepers Ida Lewis and Abbie Burgess, as well as the captain who survived a famous shipwreck off the coast, often also turn up to greet and help educate the visitors about lighthouse history. John Mann is the “principal keeper” of the group. Some of the other individual characters in the cast are: Cindy Horn, who portrays “Billie, the Tool Lady,” who uses this persona to demonstrate the use of various masonry tools that were used not only to build the lighthouse but in the ongoing maintenance tasks that were so much of a lighthouse keeper’s duties; Tana White, who brings to life early town schoolteacher Ianthe Bond Hebel, a well-known early Florida historian and author; Debbie Sobien, often portraying famed lady-keeper Abbie Burgess; and Janice Lowry, who can be found in the role of “Mrs. O’Hagan,” the friendly and outgoing-wife of former keeper Thomas O’Hagan (1893-1905).
Janice has been a volunteer docent at Ponce Inlet for six years, and has also been a historic reenactor at Lillian Place, a historic home in Daytona Beach. Demonstrating the use of various artifacts from the lighthouse collection, Janice enjoys sharing her knowledge as she interprets and explains the daily life of past lighthouse families.
Carol Jerson has portrayed doctor Josie Rogers, who was the first woman physician in the Daytona Beach area of Florida. In a most unusual role, Carol also sometimes appeared in costume as Nelly, the Lighthouse Cat. The first keeper at Ponce Inlet, William Rowlinski (1887-1893) actually had a black and white cat, Nelly-Rose, by name.
Steven Olshinski is yet another of the Ponce Inlet crew who greets visitors in his keeper’s uniform. He has been a volunteer docent for several years. In addition to giving tours and facilitating visitor activities both on and off-site, Steve often just wanders the station property interacting with the visitors he encounters. A history buff, after his retirement, Steve says he sought out the opportunity to stay involved in the community and to be engaged with others, and volunteering at Ponce Inlet was a perfect way to do that. He notes most visitors leave the lighthouse with two unique impressions: One is amazement at the evolution of lighthouse technology over the years; the other is of the pioneering lifestyle of the early keepers and their families in the Ponce Inlet area.
Also Down South –
St Augustine, Florida
Another of the tall brick giants of Florida’s Atlantic Coast, with 219 steps to the top, the present St. Augustine Lighthouse went into service in October of 1874. This very complete light station is maintained and operated by the St. Augustine Lighthouse and Maritime Museum. Operations Director, Rick Cain, can sometimes be found portraying the head keeper of the station, and staff member, Jason Smith, takes on the assistant keeper role. Rick notes, “I created a lighthouse keeper-esque uniform to be functional in the Florida climate.” As St. Augustine Lighthouse is still an active, private aid to navigation, Rick notes they did not want to wear authentic historic uniforms. Touring at St. Augustine is largely self-guided, but Rick and Jason offer one-on-one personal tours with the keeper or the assistant keeper to guests seeking this special opportunity. In addition to light station tours, the museum offers a great variety of other educational programs and exhibits for the visitor.
Up North –
McGulpin Point, Michigan
McGulpin Point Lighthouse was one of many that led ships to and through the Straits of Mackinac as they passed between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Long out of service, and in private ownership for decades, the lighthouse is now owned and operated by Emmett County. One of the several docents there is Eric Klein, often seen in his circa 1890 uniform, imparting the story of the care and operation of the lighthouse and its light, and the families that once lived there. Eric has another lighthouse connection in that he and his family live in the keeper’s quarters and serve as on-site caretakers at the 40 Mile Point Lighthouse, some 50 miles away on the shores of Lake Huron.
Eric and his wife Lisa and their children Cora, Evan, and Anthony, often greet the visitors to 40 Mile Point in period costumes, portraying not only the keeper, but a lighthouse family, too. They frequently “pop-in” at other nearby lighthouses, as well, for some impromptu visitor interaction and education. Eric also has an unusual maritime-related hobby. He builds large-scale models of many of the famous ships that once plied the waters of the Mackinac Straits.
