Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #6

Captain Joshua K. Card here. Like many of my contemporary lighthouse keepers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, I was sometimes accused of being a pirate. I can assure you I was nothing of the sort, in spite of my salty appearance. But there was a keeper before me down in Massachusetts who couldn’t shake the reputation of being a pirate.

William S. Moore, a veteran of the War of 1812, was appointed as the first keeper of Bird Island Lighthouse down in Marion, a town in southeastern Massachusetts, when the light went into operation in 1819. The stark little island is less than two acres in size, and it was an ideal place for a lighthouse that would serve to guide mariners into Sippican Harbor and points north.

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Bird Island Lighthouse in 2011; photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Persistent local legend claims that Moore was a pirate who was banished to Bird Island as punishment. Some versions of the story claim that he was left without a boat, with supplies delivered periodically. Since his boat is mentioned frequently in correspondence, this is clearly untrue. In any case, properly functioning lighthouses were vital to safe navigation, and the authorities strove to hire responsible and reliable men. They did not hire accused pirates.

Some accounts claim that Moore murdered his wife—described as a “Boston society girl”—at the lighthouse and disappeared soon after. A rifle was found, supposedly in a secret hiding place along with a bag of tobacco, when the original keeper’s house on Bird Island was torn down in 1889. The gun was believed by some to be the murder weapon. Others have claimed that Moore prevented his ailing wife from seeking medical attention on the mainland, and that she died as a result.

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The plans for Bird Island Lighthouse (National Archives)

Although she is supposedly buried on the island, there is no sign of the grave of Moore’s wife today. With the gun, a note was found, signed by Moore. The note eventually came into the possession of Marion’s longtime town historian H. Edmund Tripp.  It read:

This bag contains tobacco, found among the clothes of my wife after her decease.  It [the tobacco] was furnished by certain individuals in and about Sippican. May the curses of the High Heaven rest upon the heads of those who destroyed the peace of my family and the health and happiness of a wife whom I Dearly Loved.

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Bird Island Lighthouse with its original “birdcage-style” lantern. (National Archives)

Letters from Moore to the local customs collector indicate that the keeper conducted experiments with the heating of whale oil to keep it from freezing in the winter months. He also worked on the development of “air boxes” to be stored on boats to help prevent sinking. Moore wrote that he wanted to remain at Bird Island so he could pursue his various experiments. He explained, “. . . as the keeping of a lighthouse is calculated to afford me more leisure than almost any other employment, I shall give it up with great regret.”

Another far-fetched part of the lore surrounding William Moore is that he disappeared, never to be seen again, shortly after his wife’s death was discovered.  In reality, records clearly show that Moore was assigned to the new Billingsgate Lighthouse near Wellfleet in 1822.  It isn’t clear if he was able to continue his experiments there.

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Bird Island Lighthouse was discontinued in 1933. It was a lucky thing that Keeper George Gustavus and his family left at that time, because the hurricane of September 21, 1938, swept away every building on Bird Island except the lighthouse tower. Sadly for the Gustavus family, they moved to Prudence Island Light Station in Rhode Island, and the keeper’s wife and son died in the hurricane. (U.S. Coast Guard photo)

The truth about Moore will probably never be completely separated from the fantastic legends concerning his life. But his wife really did die on the island, and there are those who say it has been haunted or cursed ever since. Legend has it that some later keepers were frightened by the ghost of a hunched-over old woman, rapping at the door during the night.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, May 4, 2018.

Keepers · Research

Researching Female Lighthouse Keepers

As every historian knows, research is an ongoing process; you are never completely finished. The story is often told and new information comes to light. So it is with my research on female lighthouse keepers. Our book, Women Who Kept the Lights, first published in 1993, keeps expanding as new information is found on these remarkable women who kept lighthouses primarily during the nineteenth century. We produced a third edition in 2013 that includes two new chapters.

