Lighthouse Keeper

A lighthouse keeper is charged with the business of maintaining the beacon of the lighthouse. The essential task is keeping that light on, when it's supposed to be on. There are a lot more behind-the-scenes duties that back up that job. From the first keeper in the U.S. in 1716, there have been methods devised to organize their job description and their pay.1

A very important, if sometimes thankless job. Certainly the work could be very lonely, at times difficult, at other times monotonous, and sometimes dangerous. 

The lighthouse keeper's emblem on the front of a keeper's uniform cap

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The lighthouse environment would often dictate whether lighthouse keepers would bring their spouse or their family. On the other hand, it may be just themselves with a relief keeper to share the shift-work. Sometimes it's been an honorable family tradition, passed on through some generations.2 In actuality, at the beginning, it was often a political reward!

Do you think the work was unbearably hard, or just more of the tedious type? Do you think it would have been an interesting life in those days? Is a lighthouse keeper Still Needed Anywhere in this day and age? Let's see some details to figure it out.


Lighthouse Keeper Employment

The General Court of Massachusetts was first in providing employment of a keeper for the original U.S. lighthouse. They ordered dues paid by boating vessels to cover the cost of pay and maintenance. Through this they hired a keeper, paying 50 pounds a year.2

In the early days, there were no specific requirements, and no particular training for Lighthouse Keepers. The earliest keepers likely had to learn the job by questioning those who seemed to know something about the equipment. Then doing the best they could to figure it out. Kind of learning it on the job, by the "seat of their pants" so to speak.

In many early lighthouses, some keepers wrote a list of instructional hints. But these weren't official methods for training. Just personal notes of remembrance for that particular keeper. And they were likely helpful for any new lighthouse keeper who might come on board later.

The 1789 Act of Congress enabled oversight of lighthouses by the Federal Government. At first the administrators were more bureaucratic than marine knowledgeable. The Lighthouse Board in 1852 was created to solve the issues. That's when training and keeper employment requirements were addressed.

The Board wanted better educated keepers, the primary requirement was that they must be able to read. Manuals were prepared that had every detail for the upkeep of the lighthouse, the lens, the lamp and anything related. It included upkeep, cleaning, maintenance and repairs. Anything you could possibly imagine was able to be looked up and addressed in their lighthouse keeper manuals. They took it step by step, so that someone who could read and follow instructions could accomplish the task of lighthouse keeping.1

The Board also tried to eliminate hiring through political favoritism. Not easy, since local Customs Collectors were political appointees, and they were allowed involvement in local lighthouse keeper hiring/firing decisions. The Board launched keeper standards, however, and set a hiring probation. To remain on board, the new-hire needed to pass a test.1 


Lighthouse Keeper Salary

Once they were hired on, what did a lighthouse keeper earn? Not very much. The very first keeper, at Boston Harbor was allowed to also serve as a harbor pilot to supplement his income. A few years later, his lighthouse pay was raised. Yet that keeper pay was still so low he was even made Chief Harbor Pilot in order to get more harbor jobs for additional pay.1

By the 1800s, keepers earned an average of $225 year.1 That would be equivalent to about $5,106 in the year 2020! Towards the end of that century it ranged as high as $6001 ($18,535 in 2020). These were east coast rates. First assistants earned half the pay as the Light Keeper.1

On the west coast, the gold rush attracted many to try for mining riches. It was difficult to find people willing to man lighthouses. They upped the yearly salaries:1 lighthouse keeper to $1000 ($32,870 in 2020), and the assistant to $650 ($21,366 in 2020).

Keepers were also responsible for any damaged equipment. It was deducted from their pay. Of course, housing while on the job was included! They also had a monthly food allowance, to spend as they saw fit.7 They finally did get a retirement plan. In June 1918 a bill passed allowing retirement after 30 service years, at age 65 (compulsory at 70) with up to 75% of pay.


Lighthouse Keeper Uniform

Prior to the creation of the Lighthouse Board, a Lighthouse Keeper wore practical working clothes and shoes. Something to keep the brisk sea wind's chill away, and keep moisture away from the feet. The Board wanted a more professional look and instituted a uniform2 to show this was an honorable and noteworthy vocation.

Beginning in 1884, male lighthouse keepers and higher ranks of light vessels and tenders under the Lighthouse Board service had the uniform. It was made from flannel or jersey material, in dark indigo blue color. Consisting of these pieces:1

  • Double-breasted coat with two rows of 5 yellow metal buttons
  • A cap with a yellow metal lighthouse emblem just above the visor
  1. Available optional canvas cap for warm weather
  • Pair of pants and a vest
A lighthouse keeper in his uniform.The Lighthouse Keeper in His Uniform


Lighthouse Keeper Duties

The Main, Essential Duty - Be Sure the Light is Lit for Boaters to See!

A lighthouse lens sits inside a brick room in the tower of the lighthouse.A Lighthouse's Lens - Keep that Light Lit!

What did that mean? It involved quite a few tasks

  • Early Lighthouse Days - Keep reservoirs filled, ensure wicks lit (change/trim if needed), clean lanterns of smoky film
  • Clean/polish lens, clean/dust surrounding hardware, clean lantern & watchroom copper & brass fittings1
  • Clean the lantern walls, floors & galleries2
  • Dust the tower doors, windows & railings; sweep the tower stairs, landings, window recesses & passageways2
  • Attend to any maintenance needed1

The workload was divided according to what was called "departments" when there was more than one keeper. When engaged in their work they needed to wear a precautionary linen apron. It protected the lens from their rough wool clothing, lest it cause scratch marks. There were also monthly routines.1

Their work was monitored by the Lighthouse Board, and good performance was expected. Prior to the Board, performance was quite iffy. There was a good turn-around afterwards. Maybe the worst offense was sleeping on the job. Cause for immediate firing, which happened.2


Dangers for a Lighthouse Keeper

The life of a lighthouse keeper may seem difficult, or easy, or adventurous - or something else, depending on how you look at it. Lighthouse Keeper Stories may give you a glimpse of having that occupation. But there are some dangers involved, including for any family concerned. What could they be?