More Up North –
Whitefish Point, Michigan
The present tall skeletal tower at Whitefish Point, at the southeastern end of Lake Superior in Michigan, replaced the smaller 1849 lighthouse that was the first one built on the U.S. side of the lake. Today, it is a major feature of the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum. Executive Director Bruce Lynn can often be found in his lighthouse keeper’s uniform, leading visitors on a lighthouse adventure.
Bruce and other staff members frequently do first person interpretation of the site during regularly scheduled special events. Bruce often takes the persona of 1903-1931 Whitefish keeper Robert Carlson, the longest-serving keeper at this station, while other staff and volunteer portray other keepers and family members from Whitefish’s past. Bruce holds an American History degree from Ohio State University, and is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University’s Historic Preservation program. In 2015, he co-authored, with award winning Great Lakes Maritime Photographer Chris Winters, the book The Legend Lives On, a richly illustrated meditation on the Edmund Fitzgerald. With an extensive working background in the museum field, Bruce has been at Whitefish Point since 2011.
Way Up North –
Split Rock, Minnesota
Perhaps, still one of the most visited lighthouses on the Great Lakes, the 1910 Split Rock Lighthouse sits high on a rocky outcrop on the north side of Lake Superior. Historically, this is one of the sites that had actually hired additional keepers during the summer season just to deal with the many visitors. Under the jurisdiction of the Minnesota Historical Society since 1976, the lighthouse is within Split Rock State Park. Evolving from an early taped self-guided tour, today’s interpretive staff, composed of employees augmented by many volunteer docents, most wearing appropriate lighthouse-era attire, use both 1st and 3rd person interpretive techniques to educate the often hundreds of visitors a day.
Visitor groups can be found being led by well-informed guides to the lighthouse, the adjacent fog signal building and oil house, and to and through one of the three original keeper’s houses that has been restored and furnished to its early 1920s era appearance. As visitors enter the kitchen of the house, they are greeted by the welcoming aroma of something good being prepared by the lady of the house, on or in the cast iron stove. Ed Maki, who has been on the Split Rock Lighthouse staff since 1983, leads the talented and always innovative interpretive crew. The Split Rock Visitor Center houses many fine exhibits, a theater with an excellent film on site history, and an expansive gift shop.
Way Out West –
Point Sur, California
Built on the rocky outcrop for which it is named, protruding into the Pacific Ocean some 300 miles south of San Francisco, the Point Sur Lighthouse dates from 1889.
At 270 feet above sea level, the Point Sur Light is the fifth highest light in all of the U.S. It is now a part of, and well cared for, by the California State Park system. Visitors to the lighthouse will often be met by docent Eleanor Morrice in one of her several well-played first-person roles. Eleanor frequently portrays keeper Emily Fish, one of the more famous women to have been a lighthouse keeper. Emily did not serve at Point Sur Light but at the nearby Point Pinos Lighthouse for an amazing 21 years (1893-1914), but often visited at Point Sur. There are many excellent biographies in lighthouse literature of Emily, the “Socialite Keeper.”
Eleanor Morrice describes herself as a “teacher, historian, and performer.” She uses all of these talents well as she brings the persona of Emily Fish, and all of her characters from lighthouse history, alive to today’s visitors. Eleanor also often portrays both Charlotte Layton, who was the first woman keeper at Point Pinos Lighthouse (1855-1860), and Laura Hecox, the keeper of the Santa Cruz Lighthouse (1883-1916). Making it a family affair, Eleanor’s husband Kevin Hanstick is also a volunteer at both the Point Sur and the Point Pinos light stations, where he has portrayed lighthouse keepers for more than three decades. He is usually found in his keeper’s uniform sharing information about lighthouse operation, lore and the lives of the keepers with visitors.
The North West –
One of several lighthouses guiding mariners in Puget Sound, Mukilteo Light was designed by noted West Coast lighthouse architect Carl Leick, and went into service in March of 1906. Now cared for by the Mukilteo Historical Society, the lighthouse is open for touring, and docent Al Friedrich is often seen in his keeper’s uniform, welcoming visitors to the lighthouse. Al and his wife recently relocated to Washington and joined the volunteer corps at the Mukilteo lighthouse. The couple had both been lighthouse volunteers for many years at both Point Sur Lighthouse and Point Pinos Lighthouse in Southern California.
