For many issues now over the past couple of years, we have been running stories of lighthouse keepers who lost their lives in the line of duty in our “In Memoriam” column. The men we have spotlighted were serving at lighthouses all across the country, were married with children, single or newly engaged, veteran keepers or just starting service. They were at isolated island stations 25 miles offshore or just a few hundred feet from land. They were American born and bred or fledgling immigrants who had only been in the country for a short time, had transferred from other stations or were serving at their first one, and some were even born there.
They all had one thing in common, however – a solemn responsibility to “keep the light well” so that mariners would not perish. At times, this commitment included a willingness to brave tumultuous seas to affect rescues of stranded or shipwrecked crews who would have perished without their efforts. This put the keepers in just as much jeopardy of losing their lives as the people they rescued. They took their duties seriously and performed their jobs admirably. It was a twisted irony that, in many instances, they should be required to give up their own lives in fulfilling their daily obligation to save others.
While researching keepers, we have been surprised by the number whom we have discovered actually died during service. The keeper lists in the government appointment ledgers do not always list why a keeper ended his duty at any particular station. It has been mostly through newspaper reports that we have stumbled upon these details.
The government’s monthly Lighthouse Service Bulletin rarely, if ever, mentioned a keeper dying while working, assumedly to prevent other keepers from worrying that they had taken on too dangerous of a profession. The only deaths regularly mentioned were short obituaries for veteran keepers with lengthy service records who had since retired. It was almost to emphasize the opposite position – that you could stay in service for forty years and have a nice life, looking forward to your golden years in retirement.
It would be interesting, if we had the few thousand years it would take to research every single keeper in the voluminous lists, to find out the exact percentage of those who died or even those who had serious accidents or illness and would have died except for Divine Providence interceding. The numbers would probably be even more surprising.
When you add to this the amount of family members, mostly children, but sometimes wives, who also died because of boating accidents or severe sickness when there was no medical help available due to their isolated locations, the numbers become even more poignant. It was a dangerous profession – not just for the keeper, but for his family as well.
This is why we at Lighthouse Digest feel it is vital to honor all lighthouse keepers for their service and especially for their willingness to be assigned to desolate locations to fulfill their duties, whether they died as a result or not. Beyond our “In Memoriam” column, our Lighthouse Digest Grave Marker Program allows recognition to be given, showing that a sacrifice has been made by these men and women and their families.
We feel it is an outright shame that the government never allowed lighthouse keepers this recognition by way of a formal grave marker plaque because of the U.S. Lighthouse Service being a civilian appointment. The government, in fact, had very little support to offer at all. They did not hold lighthouse keepers in high esteem, value their service monetarily or understand the many risks involved.
It is totally shocking to note that in 1911, a janitor in a government building in Washington, D.C. was paid more per annum than a first assistant keeper out at Mt. Desert Rock Lighthouse in Maine, one of the most hazardous and isolated locations in the Lighthouse Service. It is ludicrously unfair to think that the high risk of someone losing their life in that treacherous location, which did happen in at least two instances that we know of and at least two more near misses, would be assigned a monetary value less than someone doing janitorial duties in a government office building.
We are trying to rectify that blatant disregard and neglect, one lighthouse keeper at a time, but it is a monumental task and slow process to find and tell their stories. We hope, therefore, that you will continue to support our efforts to research, uncover and recognize these ultimate sacrifices made by keepers through your tax-deductible donation to the Lighthouse History Research Institute. You can additionally join us by participating in a ceremony with your local lighthouse organization or even by placing a marker on a keeper’s grave by yourself. In this, we can all ensure that our keepers receive the honor and recognition they deserve and offer our heartfelt sincere thanks for their dedicated service to our country, no matter what the cost.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2021 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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