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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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…
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