The photo of Al (shown right) shows him at the door of the Point Sur keeper’s house. In his keeper’s uniform, and using vintage period photographs, Al soon has his guests immersed into the lives of the keepers and the families who once called these light stations their home. Al states that they are proud to tell and to relive the stories of the lighthouses and their keepers at these still active lights. Other volunteers portray local Mukilteo pioneers. Beyond being a volunteer docent, Al has been the Treasurer of the nonprofit cooperating associations at both Point Sur Lighthouse and Mukilteo Lighthouse.
Across the Border – Henry Island,
Did you ever wish that you would be able to visit a lighthouse at a moment’s notice anytime you wanted to? One of the best ways to do this is to buy an island with a lighthouse, and a keeper’s house, too. Well, that’s just what Bill Baker did some years ago. This New York man, former President of PBS station WNET in New York, with many years in the radio/television business is now a professor of Education at Fordham University. Bill purchased the 150-acre Henry Island, just off the west coast of the even larger Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, Canada.
The 100-year-old, 65-foot-tall, wooden octagonal lighthouse is owned by the Henry Island Lighthouse Preservation Society, but Bill is the official caretaker and tour guide for both the lighthouse and the rest of Henry Island. When on the island, he and his family live in the keeper’s house, and Bill always greets island visitors in his keeper’s uniform. The light in the tower is the responsibility of the Canadian Coast Guard. For more about Bill and the island, visit www.henryisland.com. Bill notes that volunteers able to spend a week or more are encouraged to contact him.
All Over the U.S.A. – Jack and Tobi Graham
Jack and Tobi Graham live in Perry County, Pennsylvania, deep in the Appalachian Mountains, and miles away from any lighthouses. In 2005, after they had both recently retired, the Grahams answered a want-ad seeking a “compatible couple” to act as caretakers for an island and its lighthouse off the coast of Maine for the entire summer season. With interests in many aspects of American history, they had visited several lighthouses as tourists, but they never realized how little they knew about them, nor could they imagine how much they would learn over those summer months.
As volunteers for the Friends of Seguin Island Light Station, their chief jobs were as tour guides and hosts for the many visitors who managed to find their way to this miles-offshore place of wonder. In addition to tours of the lighthouse tower, tending a small gift shop and an even smaller museum, other tasks, such as cleaning, sweeping, mowing, repairing, painting, and gardening, were also required. It was a six-day-a-week “job,” with a trip ashore once a week for groceries, the post office, and the library, when and if the Atlantic permitted.
When September came, and the Grahams had to leave Seguin Island, they left a part of themselves there. So entranced with their in-depth introduction to lighthouses and their “keeping” were they, that they decided to seek out other ones that could use volunteer help. Since 2005, the Grahams have visited scores of lighthouses across the United States and abroad, and have spent summers as volunteers at fourteen other lighthouses from the rocky coast of Maine, across the Great Lakes, to the Pacific coast of Oregon, and even one in Canada. They have been fortunate to actually live in the original keeper’s houses once occupied by the government keepers and their families at eight of these sites.
Along the way, Jack and Tobi have been volunteers for the National Park Service, several state park agencies, a county historical society, and several “Friends” groups. Having researched and read innumerable lighthouse books, diaries, and logs, as well as being subscribers to Lighthouse Digest, they are able to present tours in the “first person.” Often dressed in period-authentic costume, bringing alive the daily life of the past keepers and the keepers’ wives, they have recounted the history and lore of our nation’s lighthouses to countless visitors.
The more they see and learn the more questions arise. Winters provide time for more research. Jack writes regularly for Lighthouse Digest and other publications. His articles are often illustrated by photos taken by Tobi. Her photos also illustrate programs on their summer lighthouse adventures often presented to lighthouse groups. Having acquired a sizable body of information and folklore surrounding lighthouses, the Grahams continue to learn and greatly enjoy sharing their knowledge with visitors to the lights.
End Note: The sites and personnel included above are in no way intended to be more than a random sampling of such people and programs that may well be found at other locations. These represented the responses given to inquiries sent out to many lighthouse locations, or those with which the author was personally familiar.
Any readers who would like to be included in future editions of this feature can contact Jack Graham via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2020 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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