Tales in both early and contemporary literature document the steadfastness and dedication of lighthouse keepers as they went about their duties in often lonely places and in conditions of fierce winds and weather, all to be sure that the beams of light from their lighthouse towers would never fail to guide the sea-bound mariners along the often-foreboding shores of our nation’s coasts. It wasn’t all drudgery and sacrifice. Keepers and their family members, particularly the children who grew up as “lighthouse kids” in these often-far-flung locations, have documented that lighthouse life had its many rewards as well.
The 1915 report of the Bureau of Lighthouses, within the federal Department of Commerce, noted that there were 1,471 lightkeepers and assistants, and another 1,782 laborers in charge of minor lights. This is a one-point-in-time look. Over the many years since George Worthylake accepted the position of lighthouse keeper at the Boston Lighthouse, the first to be built in what would become the thirteen original colonies, thousands of men and women have served as keepers and assistant keepers at our country’s hundreds of lighthouses.
Even in the earlier years, when keeper positions were typically “political plums” and the appointees got scant training, the vast majority of these folks were good people who tried to operate and maintain their lights for the betterment of the mariners at sea. With the coming of the Light-House Board in 1852, and the subsequent Bureau of Lighthouses in 1910, formalized inspection procedures, as well as clearly written and continually updated “Instructions to Light Keepers,” assured that those keepers who needed guidance got attention, and that those who were clearly not cut out for the duties and responsibilities were identified and weeded out. The military organization during the Coast Guard years from 1939 onward, continued these assurances.
There were, however, individual keepers who needed attention if not more serious corrective action. One place where such actions are documented in the pages of the early editions of the Lighthouse Service Bulletin published by the Bureau of Lighthouses, a monthly publication that debuted in January of 1912. Each issue, that continued throughout the existence of the Bureau, clearly stated that its object was to supply “information that will be immediately useful,” and which would keep “personnel advised of the progress of work and matters of general interest.” In this regard, the first several issues in 1912 included a column titled “Punishments.” As these were personnel, and personal matters, neither the identity of the employee nor their working location was divulged.
These columns were clearly intended to make sure everyone was well aware that the relatively new Bureau of Lighthouses would tolerate no deviance from expected rules and procedures. The punishments, so noted, were demotions, transfers, or even dismissals. Although the names and work sites of those so punished were not normally divulged, in at least one case, this information did come to light.
One of the actual entries from a Lighthouse Service Bulletin reported: “A lighthouse keeper has been reprimanded for accepting a fee from visitors at his station, contrary to the Instructions to Light Keepers, 1911, page 150.” Documents, including newspaper articles, confirmed that the keeper who was reprimanded for charging visitors 10 cents to row them across the channel to the island light station, and provide a tour, was William M. Brooks, who had been the lone keeper at Maine’s Cape Neddick Lighthouse since 1904. For another nickel, Mrs. Brooks would provide a tour of the lighthouse.
Although the Bulletin stated only that Keeper Brooks had been “reprimanded,” other sources noted that he was permitted to resign rather than be fired, and James Burke replaced Brooks as Maine’s Cape Neddick Lighthouse keeper in 1912. The Brooks family’s “business” of charging visitors was apparently a time-honored tradition at Cape Neddick, with a Portsmouth newspaper as far back as 1880 that reported that “the son of the keeper will row you over and back in his boat for the sum of ten cents.”
As alluded to above, however, the newly organized Bureau of Lighthouses and Commissioner George Putnam let it be known that such traditions were a thing of the past. Some traditions die hard, however, as Cape Neddick Lighthouse keeper William Richardson was terminated in 1921 for likewise transporting visitors for a fee.
A few of the other punishments noted in the early Bulletins are as follows:
“A lighthouse keeper has been reprimanded for failure to properly conduct his official correspondence; he having allowed outside work to interfere with the work of the Lighthouse Service.
“A second assistant lighthouse keeper has been dismissed from the service for tendering his resignation and leaving his station without giving due notice, much to the embarrassment of the Service.
“A lighthouse keeper has been reduced to the grade of assistant keeper for not keeping his station in proper condition, and on account of his slovenly appearance.
“A lighthouse keeper has been transferred from a four-keeper station to a single-keeper station for incompetency in maintaining his station and its discipline in the proper manner.”
When the disciplinary actions occurred, it was the Bureau of Lighthouses that was the administrative agency of our nation’s maritime aids, and there had long been a Civil Service system in place that assured fairness in both hiring practices and in dealing with employee performance. That hadn’t always been the case.
George Worthylake was not a civil service employee during his brief time as the first keeper of the Boston Light from 1716 to 1718. He served at the pleasure of some local official. Had he not had the misfortune to drown, he may well have been replaced when local politics changed. This system continued for many years, and there are tales of wholesale change of light keepers when the Federalists, or the Whigs, or the Democrats, supplanted one another as the party in power.