So I was surprised and delighted when I noticed a postcard that Linda Keenan had scanned in the Herb Entwistle collection for inclusion in the Society Archives and digital Catalog. (Founding member of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society, Herb amassed an amazing collection of lighthouse postcards that his family has donated to the Society’s Archives.) Linda recognized the significance of this particular postcard of Point Pinos and scanned both the back and front sides shown here.

Point Pinos Lighthouse, California, from the Herb Entwistle collection, Society Archives.
Point Pinos Lighthouse Keeper Emily Fish wrote “I have my efficiency star with commendation for the efficient and conscientious manner in which I have discharged my duties–am so pleased” to Angel Island Lighthouse Keeper Juliet Nichols. 1913 postcard from the Herb Entwistle Collection, Society Archives

The efficiency star intended “to promote efficiency and friendly rivalry among lighthouse keepers, a system of efficiency stars and pennants . . . Keepers who have been commended for efficiency at each quarterly inspection during the year are entitled to wear the inspector’s star for the next year, and those who receive the inspector’s star for three successive years will be entitled to wear the Commissioner’s star…”(Reproduction stars are available in the Keeper’s Locker),

We know that Keeper Emily Fish had a servant and employed laborers for the “heavy work” which included maintaining her large gardens and livestock. And that her son-in-law, district lighthouse inspector Lt. Cdr. Henry E. Nichols, arranged Emily’s appointment in 1893.  But Fish was a very conscientious keeper, keeping an excellent light and dealing with the after-effects of the 1906 earthquake that destroyed much of nearby San Francisco.

Emily’s step-daughter, Juliet Nichols, was the wife of the same inspector who procured Emily’s appointment. Juliet was offered the appointment as keeper of Angel Island’s light and fog signal after her husband’s death. Nichol’s correspondence with the district inspector reflected continued struggles with the fog signal, having to ring it by hand when the striking mechanism failed. Nichols, appointed in 1902, also served during the 1906 earthquake and watched San Francisco burn from her post.

Both Fish and Nichols retired as keepers in 1914, the year after this card was written.

Another female keeper, Julia Williams (pictured here), kept the Santa Barbara Light, California, from 1865 to 1905. Postcard from Herb Enwistle Collection, Society Archives

Submitted by Candace Clifford, Society Historian. Her book, Women Who Kept the Lights, co-authored with Mary Louise Clifford, is available in the Keeper’s Locker.

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Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #5

Captain Joshua K. Card here. I told you a while back about my early days as a keeper in 1860s and ’70s at Boon Island, one of the most isolated and desolate light stations imaginable. But I learned many years ago about a light keeper who had a much more miserable life on a little slab of rock in Maine’s Penobscot Bay known as Saddleback Ledge.

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Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse in July 2013. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Saddleback Ledge is a wave-swept outcropping at the southern entrance to East Penobscot Bay, about four miles from the southeastern corner of the large island of Vinalhaven to the west, three miles from the southwestern coast of Isle au Haut to the east, and more than seven miles to the village of Stonington to the north. The 43-foot granite lighthouse that was built on the ledge in 1839 was designed by a famous architect, Alexander Parris. It was built to last, and it has survived through some of the most brutal storms and seas you can imagine.

The first keeper, Watson Y. Hopkins, a Maine native, moved to the lighthouse with his wife, Abigail, and seven children, ranging in age from infancy to the late teens. The large family crowded into living quarters inside the tower that consisted of a living room with a cooking stove, two bedrooms, and a cellar. Hopkins’ pay was $450 per year.

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Saddleback Ledge Lighthouse circa 1859 (National Archives). The attached wooden building on the left side of the tower was added later, after Keeper Watson Hopkins had left.

In September 1843, Abigail Hopkins gave birth to a baby girl, Margaret, at the lighthouse. A week later, a boat came to the ledge to take the mother and daughter to the mainland. During the transfer to the boat, the baby was dropped briefly into the cold waves. She was quickly plucked out of the water before any serious harm was done.

