Education · Kate's Corner · News

KATE’S CORNER #21

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Let me dispel a bit of misinformation that is circulating, prompted by self-appointed experts who never check the accuracy of their assumptions. ​As far as I’ve been able to research, women who kept the lights were paid the same salary as male keepers. My husband John was paid $600 a year; ​and when I finally received his appointment, ​I was paid $600 a year. With their housing provided, in the 1890s a family could live, frugally, on less than $2 a day.

Kate first served as a laborer when her husband John died.  When no one else permanently accepted the position, they offered it to her.​ National Archives microfilm publication M1373
Salaries have changed over the years. The first woman who received an official  keeper’​s appointment on the Chesapeake Bay was Ann Davis, appointed in 1830 at Point Lookout Light Station at the Potomac River entrance. She received a salary of $350 per year.
Ann​ requested a salary increase in 1842 through the local customs collector who supported her request. Apparently her request was denied, she was reportedly earning $350 in 1847.
Although Alcatraz keeper Michael Kassin’s salary was increased from $700 to $1,100 in 1854, he soon resigned.  The salary reduced from $1,100 to $800 in 1859 and continued to fluctuate. National Archives photo.

The Gold Rush in 1849 in California led to a steep increase in everyone’s salary on the West Coast because skilled labor became very hard to find. After several vessels experienced difficulty in the waters along the West Coast, Congress passed acts in 1850 and 1851 that provided funds for eight lighthouses to be built along the Pacific Coast. Light from a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens was first shown from Alcatraz Lighthouse on June 1, 1854, with Michael Kassin ​eventually ​receiving an annual salary of $1,100 as head keeper and John Sloan being paid $700 to serve as his assistant.

During the Civil War average principal keeper salaries elsewhere had increased to $500-$600 a year. But in remote stations like Cape Flattery in Washington State and Minots Ledge in Maine or dangerous locations like Frying Pan Shoals Light Vessel in North Carolina and Martin’s Industry Light Vessel in South Carolina principal keepers received $1,000 a year. Betsy ​Humphrey who assumed her husband’s position on Monhegan Island in Maine in 1862, was paid the same salary as her husband—$820. In 1876 she was reappointed at a reduced salary of $700. All salaries fell back closer to the average after the war. In 1896 Margaret Norvell at Port Pontchartain Light Station in Louisiana received the same salary I did.
The reduction of Betsy’s salary at Monhegan Island could also have been triggered by reduction in her duties. In 1870, her fog bell was replaced by a steam fog signal on nearby Manana Island which had its own keeper. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

As I’ve already told you, I earned $600 a year in 1894. Emma Taberrah, who in 1904 was appointed keeper of the Cumberland Head Light Station, earned only $480, but she was keeping a minor station on Lake Champlain in Upstate New York and did not tend a fog signal.

Cumberland Head ca. 1910 courtesy of the Herb Entwistle Collection.

In 1918 Congress decreed that the average salary for light keepers should be $840. These salaries were supplemented by food supplies brought by tender to locations where there was no suitable land for gardening or keeping livestock.

Information is from F. Ross Holland, Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland Historical Trust Press and The Friends of St. Clements Island Museum, 1997); <Lighthousefriends.com>; Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights​ (available from the Keeper’s Locker); and Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 7, July 1918.

Submitted May 10, 2018

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