St. Croix’s Hams Bluff Lighthouse: A Study in Neglect

Article and photos by Michael Salvarezza and Christopher P. Weaver
© 2016 Eco-Photo Explorers
Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
The hike to the Hams Bluff Lighthouse is a moderate one. Photo courtesy of authors.

The road seemed almost impassable: deep ruts, numerous potholes, nonexistent markings, very spotty pavement and pools of water were presenting a challenge not only to the suspension on our car but to our spinal cords! We began to question how the local government could even assign a number (route 63) to this road!

We were on the island of St. Croix, a United States territory with a distinctly Caribbean feel. Our destination was the seldom-visited Hams Bluff Lighthouse. After miles of steadily deteriorating road conditions, we arrived at the end of Route 63 and parked in front of the National Guard facility. The rest of the way would be on foot.

Hams Bluff VI ca 1936 HABS LOC 050083pv
Hams Bluff Lighthouse ca. 1936. HABS photo courtesy of Library of Congress

The hike to the Hams Bluff Lighthouse is a moderate one. In the tropical heat and humidity it is important to take water and to take breaks along the way. The trail to the lighthouse is all uphill for about 30 minutes, winding its way through brush, tall grass, and tropical forest. Because the conditions on the trail vary greatly, it’s a good idea to wear sturdy footwear and long pants. Sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and insect repellent are highly recommended.

Before long, though, the canopy of vegetation gives way to blue sky and this is the sign that you have almost reached the summit of the bluff. Rounding a final turn in the trail, we caught our first glimpse of the Hams Head Lighthouse.

Our hearts dropped.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
St. Croix’s Hams Bluff Lighthouse. Photo courtesy of the authors
Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
Rust detail on exterior. Photo courtesy of authors

There before us was the rusting hulk of this once handsome and useful lighthouse. Standing on a cement platform, the 35-foot tower stood in the baking sun atop this bluff overlooking the Caribbean Sea and its deteriorating condition was immediately evident. Huge streaks of rust stains ran down its sides, the rails on the cupola were broken in spots and several areas of the tower had completely decayed through to the inside.

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Interior with stairs. Photo courtesy of the authors

The door was ajar and we could make our way inside to a dank, soggy interior. The floor consisted of a crunchy layer of fallen iron and steel flakes, and the walls were all desecrated with thoughtless graffiti. A short ladder led to the second level of the lighthouse, and once upstairs we were reluctant to walk around for fear of falling through the rapidly crumbling floor. We could see from this level, however, the wonderful views of the sea and the bluff, and could easily imagine the usefulness of this lone sentinel when it was in operation.

The Hams Bluff Lighthouse was built in 1915 by the Danish government, who owned this island at the time, and was originally operated by lighthouse keeper A.L.F.L. Madsen.

The lighthouse was constructed with cast iron on a concrete foundation and was originally painted white with a black cupola. It was built atop the Hams Bluff, which rises to a height of about 360 feet above sea level, to help mariners navigate safely around the west end of the island and into Fredericksted Harbor. Shortly after it was built, the Danish West Indies were sold to the United States. St. Croix, along with St. Thomas and St. John, became United States territories and at this point the U.S. Coast Guard took over operation of the lighthouse. In the mid-1990s, the lighthouse was deactivated.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
In 2010, a skeleton tower was built alongside the abandoned lighthouse and it currently operates two white flashes every 30 seconds. Photo courtesy of the authors

We stood on the bluff with the cooling breeze coming up over the hills from the water. It felt good after our strenuous and sweaty climb to this point. The views of nearby Annaly Bay and Davis Bay were stunning. But we could not shake the melancholy feeling of sadness over the condition of this poor, once proud lighthouse. Clearly it has been deteriorating for years in the harsh salty environment atop the bluff. With every hour of searing tropical sun we could imagine another flake of iron falling off the side of the tower. Neglected, forgotten, abandoned this lighthouse will soon crumble into the soil of the bluff. There have been some efforts to preserve this remnant of history but so far nothing has really resulted in any progress.

Honestly, we wonder if it’s too far gone anyway at this point.

The area surrounding and including the bluff has another, darker component of history that is also fading away into the recesses of time. Maroon Ridge is the geological feature that the area takes its name from, and during the time of Danish ownership of the island, a community of slaves was known to be here in an area the Danes referred to as Maroonberg. According to historical accounts, a particularly brutal form of slavery was operated on St. Croix, with runaway slaves severely and publically beaten and tortured. Runaways often headed for this remote area and used it as a way to leave for Puerto Rico. Thousands fled the plantations in search of freedom, and many would eventually pass through Maroon Ridge. Many were recaptured by the Danes, but many more committed suicide rather than face recapture. Documents indicate that only 300 brave and desperate slaves ever made it to Puerto Rico and to freedom.