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Painting of Watson Y. Hopkins (Courtesy of Margo Burns)

Hopkins painted a dismal picture of the living conditions at the lighthouse for the important report to Congress by the engineer I. W. P. Lewis in 1843:

I live with my family in the tower, which is the only building on the ledge. . . . I am obliged to bring my water from shore, a distance of seven miles. . . . We are badly off for room to stow wood and provisions. I have been allowed a boat, but she is entirely unfit for this place, being nothing more than a small dory. . . . The iron railing, which was secured to the rock around the tower, has been all swept away; also, the privy, which was carried away the first storm after its erection. The windows all leak in storms, the shutters having no rebates in the stone work. . . .

 

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A woman is hoisted onto Saddleback Ledge using the landing derrick installed in 1885. (Vinalhaven Historical Society)

It would seem that there was not a multitude of candidates fighting over Hopkins’ position at Saddleback, because he amazingly stayed in the position for a full decade, living with his family in those three little rooms.

When Hopkins and his family left Saddleback Ledge in 1849, he bought land and built a home on Arey’s Neck on Vinalhaven, within sight of the lighthouse. I doubt that he ever looked in that direction. The 1850 census identified the former lighthouse keeper as a farmer.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, April 22, 2018.

 

 

 

 

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #4

When last we met I was telling you about Keeper William C. Williams, the longtime keeper of bleak and isolated Boon Island Lighthouse off the southern Maine coast.

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A summer gathering in front of the keepers’ house at Boon Island in the early 1900s. Notice the flower garden in the foreground. William C. Williams is standing at the far right; his son, Charles is to his immediate right. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

Getting on and off the island was hard enough in calm conditions, but frequently a risky proposition when the seas grew heavy. On one occasion in April 1890, Williams and his wife, with two workmen, set out for Portsmouth in a sailboat. The vessel was overturned by a sudden squall near Gerrish Island in Kittery. The four passengers managed to cling to the boat until a schooner from Rockland rescued them. Not long after that, the government mercifully made Boon Island a “stag station,” meaning the male keepers were the only residents much of the year. The families still spent much of the summer on the island.

In an attempt to brighten up the island in summer, Williams brought barrels and boxes of soil out from the mainland every spring so that the families could enjoy a small flower garden during the summer. With the next winter’s gales, the soil would always be washed away. “I did not care so much about it myself, “ Williams said later, “but it was hard for the children who passed the vacation months and were so interested in seeing flowers in bloom.”

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Keeper William C. Williams (far right) with his wife, Mary Abbie Williams, and other on the island in the early 1900s. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

The keeper’s son, Charles, served as an assistant keeper for the better part of a decade. During a shore visit in December 1900, Charles Williams described a storm that had swept the island a few days earlier. He had stood watch through the night in the tower, and he said that it seemed that the tower would topple over. The lighthouse shook, he said, with such violence that his teeth chattered involuntarily.

One of William C. Williams’s grandchildren, Mary Luther Lewis, later wrote an article about life on Boon Island. The keepers took turns keeping watch, she recalled, with rotating shifts. As a girl, Mary loved to roller-skate on the island’s boardwalks. Summer visitors from York were frequent, and her grandmother often made fish chowder for them. The family liked to sit on the rocks outside to eat their lunch, which typically consisted of lobsters and lemonade.

Mary Luther Lewis’s daughter, Eunice Lewis Evans, later wrote down some of the stories passed to her by her mother. Chores assigned to the children included dusting and polishing the brass in the house, picking caterpillars from the flowers, and killing flies. (They were paid a penny per caterpillar or fly.) Keeper Williams had a lobster trap for each of his grandchildren, and the money made from the catch was added to their bank accounts. There would be an evening church service, and everyone was in bed by 8:00 p.m. to be ready to start the next day at 5:00 a.m.

When Robert Thayer Sterling wrote about William C. Williams in Kittery after his retirement, he observed, “To walk about his front yard without risk of being washed into the sea is a pleasure, and with that comes contentment.” Williams, one of the best-known lighthouse keepers in Maine, died in 1939 at the age of 93.

