8 Things You Should Know About American Lighthouse Keepers

We’ve been talking about lighthouses, their history, lamps and lenses, and even lighthouse poetry, and some very important people haven’t had their own blog post or spotlight time in our series. I’m referring to lighthouse keepers.

In today’s post, I’ve collected eight facts that you should know about American lighthouse keepers in the 19th Century.

  1. St. Croix River Lighthouse

    Lighthouse Keepers Worked A 24/7 Job

There were no sick days and no time off either. Lightkeeping was not the idyllic life we might imagine, not the scene of an old keeper wearily climbing the stairs to light the lamps before he went to bed. No, no. Keepers stayed away through the night, taking turns at the light watches if there were multiple keepers at the light station. During the day, there were constant chores, cleaning, repairs, and daily life tasks to accomplish, and maybe a nap to rest for the evening watch.

2. Lighthouse Keepers Were Government Employees

Typically making between $800-$1,000, lighthouse keepers were hired and employed by the U.S. Government. They had to follow a strict set of rules and were over seen by the district inspector and Lighthouse Board (see below). Lightkeeping positions could be “awarded” as political favors or as jobs for veterans – particularly after the Civil War; however, lightkeepers had to be able to perform their duties and couldn’t sit “idly on the job.”

Scotch Cap Lighthouse

3. Lighthouse Structures Were Government Property

Yes, lighthouses could be in remote or difficult to reach locations, and some sat the entrances to harbors or near popular vacationing places. A lighthouse was the home of the keeper, assistant keepers, and/or their families, but it was first and foremost an aid to navigation. Secondly, it was government property. That meant although a keeper lived there and was paid for his work, anyone – an official, a civilian, or military – could arrive at the lighthouse and ask for shelter or a tour. A lighthouse might be the living quarters of the keeper, but the structure belonged to the nation.

4. Lighthouse Keepers Had To Follow Strict Rules

There were three main reasons keepers and to follow strict rules:

a. There were standards for lightkeeping after the Board was established in 1852

b. The rules helped ensure proper care for government property and reduced supply waste.

c. The rules outlined duties, making it possible to commend and honor the keepers who went above and beyond the requirements…while also identifying keepers who had to be dismissed.

Original lighthouse on Alcatrez Island, San Francisco

5. Lighthouse Keepers Could Be Dismissed

If a keeper failed to follow the prescribed rules, let the light go out at night or during a storm, or behaved inappropriately, he or she could be dismissed by the district inspector. Lighthouse keepers were dismissed for a variety of offenses, including bad lightkeeping, a dirty house, keeping the records improperly, and intoxication.

6. Lighthouse Keepers Often Had Worked In The Maritime Community/Industries

The Lighthouse Board liked to hire men (and women) who had experience in the maritime world. Why? First, they understood the importance of shore lights and aids to navigation, especially if they had sailed. Secondly, they tended to have good knowledge of coastal weather, storms, and other incidents from nature. Thirdly, the maritime community often instilled a sense of commitment, duty, and dedication, building good character qualities.

Ida Lewis

7. Women Could Be Lighthouse Keepers

Women were hired as lighthouse keepers. It was one of the first government jobs available to women. Oftentimes, women became assistant keepers, working alongside their fathers or husbands, or were hired as the keeper after their relative-keeper’s death or injury. Following the Civil War, it wasn’t uncommon for injured Union veterans to received the keeper position and their wife or daughter performed the lightkeeping duties, thereby keeping the family in a good and relative safe shelter with a reliable income.

Ida Lewis was one of the most famous female lighthouse keepers. At Lime Rock Lighthouse near Newport, Rhode Island, she served as keeper and gain fame for rescuing at least eighteen people during her time at the light. Ida was awarded a Congressional gold medal for life-saving and became a national heroine.

8. Families Lived At Lighthouses

Many families lived at lighthouses, working to maintain the lightkeeping standards. The appointed keepers were in charge of tending to the light, and the families assisted with the chores. Living at a lighthouse often meant that families were far from civilization. Parents educated their children at home or found ways for them to attend school by living with family or friends. Lighthouse families tended to be close-knit, working together and entertaining each other, striving toward a common goal to keep the light burning.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Watch for a special announcement on the blog this weekend! There’s an announcement from the book publishing department and you’ll “never” guess the new subject…

 

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
This entry was posted in 19th Century American Maritime, Lighthouse and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s