Eco-Photo Explorers - Lighthouse Image Collection
The view from the lantern room. Photo courtesy of authors

We sat in silence, our thoughts wandering through the pages of the past to imagine a time when lighthouse keepers tended to this lighthouse and mariners depended upon its service. We contemplated the desperation of the runaway slaves who passed through here long before this lighthouse had ever been built. And we were struck by the history that lies embedded in these hills and forests, a history that is fading with each passing year.

We then stood up, bid the lighthouse good bye and began our hike down the bluff and back to our car. Along the way, a tear mixed with our sweat and dropped to the forest floor, a token of our concern for this neglected lighthouse on St. Croix and a measure of our respect for the slaves who passed through these hills. As we walked away, we stole one final glance at the lighthouse that still maintains its dignity despite years of neglect. And we wished it well.

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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


Grants for Lighthouse Preservation Now Available

DEADLINE REMINDER: Letters of Intent are due March 24, 2017

U.S. Lighthouse Society News

The 2017 cycle for the U.S. Lighthouse Society’s Lighthouse Preservation Grants Program has begun. Letters of Intent must be received by March 24, 2017. Potential projects can relate to either preservation execution (i.e., “capital” or “bricks and mortar” projects) or preservation planning (i.e., “non-capital” projects); for example, research at National Archives, designs, drawings, assessments, surveys, etc. Grants up to $10,000 are available.

spring-point-ledge-me-2009-chad-kaiser-3-copy In 2016 a $9,000 grant was awarded to the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse Trust in Maine to support replacing the lantern vent ball on the breakwater lighthouse and repairing damage in the lantern caused by water intrusion. 2009 photo by Chad Kaiser.

After an initial review by the Grants Committee, applicants will be informed by May 7, 2017, of their acceptance and will be asked to provide a full application by June 19, 2017. For more information on program guidelines and selection criteria see

In 2016 a total of…

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Awards · News · Society Members

Ralph Eshelman Receives Ross Holland Award

Mike Vogel presents Ross Holland award to Ralph Eshelman 2017 JCC lores
Ralph Eshelman receives Ross Holland award from Mike Vogel, chair of the American Lighthouse Council, during the recent U.S. Lighthouse Society Board meeting.

Established by the American Lighthouse Council to recognize truly exceptional contributions by an individual or group, the Holland Award is the major national honor bestowed by the lighthouse preservation community. It is named for Francis Ross Holland, Jr., who received the initial Distinguished Service Award that was to henceforth carry his name.

Ralph Eshelman receives Holland award 2017 JCC lores
Ralph Eshelman with Ross Holland award.

Dr. Eshelman was presented the Holland Award during a recent U.S. Lighthouse Society Board meeting. Mike Vogel, chair of the American Lighthouse Council, read the following citation:

Ralph Eshelman got involved in lighthouse preservation in 1975 when, a year after he was appointed the first director of the Calvert Marine Museum, he led the team that moved Maryland’s 1883 Drum Point Lighthouse ashore for an accurate and meticulous three-year restoration and interpretation effort. He has been deeply involved in the movement ever since, making exceptional contributions to a lighthouse community that has benefitted deeply from his expertise, advice and leadership.

A geologist, paleontologist, polar tour and expedition guide, lecturer and the author of five books on the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake Theater, Ralph has served as a trustee of the Maryland Historical Trust and in 1996 wrote that organization’s Lighthouse Preservation and Interpretation Plan. He also authored a context theme study and National Register nomination for 17 light stations in Maryland, and at the national level served as historian on several federal assessment teams that surveyed 31 historic lighthouses throughout the United States, co-authored the Maritime Heritage of the United States National Historic Landmark Theme Context Study for Lighthouses for the National Park Service, and prepared National Landmark nominations for three masonry lighthouses including Cape Hatteras.

Ralph was the historian for the team that wrote the Historic Lighthouse Preservation Handbook for the National Park Service and Coast Guard in 1997, and that year was one of three lighthouse leaders who formed the National Lighthouse Museum Steering Committee. He served as the committee’s president as it developed the national museum concept and also formed the American Lighthouse Coordinating Committee, later renamed the American Lighthouse Council. He remained active in both of those organizations, serving as a vice president of the developing lighthouse museum.