An article in the archives of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society notes that Thomas Sutor, keeper of the Concord Point Lighthouse in Maryland, had been fired in April of 1861 “due to his democratic views” when Abraham Lincoln was elected President. Sutor had been the keeper there for eight years, since 1853, serving during the presidencies of Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, both good Democrats. Sutor was undoubtedly one of many lightkeepers, as well as employees in other agencies of the federal government, who had to find new employment in 1861.
In a related situation, Jeremiah H. Winney, who had lost a leg in the battle of Lundy’s Lane during the War of 1812, was rewarded with the position of keeper at Four Mile Point Lighthouse in New York in 1844 through the efforts of General Winfield Scott. This was the year democrat James Polk was elected president. Four years later, when Zachary Taylor, a member of the Whig party, was elected, Winney was removed from his keeper position, for no other reason than that he was not a registered Whig. Interestingly, in 1857, when James Buchanan, another Democrat was elected, Winney got his job back.
In the cases above, keepers were replaced for no reason other than their political affiliation. More typically, some real or perceived deviance from expected behaviors played a role in keeper discipline. One of those frowned-on behaviors involve the “demon rum,” which often played a part in lighthouse keepers being sent off to other locations or other lines of work. It wasn’t always because they personally drank too much.
Nathaniel Fadden had been promoted from second assistant keeper to the head keeper job at the Manitou Island Light Station on Lake Superior in Michigan in 1884. Two years later he was dismissed for operating a whiskey still at the station. He was also prosecuted for illegally selling his wares to the local Indians.
There is probably not a lighthouse in the United States that had a greater turnover of keepers than California’s Point Reyes Light Station. Perched high on a headland jutting into the Pacific not far north of San Francisco, Point Reyes is about as remote and isolated as a land-based lighthouse can be. This was a multi-keeper station, and personnel interactions likely contributed to the frequent lack of harmony in the crew.
This situation, or perhaps just the remoteness, caused at least one keeper to turn to drink. Eric Dolin’s book, Brilliant Beacons, among other sources, notes an 1877 item in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper regarding a keeper who was fired for drinking. He was often said to be found by neighboring ranchmen dead drunk in the roadside ditch. His name remains undetermined, as light keeper lists for Point Reyes note that two head keepers, two first assistants, three third assistants and four different 4th assistant keepers served at Point Reyes at some point during the year 1877.
Light station log books often give clues as to personnel actions, but as in so many other cases, much of the important information is left out, often because it was just so run-of-the-mill that the log writer didn’t think it important enough to mention. However, the January and February logs from the Point Reyes station in 1889 revealed a situation that should have warranted more documentation.
The entry for January 30 notes that the “2nd asst. left Station at 1:00p.m. Crazy & was taken by 1st asst. & his Bro. to Olema & turned over to a Constable.” Had he had enough of the isolation of the Point Reyes station? However, the entry for February 7, a week later, noted: “1st & 2nd Assts Returned from City at 6:00p.m. Gave J.C. Ryan Papers dismissing him from the Lt. House Service.”
This is a very curious entry, as John C. Ryan was the head keeper at Point Reyes, having served for almost a year having greatly improved the station. Ryan’s own comments in the log when he took over the head keeper position in January 1888 were: “In taking charge of this station I must say that it is broken, filthy, and almost a total wreck from end to end of it. In the worst condition in every particular of any station I ever saw, in fact it is more like an old saw mill than a light station.”
The February 10, 1889 log entry noted that Ryan apparently went along with the dismissal, stating that “at 9:00 p.m. J.C. Ryan gave up Charge of Station.” But what charges led to Ryan’s dismissal? Keeper lists for Point Reyes confirm that First Assistant Keeper George Hussey succeeded John Ryan as the head keeper in 1889. John Sullivan is noted as a second assistant keeper at Point Reyes in 1888 and 1889. Whether he was the one hauled off as “Crazy” or what became of him is undetermined.
Another situation, where details are somewhat lacking, involved keeper Robert D. Israel at the New Point Loma Light Station in California. A 1978 National Park Service Historic Furnishing Report gave some information. When the “new” Point Loma Lighthouse went into service in 1891, keeper Israel moved down the hill from the “old” lighthouse where he had been the keeper for 18 years. Israel had apparently had several disagreements with his superiors over administrative matters, and while the new lighthouse was under construction, he accused the designing engineer, W. H. Heuer, of being complicit with the contracted mason regarding the poor quality of the concrete being used.
Investigation by the Light-House Board into this matter, as well as to Israel’s job performance at the new station, led to his dismissal in January of 1892. An article in the San Diego Union newspaper stated: “He [Captain Israel] attributes his discharge to a report he recently made . . . whereby he declared that the recently constructed watershed was improperly built.”
