Education · Kate's Corner · Keepers

Kate’s Corner #25

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

Kate Walker at Robbins Reef Lighthouse, from a nineteenth century newspaper

Fog was frequent at Robbins Reef. When I saw it coming, I went down into the deep basement and started the engine that sent out siren blasts from the fog signal at intervals of three seconds. What a huge advance from the cannon that was used as a fog signal at Boston Harbor 200 years ago. Fog bells run mechanically were introduced in the early 1850s. They were operated by a striking mechanism and weight that was raised by either a flywheel or clockwork. Steam-powered whistles were introduced in the late 1850s. In 1866 the reed horn signal powered by a caloric engine was also introduced.


On April 25, 1893, our fog bell was removed and a blower siren was installed, operated by a Priestman engine. This engine only lasted for a few years before a Hornsby-Akroyd oil engine replaced it in 1896. Two years later, a larger trumpet for the fog siren was installed, and the fog-signal apparatus was overhauled and repaired.

Children of Keeper Ralph Norwood atop Boston Light’s fog cannon in the 1930s; photo courtesy of Willie Emerson. This cannon, North America’s first fog signal, went into service in 1718 and is still on display at the lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor.

The siren made so much noise that Jacob and I didn’t even try to sleep.

A siren installed at Alcatraz Light Station in San Francisco Bay caused a storm of complaints from residents who found it grating.

Bakers Island Lighthouse, Salem, Massachusetts. When a powerful new fog siren replaced a fog bell in 1907, the complaints of island residents over the noise were vehement. Eventually, the signal was aimed at the sea through a megaphone, seen above, so that it was barely audible on the island. From the collection of Edward Rowe Snow, courtesy of Dolly Bicknell.

Juliet Nichols tended the Angel Island Light and Fog Signal Station in San Francisco Bay while I was at Robbins Reef. A new striking apparatus was installed on Angel Island in 1905. In 1906 Juliet was watching the fog roll in through the Golden Gate, as it regularly does, and listening to the fog signals start up in the lighthouses on both sides of the channel. She rushed to start her own equipment, only to have the machinery cough into silence. Juliet struck the bell by hand for 20 hours and 35 minutes.

Occasionally my fog horn machinery broke down, and then I climbed to the top of the tower and banged a huge bell. When the men at the nearby lighthouse depot on Staten Island heard the bell, they knew they must visit Robbins Reef and make repairs to the fog signal as soon as wind and weather permitted.

Mechanical fog bells were notorious for breaking down. The mechanical pounding of the bell produced strong vibrations, which caused tension bars and hammer springs to break, even snapping the rope attached to the clockwork weight. Juliet Nichol’s whole career at Angel Island [1902 – 1914] was a battle with fog. Her log recorded periods of fog as long as 80 hours at a time and the many times she was forced to strike the bell by hand.

The fog signal building at Point Knox, Angel Island. (U.S. Lighthouse Society)

On the fourth of July, 1906, the machinery [at Angel Island] went to pieces., the great tension bar broke in two and I could not disconnect the hammer to strike by hand. I stood all night on the platform outside and struck the bell with a hammer with all my might. The fog was dense, with heavy mist, almost rain.

What a way to celebrate Independence Day!


Information is from Clifford, Nineteenth Century Lights, p. 83; National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 1, Volume 755; Annual Report of the U. S. Light-House Board; National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 8 (NC-63); Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights

Kate's Corner · Keepers


Kate Walker here, tending the light on Robbins Reef.

Once a year a lighthouse tender brought six tons of coal to burn in my stoves, a few barrels of oil for the lamps I put in the lantern every night, and a pay envelope. The tenders regularly brought supplies and workmen to make repairs, and the district inspector. My tenure at Robbins Reef was supervised by four inspectors: Inspector Commander Henry F. Pickering from 1890-1895; Inspector Commander A.S. Snow from 1895 to 1912; Inspector Commander C. D. Stearns for first six months of 1912; and in June 1912 Inspector Joseph T. Yates, the first civilian inspector, who served through the rest of my term in 1919.

Keeper George V. Codding (right) with 10th District Inspector Roscoe House in the lantern of the Charlotte-Genessee Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Tag.

Lampists visited every light in their charge at least once a quarter, to accompany the inspector during his tour of inspection, should he require their services, to visit and remain several days at those lights to which new keepers had been appointed, and made frequent inspections of the steam fog-signal in their charge.


The inspector visited all the stations in his district and reported on repairs needed to the tower and buildings; needed renovations and improvements; condition of the station, lantern, illuminating apparatus, and related equipment. Comparisons were made of the interval of flashes and eclipses and their duration, with the intervals given in the Light List. The inspector was responsible for making sure the keeper understood the printed instructions for operating all equipment and other attendant duties. The inspector also reviewed the keeper’s journal and records relating to expenditures, shipwrecks, and vessels passing. The inspector assessed the attention of the keeper to his duties, and his ability to perform them well. Both inspectors and engineers had authority to dismiss a keeper or other employee found in a state of intoxication.