A past president of the Council of American Maritime Museums and founding vice president of the National Maritime Preservation Task Force of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Ralph is an owner of a cultural resource management consultancy firm, a consultant to the National Park Service and the founding principal of a lighthouse preservation firm. A veteran member of the United States Lighthouse Society’s board of directors, he has played a leading role in the development of the Society’s Strategic Plan and grants program, and most recently has led the Society’s assessment of the Alcatraz Lighthouse in California as a step toward preservation and interpretation of that light in cooperation with state and federal agencies. His expertise, invaluable advice and outstanding leadership is recognized by this presentation of the H. Ross Holland Award, the lighthouse preservation movement’s highest lifetime honor.

Ralph Eshelman award at 2017 USLHS Board Mtg JCC lores
U.S. Lighthouse Society Board members Henry Gonzalez, Bill Merlin, Tom Tag, Ralph Eshelman, Mike Vogel, Wayne Wheeler, and Elinor DeWire during the award presentation on March 18, 2017.

Submitted by Candace Clifford with citation provided by Mike Vogel, March 21, 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

Event · News · Overnight Accommodation

First Annual Heceta Head Lightstation Birthday Party Scheduled for March 30

Heceta Head Lightstation is celebrating 123 years of the First Order Fresnel Lens shining its light on the Oregon Coast on March 30th from 4 to 7 pm.

Heceta Head OR photo by Curt Peters of Digital Dunes Photography in Florence, OR lores
Heceta Head Light Station courtesy of Curt Peters of Digital Dunes Photography, Florence, Oregon

Birthday Party sponsors, Travel Lane County, will be providing warm drinks and cupcakes.  Taylor Sausages will be serving hot dogs, and Destination Events has donated a popcorn machine! Local musicians Marty Adams, Sea Strings, and High Tide will perform at the historic Keeper’s House. State Park and U.S. Forest Service interpretive docents will be giving tours of the lighthouse and light keeper’s house, and informative talks about this gorgeous coast line.

Bring your camera to have your photo taken on the front porch with the lighthouse in the background to commemorate this fun community supported family event. The Gift Shop will also be open and newly stocked with amazing souvenirs and informative books and videos. Bring your lighthouse passports to be stamped!

Entry to the Keeper’s House is free but donations are gladly accepted. Parking is available at the Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic View Point, just below the Keeper’s House, and NW Adventures Quest will shuttle visitors from the park right to the front door.  Or enjoy the beautiful spring walk up from the beach to the festivities. Parking at the viewpoint is $5.00 per vehicle.

Heceta Head
Heceta Head Light Station courtesy of Curt Peters of Digital Dunes Photography, Florence, Oregon

You can support the Restoration of the Lightstation and the Birthday Party events by entering the raffle. Win a free night’s stay at the Bed & Breakfast as well as great prizes from local artists and businesses.

If you would like more information please contact the Heceta Lighthouse B&B at (866), or visit our website,

Submitted by Misty Anderson, Inn Manager and Event Coordinator, Heceta Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast, March 13, 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

News · Preservation · Tours

Preservation of Thomas Point Shoal Light Station

thomas_point_shoal-loresThe Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society has done an amazing job restoring both the exterior and interior of Thomas Point Shoal Light Station, the last intact screwpile lighthouse that remains in its original location in the Chesapeake Bay not far from Annapolis. Visitors can enjoy tours of this landmark structure during the summer and fall.

Bob Stevenson, the Chapter’s education coordinator, recently shared these wonderful photos of the restored interior. The kitchen and sitting room reflect the period when the lighthouse was administered by the U.S. Light-House Board around the turn of the 20th century, and the office shows the period after the U.S. Coast Guard took over in 1939.

Thomas Point MD Kitchen 2016 photo by Bob Stevenson loresThomas Point MD Sitting_Room 2016 photo by Bob Stevenson loresCBF_VIP_Tour-23

In 2017, tours of the lighthouse will be offered at 9:00 a.m. and 12:00 noon on June 10, July 1, July 15, July 29, August 5, August 19, September 2, September 9, September 30, and October 7.

Visitors should contact the U.S. Lighthouse Society for reservations. (Society members get a $10 discount.) These are “adventure tours” requiring agility and safe footwear. A mandatory safety video explains all this. See for more information on reserving your tour and to learn more about the history of the light station.