Keepers at stations with one or more assistants had even greater expectations put upon them by their superiors. In addition to being expected to master and perform the mechanical and other functional aspects of station management, they were expected to have supervisory skills as well. Not only were assistants who didn’t always perform at maximum efficiency disciplined, but head keepers who weren’t able to create and maintain a cooperative work environment were also reprimanded.
In one of those “punishments” mentioned in the Bulletin, a keeper was transferred from a four-keeper station to a single-keeper station for “incompetency in maintaining his station and its discipline in the proper manner.” It wasn’t easy being the one in charge. This may have been why John C. Ryan, noted above, lost his job. Perhaps his actions or failure to act were perceived as contributing to his assistant’s crazy antics.
A situation at the Outer Island Light Station in Wisconsin’s Apostle Islands was along these lines. Orator K. Hall was the newly appointed head keeper in 1875. Hall was brand new to the lighthouse keeper trade, and although this was well into the Light-House Board years, he had no prior experience as a lighthouse keeper, and apparently few mechanical skills either. It is suspected he obtained the job via connections with the right people. To compound the problem, his assistant keeper, John Drouillard, was equally inexperienced in lighthouse procedures.
Hall would later recall that he had hired Drouillard with reluctance, finding no other local candidates willing to accept the job at the pay proffered. As its name implies, Outer Island is one of the most remote of the Apostle Islands group, some twenty miles distant by boat from the mainland. Beyond the brief basic training given by the district lampist, Hall and Drouillard were on their own to learn the skills and procedures necessary.
To make matters worse, Hall and Drouillard soon learned to despise each other, an untenable situation when the only company they had on Outer Island was each other. Wisconsin historian Bob Mackreth, in his book on the lighthouses of the Apostle Islands, quotes Hall as saying: “He [Drouillard] abuses me with the most profane language a man can utter, from no cause or provocation, and threatens to give me a thrashing. I caught him asleep on his watch and since then he has lived in one part of the house and I in the other.”
Keeper Hall soon fired Drouillard and reported this to the district office, where his action was approved. In an April 1875 letter to Light-House Board Chairman Joseph Henry, the eleventh district inspector, Commodore W. P. McCann wrote, “Although Mr. Hall’s action is irregular, unless authorized by the Board, through the Superintendent of Lights, he has acted in the interest of the service in discharging an incompetent or worthless assistant.”
Inspector McCann went on to say, “Mr. Hall is himself an inexperienced Keeper and from all I can learn should have been appointed as assistant rather than principal of an important light station.” Light keeper lists note that Hall, too, was replaced as the Outer Island Lighthouse keeper in 1875 by Henry Kuchil.
Sometimes, it wasn’t failure to keep a good light, or to get along, that resulted in discipline. Harrowing tales of lighthouse keepers surviving wild and wicked storms are common place. In the book Lighting the Bay – Tales of Chesapeake Lighthouses by Pat Vojtech notes the following: “Many lighthouse keepers suffered physically and emotionally – particularly during harsh winters – under a lighthouse system that expected them to put service before personal health and safety. If they wanted to keep their jobs, keepers had to endure the terrible shaking of the houses and the frightening sight of ice building up around their station. They knew they faced dismissal if they left the house and it failed to fall.
During the bad freeze of 1881, lighthouse keeper William Quimby Price twice abandoned the Choptank River Lighthouse off Oxford, Maryland when ice cracked some of the wrought iron pilings and tilted the dwelling. After the ice was gone, the inspector came by, found the house relatively plumb, and determined that the broken pilings were ice-breakers, not supporting piles. He suggested that Price tender his resignation, which he did.” Lighthouse records show that William Quimby Price had been the keeper of the Choptank River Lighthouse since 1873. Surely, he had witnessed many an ice-up situation, but apparently none as harrowing as that of the winter of 1881.
Official regulations were very specific about when keepers could be absent from their stations. Travelling to the district office to pick up their pay and going to church were the only times keepers could be absent without advanced approval from the district inspector or the superintendent.
Sometimes, assistant keepers who weren’t all that good at their jobs did not have to be disciplined by the district inspector. They tried to do it between themselves. Head keeper Jeremiah Buckley at Florida’s Sombrero Key Lighthouse noted several less than satisfactory situations in the station log. His October 8, 1874 entry noted that First Assistant Keeper Frederick DeCourcey had “left oil leaking from the drum; it filled the overflow bucket and leaked two gallons on the floor. When I accused him of it, he quit.”
About a month later, Buckley wrote in the log about Second Assistant Keeper Josiah Butts: “Butts went to Key West and got drunk and came back to the station with two stone jugs of whiskey. He argued with me and quit.” Apparently, however, when tempers calmed down and sobriety returned, both assistants decided to return to duty as records show both were on duty at Sombrero Key Lighthouse for at least another year. No records of any official disciplinary actions towards either DeCourcey or Butts have been found.
