Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef on the edge of New York harbor.
Before John Walker brought me to Robbins Reef, he was assistant keeper at Sandy Hook Light Station. There we had a well to supply our drinking water. Robbins Reef sits on a huge rock ledge, surrounded by deep water. No place for a well. We depend on rain water, which runs off the roof into gutters that direct it to a cistern in the base of the lighthouse.
Is ‘cistern’ a familiar term to you? These water barrels come in all shapes and sizes. How much water do you think a keeper and his family would require every day? They had no flush toilets until late in the 19th century. For what other needs did they require fresh water? Would you like to do laundry by hand using water hand-pumped out of a cistern and heated on a wood stove?
Have you ever seen an old fashioned hand pump? If you live in a city, probably not. Country folks who have a well can still buy such a pump from Amazon.com.
Kathleen Moore, who kept Black Rock Harbor Light off Bridgeport, Connecticut, said that she too “had to depend on rain for our water, . . .. We tried a number of times to dig for water, but always struck salt.” Salt water is not ‘potable.’
At the Santa Barbara Light in California not enough rain fell to fill the cistern. Keeper Julia Williams saddled a horse, took her baby in her arms, and, followed by her two little girls, rode a mile to a spring to bring home cans of water slung across the saddle of her horse.
The keepers at Matagorda Island in Texas also relied on cisterns. The nearest well was three miles away. Water was needed for family use and also to run the steam engine that powered the fog signal. The cistern at Matagorda Island, destroyed in an 1887 storm, was replaced by two new ones with a 3,402-gallon capacity. You wouldn’t worry about running out of water if you had that much.
How much water does your household use each day?
Information from the New York Sunday World, 1889; Annual Report of the Light-House Board; National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 35 (NC-31) Volume 283, “Light-House Letters.”
Submitted July 12, 2017
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