Goat Island Light Station, at the entrance to Cape Porpoise Harbor in Kennebunkport, Maine. National Archives photo 26-LG-2-25.

On August 11, 1887, the Inspector of the 1st Lighthouse District reported that he had inspected Goat Island Light Station, Maine, on July 6, 1887, and found it in an indifferent condition, its dwelling being dirty from top to bottom. The Inspector directed the Keeper s attention to his neglect of duty and instructed him to improve the condition of his station.

When a second inspection was made, the whole station was found in a dirty condition. The lantern and tower appeared not to have been swept or dusted for weeks; the lens was covered with lint and dust, the reflector was dirty and the plate glass of the lantern was streaked with dust and spotted with fly specks. The dwelling was filthy — “offensive,” the Inspector states — to sight and smell. The Board did not consider Keeper John Emerson a competent person for the position he held and asked his removal.

A woman may be more inclined than a man to keep her lighthouse neat and clean. I always looked forward to the inspector s visit because he brought news and told lighthouse stories, which I always enjoyed.

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyInformation is from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 1, Volume 753; Lighthouse Service Bulletins; U.S. Treasury Department, Organization and Duties of the Light-house Board; and Regulations, Instructions, Circulars, and General Orders of the Light-house Establishment of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871); National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 24 (NC-31); and Clifford, Maine Lighthouses, p. 160.

Kate's Corner · Keepers


Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

I think I’ve already mentioned that only a few visitors came to Robbins Reef because they had to come by boat, tie up, and climb my ladder. At other lighthouses that were more accessible, visitors came, often in large numbers. Fame for her rescues of drowning seamen brought visitors to Lime Rock in Newport, Rhode Island, to stare at Ida Lewis. Her wheelchair-bound father entertained himself by counting their numbers — often a hundred a day; nine thousand in one summer alone. The lamp and lens were located in an elevated closet, raised a step or two and reached by a door from the hall. Visitors actually walked through the family’s living quarters to see the light.

Early 1900s postcard Ida Lewis at Lime Rock; from the collection of Jeremy D’Entremont

The 1881 Instructions to Light Keepers tells keepers that visitors to a light station were to be treated courteously and politely, but not allowed to handle the apparatus or carve anything on the lantern glass or tower windows. This meant that visitors could not be allowed in the lantern without a keeper in attendance. Reaching the lantern at Stony

Nancy Rose, from an 1896 newspaper article

Point Lighthouse on the Hudson River involved three sets of steep steps and unlocking doors and trapdoors. Keeper Nancy Rose and her children found the repeated climbing of the stairs and the supervision of large numbers of park visitors trying.

James McCobb, keeper at Burnt Island Light Station in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, wrote in his log on July 7, 1872, “Many strangers looking around the station.” By 1872, Maine had become a popular summer resort for people who could afford to build cottages there, as well as for patients who stayed at pleasant onshore resorts. The steamship companies saw a growing market of less affluent day-trippers, who enjoyed cruising among the many islands and stopping for a picnic and walkabout. A lighthouse was splendid entertainment — a novelty, and a tour of the premises cost nothing.

Burnt Island Light Station in 1885. National Archives image 26-LG-1-52.
James McCobb, courtesy of the Maine Dept. of Marine Resources

On April 13, 1876, McCobb wrote in his log, “All who can are leaving the cities and country back of us are coming to the seashore to enjoy the sea breezes. Very many are visiting this station daily. Some days more than 100 have called and in fact so many that they are becoming a real burden, taking up half my time to wait upon them.”

By August 29, 1878, McCobb’s patience had run out. “Much company here today to see the Light House and to make themselves troublesome generally as they could. Wish the Board would issue one more regulation, and that would be that no more strangers could be admitted into the lantern under no consideration.”

Instruction 18. Keepers must not make any charge, nor receive any fee, for admitting visitors to light-houses.

William Brooks took over as keeper of Cape Neddick Light Station in Maine in 1904. He charged 10 cents to visitors who came to the island; for another 5 cents they could tour the keepers quarters. When the district inspector learned of these activities, the keeper resigned.

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Early 1900s postcard of Keeper William Brooks and his “Nubble ferry.” From the collection of Jeremy D’Entremont.

St. Augustine, Florida, grew as a tourist destination and the lighthouse became increasingly popular among the city’s visitors. In 1901 Keeper Peter Rasmussen reported 1,500 visitors. By 1912 the figure had risen to 8,500, with 5,500 visitors already in the first three months of 1913. He concedes that these numbers are likely inaccurate because “as easily one-fourth gets away with not registering, it being impossible to watch all of them.”

Information is from Women Who Kept the Lights; 1881 Instructions to Light Keepers; and Keeper James McComb’s and Peter Rasmussen’s logs.

21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyU.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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. . . .


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.

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.”

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.

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.