Submitted by Candace Clifford with photos and tour details from Bob Stevenson, March 11, 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

News · Research · Society Members · Weather Bureau

Coastal Storm Warning Display at Whitehead Island, Maine

You may have read the recent sidebar on the storm warning signal towers at Cape Elizabeth in the “From the Archives” column in the last issue of the 2016 Keeper’s Log. Society Member David Gamage provided the following article on the storm warning signal tower at Whitehead Island, Maine. He also provided a copy of the Instructions for Storm Warning Displaymen for the Society’s Archives. 

The U.S. Weather Bureau provided a storm-warning display at Whitehead Island, Maine, following the installation of a telephone line from the mainland to the White Head Life-Saving Station in 1884. This phone enabled the communication necessary for timely display of the storm warnings.

Whitehead Island is located at the entrance to the Muscle Ridge Channel, a favored route in and out of the West Penobscot Bay for sailing vessels and steamships. The 1903 U. S. Coast Pilot listed seven other Maine storm signal sites at Eastport, West Quoddy Head, Machiasport, Bangor, Marshall Point Light, Boothbay Harbor, and Portland.

Storm warning signal tower and lookout tower on Whitehead Island. Photo courtesy David Gamage

The Lighthouse Service approved a display flagpole near the Whitehead lighthouse at the eastern end of the island in 1887. In 1903 the Weather Bureau received permission to erect a storm warning display tower at the site of this display pole. The new iron skeletal tower was about 56 feet high and had a 24-foot telescoping metal pole extending upward from the tower apex. The top of this pole was 80 feet above the tower base and 155 feet above sea level. Attached to the pole near the apex was a lantern hoist sheave mount and at the bottom was the lantern-hoisting drum. Lanterns were suspended on a 5/16-inch cable. A metal building to store flags, lanterns and lantern fuel sat at the tower base.

A displayman employed by the Weather Bureau was responsible for hoisting and lowering the warning flags as needed and for maintaining the equipment.The displayman also maintained a lens lanterns which, when lit, produced a night signal. Instructions to hoist or to lower the storm warning flags and lanterns were received by telephone from Rockland; these instructions having been sent to Rockland by telegraph from the regional Weather Bureau office in Portland.

The displayman was required to submit a monthly record of wind signal displays to the Weather Bureau. This report included observations as to whether the actual wind direction and strength differed from the forecast as well as notations as to benefits derived by shipping interests, particularly for severe storms and hurricanes.

The first known displayman at Whitehead was Charles Shea, son of the life-saving station keeper. Shea also served as an alternate surfman at the life-saving station. Shea was the displayman until his death in September 1905. His widow Ida Shea replaced him.

Later the Whitehead principal light keeper became the displayman. Keeper Elmer Reed assumed the extra duties of hoisting the weather signals at Whitehead Light on July 27, 1917, for $120 a year. The Weather Bureau employed subsequent head keepers for this service until the early 1930s when the Weather Bureau discontinued the Whitehead Island storm signal display.

Another view of the Whitehead Island light station with the storm warning signal tower in the background. Photo courtesy of David Gamage

When mariners saw the Weather Bureau storm warning signals, they knew to wait out the storm in port or, when at sea, to seek a place of refuge. Unquestionably, these signals were of great benefit in terms of saving life and property.

Submitted by David Gamage, March 3, 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

Keepers · Lifesaving Service · News

Celebrating Ida Lewis

Ida Lewis. National Archives photo 26-LG-69-60

Today is Ida Lewis’s 175th birthday. Google has marked the occasion with a google doodle. Ida was famous in her day for her numerous lifesaving rescues at Lime Rock Light Station in Newport, Rhode Island. She received a gold lifesaving medal in 1881 and Lime Rock was renamed in her honor in 1924.

Idawalley Zorada Lewis, called Ida, was born in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1842. Her father, Captain Hosea Lewis, was a coast pilot whose health was declining. In 1853 he became the first keeper of nearby Lime Rock beacon on a tiny island a third of a mile from the shore of Newport. At first there was only a temporary lantern and a rough shed that provided shelter when the keeper was on the island in bad weather. Lewis’s family remained in the old part of Newport until 1857, when a Greek Revival building with a hip roof was constructed on the island. Lewis moved his family into the lighthouse when Ida, his eldest child, was 15.

Hosea Lewis had been at Lime Rock less than four months when he was stricken by a disabling stroke. Like many wives and daughters of lighthouse keepers before and after, Ida expanded her domestic duties, now increased by the care of her invalid father and a seriously ill sister, to include the care of the light—filling the lamp with oil at sundown and again at midnight, trimming the wick, and extinguishing the light at dawn. All these responsibilities precluded further formal education for Ida.

