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.

Point Lookout 1928
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.

cumberland head
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.

Education · Kate's Corner · Keepers · News

KATE’S CORNER #12

Kate Walker here, tending the light on Robbins Reef at the edge of New York Harbor.

Ship Shoal
This screw-pile structure was built in the Gulf of Mexico between 1857 and 1859 to replace the lightship stationed on Ship Shoal. During the Civil War it was occupied by Confederate forces. Retaken by the Union in 1864, the lighthouse was repaired and refitted. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

We’ve heard about the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, being contaminated by lead. Light keepers too had problems with their water supply. On September 24, 1866, Acting Engineer Max Bonzano in New Orleans informed the Light-House Board in Washington that “on Ship Shoal [Light Station] every man ever sent there lost his health, which I attribute to the lead paint on the tower and the contamination of rain water with the oxide in lead.”

How could anyone live in an isolated lighthouse several miles off the Louisiana Coast, knowing the water was contaminated?

The solution to the contamination problem was outlined in the 1867 Annual Report of the Light-House Board:

“The continued presence of sickness among the keepers at this station (Ship Shoal) led to the supposition that it was caused by contamination of the drinking water by lead washed into the rain-water tanks from the red lead paint with which the whole structure was painted. The old lead color was scraped and washed off with a solution of caustic potash. This was so perfectly successful that the whole tower looked like new iron which had never been painted.  The potash solution was then rinsed off, and hot coal-tar applied in three successive coats. . . . At the same time the water tanks, and pipes leading to them, were taken down and cleaned with the greatest care, to remove every particle of sediment. The tanks and pipes were then coal-tarred inside and out, so as to envelop in the tar and render harmless any particles of lead salts which might have escaped the cleaning process.  The result of the operation was that the health of the keeper and his assistants at once improved, and there has been no sickness at the place since. The importance of removing the cause of the sickness prevailing at this place cannot well be overestimated. Several persons have been paralyzed, and this fact becoming known was likely to deter anyone from accepting the position of keeper.”

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyInformation is taken from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 5 (NC-63) and several Annual Reports of the Light-House Board.

Submitted October 10, 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 #9

Kate Walker here. While I was tending the light on Robbins Reef, Margaret Norvell was tending the light at Port Pontchartain on Lake Pontchartain north of New Orleans in Louisiana. She was there from 1896 until 1924, living in a  square, two-story white frame dwelling built on an iron pile foundation, with a slate roof surmounted by a fifth-order black lantern.

Before that assignment she had been at Head of Passes Light Station in the Mississippi Delta, where her keeper husband drowned, leaving her with two small children. Tending the beacon lights at Head of Passes was considered too strenuous for a woman, so Maggie was transferred to Port Pontchartrain.

LA New Canal (5) copy
New Canal (West End) Lighthouse, Louisiana. Postcard courtesy U.S. Lighthouse Society

In 1924 she moved to New Canal Light Station, also on Lake Pontchartain, and stayed until 1932. The New Canal Lighthouse originally stood in the water, but was later surrounded by dry land in Lakefront Park. The water surge off Lake Pontchartrain during Hurricane Katrina destroyed the base of the lighthouse in 2005. Funds were raised to rebuild, and the new lighthouse reopened on April 13, 2013. I wonder if Hurricane Harvey has done any recent damage?

Margaret Norvell was recognized numerous times for assisting other in distress: “In every big hurricane or storm here since 1891, her lighthouse has been a refuge for fishermen and others whose homes have been swept away. In the . . . storm of 1903 Mrs. Norvell’s lighthouse was the only building left standing on the lower coast, and over 200 survivors found a welcome and shelter in her home. After each storm she started the relief funds and helped the poor folk get back to normal.”

Maggie Norvell said, “there isn’t anything unusual in a woman keeping a light in her window to guide men home. I just happen to keep a bigger light than most women because I have got to see that so many men get safely home.”

USCGC Margaret Norvell
A Coast Guard fast response cutter named after Margaret Norvell was launched in June 2013. Photo courtesy U.S. Coast Guard.

You can read Keeper Sidney Z. Gross’s vivid account of the 1938 hurricane at Saybrook Breakwater Light in Connecticut courtesy <lighthousefriends.com>.

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker loresQuotes are from the Morning Tribune, June 26, 1932, and The Times Piscayne, September 27, 1931.

Submitted September 5, 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 #8

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef at the edge of New York Harbor.

All this talk today about immigration. We’re all descended from immigrants. I came from Germany a widow, looking for a better life. My second husband John was an immigrant from Sweden. I met him while I was waiting tables in the boarding house where he ate his meals. He taught me English, then married me and took me to Sandy Hook, where he was assistant keeper. He taught me to tend the light. When he died in 1890, I had to earn my own living, becoming one of the many working-class women who made up one-quarter of all wage-earners in the United States at that time—many of us immigrants or children of immigrants.

s_088_Execution_Rocks_NY_US copy
Richard E. Ray, assistant keeper at Execution Rocks, was one of many lighthouse keepers born outside of the United States. Photo courtesy U.S. Lighthouse Society

Male keepers, like John, were often immigrants as well. I was looking at the 1893 Register of Federal Employees. Of the seventy-some lighthouse keepers in New York State that year, the following were born outside of the U.S.:

  • James G. Scott, keeper at Montauk Point, born in England
  • Michael Karcher, assistant keeper at Little Gull Island, born in Germany
  • Richard E. Ray, assistant keeper at Execution Rocks, born in Ireland
  • Cornelius Doublas, keeper at Stepping Stone, born in Ireland
  • Alexander Ferriera, assistant keeper at Throggs Neck, born in Madiera (I don’t know where Madiera is. Do you?)
  • Henry Harrison, assistant keeper at Sandy Hook, born in Norway
  • Andreas C. Thonning, keeper at Fort Lafayette, born in Denmark
  • Peter Ryerson, assistant keeper on Scotland Light Vessel, born in Norway
  • Charles Miller, assistant keeper at Statue of Liberty, born in Switzerland
  • Henry Poe, keeper at Fire Island, born in England
  • George H. Shaffer, keeper at Schodack Channel, born in Germany
  • James Jenkins, keeper at Cow Island, born in England
  • Patrick Whalen, keeper at Man-o’-War Rock, born in Ireland
  • Dennis McCashin, keeper at Passaic, born in Ireland
  • Andrew S. Allen, assistant keeper at Whitehall Narrows, born in Canada
  • Jeremiah Dinan, keeper at Crown Point, born in Ireland
  • Mitchell Bully, keeper at Plattsburgh Breakwater, born in Canada

These men were over 20% of the total.

Diamond Shoal LV 71 from old Postcard
Lightship No. 71 served the Diamond Shoals Station in 1911. Postcard image courtesy of U.S. Lighthouse Society.

The same was true on light vessels. In July 1911 Master Thomas Jacobson reported that of his 10-man crew on Lightship No. 71, the cook was born in Norway, one of the firemen was born in Russia, and three of the seamen came from Norway, the fourth from Sweden. Five out of ten were immigrants.

I’d say that immigrants were an important resource for the Light-House Board.

Do you know where your ancestors came from?

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker loresInformation found in the 1893 Official Register of the United States containing a List of the Officers and Employees in the Civil, Military, and Naval Service (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1893); and from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 3 (NC-63), “Field Records of the Fifth Light-House District (Baltimore), 1851 – 1912,” Volume 284

Submitted  August 24, 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 #7

Kate Walker here. I kept the light on Robbins Reef in New York Harbor from 1890 to 1919. That’s a lot of years, isn’t it? And don’t forget that the light had to be kept seven days a week, 365 days a year. There were no days off unless you had an assistant keeper or a substitute you could trust to put a lamp in the tower at sunset, replace it when needed during the night, and extinguish it at sunrise. That substitute was often a wife or a child of the keeper. My son Jacob served as my assistant.

williams copy
Elizabeth Williams kept two lights on Lake Michigan. Photo courtesy of Beaver Island Historical Society.

I’m not the only woman to have stayed at my post for a record number of years. Josephine Freeman kept the Blackistone Island Light Station in Maryland on the Potomac River from 1876 until 1912. Harriet Colfax was at the Michigan City Light in Indiana from 1861 until 1904. Ida Lewis was at Lime Rock (later named Ida Lewis Rock) in Rhode Island from 1857 until 1911. Julia Williams kept the Santa Barbara Light in California from 1865 until 1905. Catherine Murdock was at Roundout Creek on the Hudson River in New York from 1857 until 1907. Maria Youngans was at Biloxi Light in Mississippi from 1867 until 1918. Elizabeth Williams was at Beaver Island Harbor Point Light Station from 1872 to 1884 and at Little Traverse Light Station, Michigan, from 1884 to 1913.

Which one of us should get the prize for the longest tenure at a light station?

Was any male keeper at his station longer than these women were? I know about the following men who served many years:

Sedgwick Springs at Bald Head, NC, 1807 – 1837
William Gilley at Bakers Island, ME, 1828 – 1849
Leander White at Cape Elizabeth, ME, 1888 – 1909
Miles Burnham at Cape Canaveral, FL, 1861 – 1885
Enoch Ellis Howard at Ocracoke, NC, 1862 – 1897
William W. Williams at Boon Island, ME, 1885 – 1911
Clinton P. Honeywell at Cape Canaveral, FL, 1891 – 1930
Willis Dolliver at Bass Harbor Head, ME, 1894 – 1921
Peter Rasmusson at St. Augustine, FL, 1901 – 1924
Henry L. Dow at New Point Comfort, VA, 1919 – 1954

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker loresAre there others I should know about? [Please reply to this post in order for your keeper to show up in the comments]

Sources: Dates for female keepers are from Women Who Kept the Lights. Dates for male keepers from <www.lighthousefriends.com>.

Submitted August 15, 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

KATE’S CORNER #3

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?

HAND PUMPHave 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.’

julia (1)
Julia Williams, keeper of the Santa Barbara Light, 1865-1905. Courtesy of Santa Barbara Historical Museum

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?
21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker lores

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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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.

 

Keepers · News

Historic Plymouth lighthouse opens for day of tours

Project Gurnet, a nonprofit, restores and maintains Duxbury Pier Light (Bug Light) and The Plymouth Light Station (Gurnet Light, Fort Andrew and the Keeper’s Cottage). Their event on Saturday took visitors on a path through time with 10 stations manned by Project employees, volunteers and historical reenactors.” — May 27, 2017 Patriot Ledger article by Mary Whitfill: Historic Plymouth lighthouse opens for day of tours

The reenactors portrayed the first keepers of the lighthouse — John and Hannah Thomas. The Massachusetts Bay Colony paid them 5 shillings for the use their land and £200 annually for keeping the light. When General Thomas went off to fight in the Revolutionary War, his wife, Hannah, was left in charge of the light. John never returned, having died of smallpox while in command of the colonial army in Canada, so Hannah was in charge of the station when the new federal government took over colonial lighthouses in 1789.

Salaries of Massachusetts’ lighthouse keepers in 1789. Excerpt from a letter dated October 16, 1789, from Boston Customs Collector and Superintendent of Lighthouses John Rice to Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton. National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 17A

Hannah’s son John took over as keeper in 1790.

Submitted by Candace Clifford, May 30, 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 consider joining 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.