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The keepers’ house at Boon Island, badly damaged by a blizzard in 1978, was subsequently demolished by the Coast Guard. The lighthouse is owned today by Bobby Sager, chairman of Polaroid. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, April 1, 2018.

Kaptain's Kolumn · Keepers · News

The Kaptain’s Kolumn #3

I thought you might like to hear a little about my good friend, William Converse Williams, who was one of the most respected lighthouse keepers in Maine history. During the years I was at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Hampshire, he was just up the coast at remote Boon Island, a miserable little pile of rocks six miles off the southern Maine coast.

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William C. Williams and his wife, Mary Abbie. Courtesy of William O. Thomson.

Williams (I always knew him as Willie) was a native of Kittery, Maine, and he went to Boon Island as second assistant keeper in 1885. He advanced to first assistant in late 1886, and then became principal keeper on November 21, 1888. He went on to serve 23 years in the position, earning $760 yearly without a single raise.

Williams, who worked in construction as a young man, married Mary Abbie Seaward of Kittery. They had three children: Charles, Lucia Mabel, and Bertie (who died in childhood). A 1926 newspaper article described Williams: “He was a tall, spare, man, dignified, and a refined gentleman of the old school. He had a soft, low voice, and his language was marvelous for its simplicity and purity. He had an optimistic disposition, nothing ever worried him and he never got excited. He was neat and methodical even in performing the simplest task.”

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William C, Williams in the keeper’s house at Boon Island. Courtesy of Jim Claflin.

At the age of 90, Captain Williams recounted his experiences at Boon Island to Robert Thayer Sterling, author of Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Keep Them. Williams had many pleasant times at Boon Island, but he recalled the danger of the job:

There were days when I first went on the station that I could not get away from the idea that I was the same as locked up in a cell. . . . All we had was a little stone house and a rubblestone tower. When rough weather came we didn’t know as it would make much difference as to whether we went into the tower or not, for a safe place. The seas would clean the ledge right off sometimes. It was a funny feeling to be on a place and know you couldn’t get off if you wanted to, and tidal waves was all the talk in the early days. I was a young fellow and had never been placed in such a situation. When the terrible seas would make up and a storm was in the offing, I was always thinking over just what I would do in order to save my life, should the whole station be swept away.

Williams described the experience of keeping watch in the tower during bad weather:

There was no lounging place at the top of the tower, only an old soap box or camp stool for a seat. As you set there [sic] just watching your light, all the enjoyment you got was hearing the wind making a cottonmill din around the lantern. With such a noise and being so many feet up from the ground, the seas battering the rocks down below is utterly drowned out. . . . One can hardly believe that after a storm you would find the big plate glass windows of the lantern covered with salt spray, at that distance in the air. After some storms the spray on the glass would be so thick and dimmed with bird feathers it would require a whole day to clean things up before lighting-up time.

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Boon Island is nothing more than a barren jumble of rocks, just a few feet above sea level. The 1855 granite lighthouse, at 133 feet, is the tallest lighthouse in the New England region. (Collection of the author)

In an 1888 storm, Williams and the others on the island had to take refuge at the top of the lighthouse tower for three days. Compared to this storm, said the keeper, the famous Portland Gale of November 1898 was “just a breeze.” In a January 1896 storm, Williams and his wife again took shelter in the tower as high seas completely surrounded the dwelling.

The Portsmouth Herald published vivid details of another gale that began on January 31, 1898. The temperature was two below zero, and thick ice formed on the lighthouse and other buildings. The ice was so thick that the fires in the stoves inside the dwellings had to be extinguished for a time because the chimneys were blocked. For nearly 24 hours the winds blew at 75 to 100 miles per hour. The seas moved two water tanks, each weighing approximately four tons, about 75 feet. “It was the hardest night we ever passed,” said Williams, “and no one slept on the island the entire night.” Williams called the unusual sight of the island completely encased in ice “one of the grandest sights” he had ever witnessed. The oil house belfry that held the fog bell was so clogged with ice that it took several hours of chopping with axes to get the bell working again.

In my next column I will tell you more about Captain Williams’s amazing adventures at Boon Island.