Since Lime Rock was completely surrounded by water, the only way to reach the mainland was by boat. In the mid-nineteenth century it was highly unusual for a woman to handle a boat, but Ida, the oldest of four children, rowed her siblings to school every weekday and fetched needed supplies from the town. The wooden boat was heavy, but she became very skillful in handling it. (An article in Harper’s Weekly, written after Ida had made several daring rescues, debated whether it was “feminine” for women to row boats, but concluded that none but a “donkey” would consider it “unfeminine” to save lives.) Ida was also reputed to be the best swimmer in all Newport.

Lime Rock Light Station was renamed Ida Lewis Rock in 1924. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office
In 1924 the Rhode Island legislature officially changed the name of Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. The Lighthouse Service changed the name of the Lime Rock Light Station to the Ida Lewis Rock Light Station—the only such honor ever paid to a keeper. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

Ida’s skill at the oars was regularly tested. During her first year at Lime Rock, four young men who were out sailing nearly drowned. One of them had foolishly shimmied up the mast and rocked the boat to tease his companions. The boat capsized, and four boys who couldn’t swim clung to the overturned hull, shouting for help. Ida heard them and rowed to their rescue. In their terror, they almost dragged her overboard, but she pulled all four over the stern into her boat and returned them to land. This was only the first of a number of rescues that later made Ida famous.

Because of her many rescues, Ida Lewis became the best-known light keeper of her day. During her 54 years on Lime Rock, Ida is credited with saving 18 lives, although unofficial reports suggest the number may have been as high as 25. Tales of Ida Lewis’s skill and courage spread so widely that both President Ulysses S. Grant and Vice President Schuyler Colfax  went to visit her in 1869. Here she is pictured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly for the July 31, 1869, issue. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

Ida and her mother Zorada tended the Lime Rock Light for her father from 1857 until 1872, when he died. Her mother was appointed keeper until 1879, although Ida continued to do the keeper’s work. Then Ida received the official appointment and her own salary ($500 a year). She continued at her post until her own death in 1911. On the night of her death the bells on all the vessels anchored in Newport Harbor were tolled in her memory.

On September 28, 1881,William Windom, secretary of the Light-House Board, wrote to Ida Lewis as follows:

I have the honor to transmit herewith the gold medal which has been awarded to you under authority of the Act of Congress of June 20, 1874, in recognition of your services in rescuing from drowning at the peril of your life, two soldiers belonging to the garrison of Fort Adams.

It appears from the evidence submitted to the Department in this connection, that on February 4th last, these men were crossing between Lime Rock light-house and the fort and the ice, being dangerously weak and rotten, gave way under their feet, and let them in. Hearing their cries for help, you ran from the light-house with a rope, one end of which you flung to them and standing upon the ice, in imminent danger of its giving way beneath you, and also of being dragged into the water, both men having hold of the line, you succeeded in pulling them out, one after the other. The rescue of one you effected entirely unaided; the second man you hauled from the broken ice, with the help of your brother, who arrived at the spot in time to render this assistance.

It is the testimony of the rescued men, and of the several eye-witnesses, that in this act you placed your life in great peril.

The papers before the Department in this case, cite the instances of no less than thirteen persons saved by you from drowning, at dates anterior to this occurrence, and it is stated that there are many more who do not appear in the record. These deeds have won for you a national distinction, and it is peculiarly appropriate that you should receive the national life-saving medal in commemoration of your brave acts as a life-saver, while it is an occasion for added satisfaction that such a memorial of unquestionable heroism should have been won by a woman. (Source: National Archives, Record Group 26, Letterbook 553.)

The Ida Lewis Yacht Club now occupies the lighthouse. 2013 photo by Candace Clifford

In 1927 the Bureau of Lighthouses removed the lens from the lantern and placed an automated beacon on a skeleton tower in front of the lighthouse. This light continued in service until 1963, when it was deactivated by the Coast Guard. Later the Newport Yacht Club bought the lighthouse and obtained permission from the Coast Guard to put a light back in the old lantern and maintain it as a private aid to navigation. Although adaptively used by the yacht club (and renamed the Ida Lewis Yacht Club), the building is virtually unaltered from the time that Ida Lewis lived there.

In 1995 the Coast Guard launched the first of a series of new keeper-class 175-foot coastal buoy tenders and named it Ida Lewis.

Submitted by Candace Clifford using excerpts from Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers (Alexandria, Virginia: Cypress Communications, 2013), February 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 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