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.
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.
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.
Information 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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