Submitted by Jeremy D’Entremont, March 19, 2018.

International Lighthouses · Keepers · News

Happy New Year from Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse

Maatsuyker Island, Tasmania, population 2. Photo by Taylor

Maatsuyker Island Lighthouse Keepers Taylor and Jesse sent along these photos of the light station they are keeping on Maatsuyker Island, Tasmania (Australia). They are on this isolated island for six months taking care of the station. In addition to the tower, there are three large houses on Maatsuyker, all built in 1890/1891. There are a host of outbuildings too. They maintain and repair everything as needed. The lighthouse was a first-order light and the lens is still in place although it has been decommissioned and replaced by a modern light in a different location.

Approaching weather. The couple reports they have been buffeted by gale force winds for two weeks straight in the windiest place in Australia. Photo by Taylor

The couple are really enjoying their light-keeping experience and seeking in other care-taking opportunities/employment around the world. They have a website and an instagram page for those who want to follow their adventures.

Submitted by Jesse Siebler, December 31, 2017

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to candace@uslhs.org.

Education · Kate's Corner · Keepers · News

KATE’S CORNER #13

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Wives and children of keepers generally assisted in tending the light so that the keeper could hunt or fish, fetch supplies from the nearest town, or perhaps supplement his meager salary by acting as a pilot or keeping a post office. Families provided free labor for the lighthouse service, which allowed small stations on enclosed bodies of water—the Chesapeake Bay, the Hudson River, Long Island Sound, Lake Champlain, the Great Lakes, Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana—to be attended by only one keeper. These were called “family stations.”

The first woman who received an official light keeper’s appointment on the Chesapeake Bay was Ann Davis. Her husband James was the first keeper of Point Lookout Light Station at the Potomac River entrance in Maryland. Appointed in 1830, he died just a few months later. His wife replaced him at a salary of $350 per year, and kept the light until 1847.

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Point Lookout Lighthouse on Chesapeake Bay in Maryland in 1928. The second story and porches were added in 1883. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

In 1857 Sarah Thomas replaced her deceased husband George at Cove Point Light Station at the entrance to the Patuxent River, Maryland, serving until 1859. She tended a lamp with concentric wicks in a new fifth-order Fresnel lens, installed in 1855 to replace the 11 lamps with reflectors on a chandelier.

In 1863 Esther O’Neill replaced her deceased husband John as keeper at Concord Point (Havre de Grace) Light Station at the entrance to the Susquehanna River, Maryland, remaining there until 1881. Esther was the eighth keeper in a single family that tended Concord Point Light Station for several decades.

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The Tabberrah family at Cumberland Head around 1880. Photo made from a tintype belonging to Emma’s grandson, Arthur Hillegas.

Emma Tabberrah kept the Cumberland Head Light on Lake Champlain, New York, while I was at Robbins Reef. Her husband was a disabled Civil War veteran with a lead bullet lodged in his hip. Surgery to remove the bullet led to an infection that killed him in 1904. Emma had always helped him keep the light and won the keeper’s appointment. Two daughters assisted her.

I think often how Emma and I would have been impoverished had we not been appointed keepers. After John died, I kept Robbins Reef for four years, paid only a laborer’s wage, while the Light-House Board sought a male keeper. When I finally received the appointment in 1894 with its $600 annual salary, I counted my blessings.

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyInformation on Ann Davis is from F. Ross Holland, Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay. Information on Sarah Thomas is from Clifford, Nineteenth Century Lights, p. 3. The O’Neill genealogy appears in a brochure published by the Friends of the Concord Point Lighthouse. Information on Emma Taberrah provided by her grandson, Arthur B. Hillegas. Information on Kate Walker from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 1 (NC-63).

Submitted October 25, 2017

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U.S. Lighthouse Society News is produced by the U.S. Lighthouse Society to support lighthouse preservation, history, education and research. Please join the U.S. Lighthouse Society if you are not already a member. If you have items of interest to the lighthouse community and its supporters, please email them to candace@uslhs.org.