In addition to actual items that led to or should have led to some disciplinary actions, lighthouse records often recorded snippets of actions or events but little definitive information. An 1878 letter from the district superintendent in Norfolk asked Currituck, North Carolina assistant keeper Horatio Heath if he had poisoned another keeper’s dog. “I wish you to inform me at once whether or not you have any knowledge of this matter, and if so why it was done!”
Unfortunately, any answer Heath may have made is not in the files. In 1880, another letter from the superintendent inquired about Heath’s mental health. “I have been informed that you are at times demented in mind, that is, your mind is somewhat deranged, and if so, does it hinder or prevent you from performing the duties of your position as 1st Asst. Keeper of the Currituck Light-House?” Again, there is no record of Heath’s reply, if any, and keeper records show him continuing as the assistant keeper at Currituck for at least another five years.
Perhaps one of the best ways for an assistant lighthouse keeper to be relieved of his duties was to physically attack the head keeper, and maybe even try to kill him. Actual fisticuffs, if not more violent actions among the keepers at multimanned stations, were not uncommon. In 1903, the keeper of the Marquette Harbor Lighthouse in Michigan, reported to the district inspector that he was “assaulted and battered in the worst possible manner” by his assistant.
In March of 1890, head keeper Frederick Osborne at Georgia’s St. Simons Island Lighthouse and his assistant keeper John Stevens dueled with pistols over personal matters. Stevens proved to be the better marksman as he fatally shot Osborne. Although Stevens was later acquitted of murder charges, he was dismissed from his job.
Viewers of the recent (and pretty awful) motion picture The Lighthouse may recall the story, set at a very remote lighthouse in the British Isles, of two keepers whose escalating hatred for one another led to a violent encounter that only a Hollywood production could create. This tale of fiction may well have been inspired by a real-life similar situation that happened at the Whale Rock Light Station in Rhode Island when assistant keeper Henry Nygren viciously attacked head keeper Judson Allen in August of 1897.
The Buffalo, New York, Enquirer of August 14, 1897, carried the story. “Whale Rock Lighthouse is in charge of a drunken maniac, the asst. keeper Henry Nyegriffe [sic]. Last evening after drinking heavily all day, he worked himself into a murderous frenzy, attacked Capt. J.S. Allen, the lighthouse keeper, with a carving knife, drove him from the island, pursued him to the mainland in a boat, and only returned when his intended victim succeeded in getting a horse and so making his escape . . . Capt. Allen reached here last night terribly bruised and excited and told the story of his fight and flight. A revenue cutter will be sent to arrest Nyegriffe.” The story apparently made national news, as papers as far away as Troy, Alabama carried items under the headline “Fearful Fight With A Whisky Maniac.”
Actual details that came to light told that Nygren attacked Allen in the lantern room while he was tending to the lamp, slashing his coat. The two men wrestled and Allen managed to kick the knife down the staircase. While Nygren chased after his knife, Allen threw a rope over the side of the tower and climbed down the outside, reaching the bottom as Nygren cut the rope. Allen ran for the boathouse and launched the station rowboat. Nygren had obtained a shotgun and fired several shots after Allen before using the station’s second boat to give chase. Allen was able to beat him to shore and make further escape.
The New York Sun of August 15, 1897 noted that “The Light House Board has telegraphed to the inspector of the Second Light House District to investigate the case of Nyegrinne [sic].” Nygren told the inspector that it was he who had been attacked by Keeper Allen, and that he was only defending himself, but the investigation and report were completed promptly and concluded otherwise. The Brooklyn, New York, Daily Eagle on August 20 reported that “Henry N. Nygren, the assistant keeper of the light house on Whale Rock, who murderously attacked Keeper Allen last Friday night while crazed by drink, has been dismissed from the service of the government.”
EPILOGUE: Lastly, beyond the examples given in this story, some of those appointed as keepers just weren’t cut from the right cloth, or they brought along other baggage to their jobs. The keeper of Maine’s Grindle Point Lighthouse was discharged in 1872 for “having no interest in his duties.” Some couldn’t handle the relative isolation where others accepted and maybe even delighted in it. Why else would men like William Williams have spent twenty-three years on the desolate Maine rock pile called Boon Island, where not even a blade of grass could survive?
There are many reasons why lighthouse keepers had to be “punished” through demotion, transfer, or outright termination due to being of the wrong political party; charging visitors to tour the station; poor record keeping; not getting along with fellow keepers; failing to maintain discipline; incompetence; abandoning the station; making, drinking or selling whiskey; and above all, trying to kill your boss.
Yet, the vast majority of keepers, assistant keepers and their families, who served at our nation’s hundreds of lighthouses over two-plus centuries, were indeed good and loyal stewards of the facilities in their charge and the lighthouse system gained far more than it gave back in terms of financial rewards.
This story appeared in the
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