  • Burn-out - Maybe not a typical danger. But a stressor for sure. Did it lead to accidents, or a lack of proper attention to the job? So they ended up losing their job. Or worse, the stories that are heard about descension into madness! Keepers were on the job every day, no off days. The light always had to be attended. If there was an assistant keeper, they may be able to organize some relief schedule. But if they were the lone keeper, they were responsible every hour. There was continuous pressure. If they were ill or hurt, there was even further anxiety. If they wanted a break for some reason, they'd have to find someone to hire themselves, or ask a family member to cover for them to get away. Thus, there was no effective way to get time off.3
  • Dangers from the Mercury Baths - Rotating lenses were set into a tub of mercury to curtail the amount of friction to the lens system. Problem was mercury is poisonous. Older people may recall it formerly was used widely in room thermometers. That was ceased because of its poisonous nature. Some lighthouse keepers were becoming ill from it. For that reason, a new system was designed with rolling wheels called chariots.2
  • Storms - Drownings from storm surges during huge storms and hurricanes. Sometimes these storms destroyed the lighthouse towers, taking lighthouse keepers with them. One example occurred with a severe storm that attacked the first Minots Ledge Light in April 1851. Two assistant keepers died when that light was destroyed.3
  • Accidents - The nature of the working environment in general gave increased odds for accidental injuries and/or deaths. 
  1. With many steep stairways, there was the possibility of falling down those stairs. One such occurrence happened at Big Bay Point, when H. William Prior was lighthouse keeper. His son was assistant, fell on a stair cutting himself seriously. Eventually getting gangrene that killed him.5 
  2. The needs of working in such a tall structure, or on areas of tall rocky cliffs led to the possibility of falling from those situations. They painted the towers, cleaned the outer lens, they often walked on cliff's edges, sometimes in near hurricane winds.
  3. Keepers handled flammable mixtures which could burn or explode. Just one example was in Hawaii in June 1925: The assistant lighthouse keeper and the 2nd assistant at Makapu'u Point Light were refilling an alcohol lighter cylinder for the oil vapor lamp. Some alcohol leaked on the floor. When they lit the match, an explosive burn swept the room. The 1st assistant died, the 2nd severely burned.4
The lighthouse at the end of the winding trail at Makapu'u Point in HawaiiMakapu'u Point Lighthouse - Near Waimanalo Hawaii
  • Plain Ole Drowning - Any time keepers were on a rocky shoreline, there could be the off-chance of a rogue wave sweeping them suddenly out into rip currents. A light-keeper had occasions to go out in a dinghy or perhaps a sailboat. Sudden rough seas have been known to happen, capsizing small vessels: 
  1. The lighthouse may be on an island, so it's a responsibility to get to the nearest town for supplies. 
  2. Boats would be used for fishing, to supplement their rations.
A Lighthouse Keeper Drowns says a 1886 Chicago Tribune news article.From the Chicago Tribune - Sat., May 29, 1886 - Pg. 14


What About Now?

Today, is there anybody working as a lighthouse keeper? Essentially the answer is No! Not really. Or not many, permanently. No more opportunity for that. The U.S. automated its last lighthouse in 1998, and so that was the last time a lighthouse keeper was needed. Most other nations around the world have likewise gone to lighthouse automation.

There may be some left in a few countries scattered about the world. Lighthouse keepers that were there for decades tending that light, while automation was coming in all around them. Those few countries, like South Africa, France, India, Myanmar, Portugal, and Canada still had a few as recently as 2018.6

Eventually they'll go the way of automation, as well. It's inevitable. 

There are positions that are today called "Lighthouse Keeper" however. What are they?

Those that oversee automation services may sometimes euphemistically refer to themselves as lighthouse keepers. But persons who now do act as keepers are in volunteer service. They maintain lighthouses in preservation work. They may own a lighthouse themselves, they may have a passion for lighthouses and give time or money to Lighthouse Charitable Societies. Some are officially appointed as lighthouse keeper/caretakers, but are volunteers.

Thus to find a job anymore in the traditional work of a lighthouse keeper, as described here - is no longer feasible. However, there are ways to become involved with lighthouse care. Just be creative! One way is to get a degree in Structural, Civil or Electrical Engineering. That way you can seek work with automation services. Then you can always volunteer!

Or finally you can join the Association of Lighthouse Keeper's - even if you're not one, or never have been!



References

1 Holland Jr., F.R. (1972). America's lighthouses: An illustrated history. New York: Dover Publications.

2 Jones, R. (2013). Lighthouse encyclopedia. Guilford, Connecticut: Globe Pequot Press

3 De Wire, E. (1995) Guardians of the lights. Sarasota, FL: Pineapple Press.

4 Dolin, E.J. (2016). Brilliant beacons: A history of the American lighthouse. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp.

5 Stampfler, D.H. (2019) Michigan's haunted lighthouses. Charleston, SC: The History Press.

6 Stein, E. (2018, Oct. 11). The last lighthouse keeper of Capri. BBC Travel. Retrieved from bbc.com/travel/story/20181005-the-last-lighthouse-keeper-of-capri

7 Thomson, W.O. (1998). Lighthouse legends & hauntings. Kennebunk ME: Scapes Me.