Lighthouse Keepers


Lighthouse Keepers were the ones who maintained the beacon shining from the lighthouse. Keeping that light on every moment that it's supposed to be on! The most important task for them. They had additional jobs that supported that prime job, that were behind the scenes. Much that you would think of as cleaning and housekeeping duties! But all were essential.

Head Keeper Amalu standing in the gallery looking through a telescope.Head Lighthouse Keeper Samuel Amalu

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To be Hired as a Lighthouse Keeper was definitely not run of the mill! In the U.S., lighthouse keepers have been on the job as early as 1716.1

It's never been considered a well-paying job, although there were improvements in more recent years. However some were attracted to it, for their own reasons.

Those who hired on into lighthouse service didn't always stay at the same lighthouse for the duration of their work. They were reassigned to different locations at various times. But other times they were at a site consistently.3

Another occurrence was the lighthouse keeper's wives. A few considerations related to their circumstances. When going with their husbands to assignments, they helped with many duties. Yet they weren't paid as they weren't considered lighthouse employees. However, they were expected to be supportive of their lighthouse keeper husbands in performing these supporting activities.

Sometimes their husbands died during their service, even suddenly. Their wife, having good knowledge of lighthouse beacon management, took over for him. Often in an emergent situation, ensuring the light was kept on.

After reporting to Treasury Dept. Auditors or the Lighthouse Board often another male lighthouse keeper was sent, if possible. But on some occasions she would request remaining as lighthouse keeper, and they'd agree - after she made her case.1 Imagine being in her place! It was her survival. Her family's survival.

Plus the children often took over duties, as well.For some it became a family enterprise, of sorts.2

They all have some interesting stories to tell. Take a look at some of those lighthouse keepers.


Meet Some Lighthouse Keepers

When in full swing, the U.S. Lighthouse Service had over 5,300 employees. Those with the title of Lighthouse Keeper and Keeper Assistants numbered 1,170. There were also 56 called Light Attendants. The Lighthouse Service was officially ended in 1939 when its duties were transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard.3


Lighthouse Keepers in American Service

  • Joseph Strout - Portland Head Lighthouse, 1904 - 1922.
  1. Taking over from his father Joshua, Head Keeper beginning 1869.Joseph grew up at the light, with the whole family helping out. 
  2. Even Billy the parrot squawking the warning: "It's foggy, start the horn."He remembered Christmas Eve's dinner, 1888. 
  3. The 3-masted Annie Maguire crashed on the rocks just outside their keeper's house. The whole family worked together to come to the rescue. All were saved.3
  • Mills Burnham - Second lighthouse keeper appointed to the Cape Canaveral light. 
  1. He began his service in July 1853, continuing until the day he died: April 17, 1886
  2. He continued into eternity there, when interred in the family cemetery at Cape Canaveral
Cape Canaveral Lighthouse keeper Mills Burnham with a beardMills Burnham - Keeper at Cape Canaveral Light
  • Fred Kreth - At Point Reyes Lighthouse1
  1. A fishing boat was besieged with high waves from a storm, dashing it into rocks at the entry to San Francisco Bay. The fisherman abandoned ship heading for the point.
  2. Lighthouse keeper Kreth noted them attempting a dangerous climb up the cliffs of Point Reyes, particularly so in stormy conditions. The fishermen became stuck on a ledge, feeling hopeless.
  3. Kreth went to help. In the awful weather, he carefully descended to a secure area. Then lowered a tether and hauled each man up to safety.

  • Samuel H. Flanders - Gay Head lighthouse keeper.4
  1. He took two separate stints at the tower, first from 1845 to 1849 and then from 1853 to 1861.
  2. Everyone on Martha's Vineyard knew his name, because of his way with telling stories! He was described as "gentlemanly and polite." He was always willing to give visitors tours.
  3. Even in those early years, people visited the area from all around the world because of those beautiful, scenic clay cliffs with the Gay Head Lighthouse situated above.
Samuel H. Flanders the lighthouse keeper on Martha's VineyardSamuel H. Flanders, Celebrity Keeper of Gay Head Lighthouse
  • Russell Ahlgren - At Nubble Lighthouse, last keeper there, 1986 - 1987, before automation.1
  1. He brought his wife and baby son. They arrived in winter, on a rubber life raft wearing survival suits. A first assignment, they learned on the job.
  2. Watching tides according to the moon for very low water: to organize off-island visitors, workers, appointments, etc. Grocery shopping in town was a happening, presenting a show for tourists!
  3. Lighthouse keeper Russ had all upkeep, plus light responsibility and documentation. Detailed weather reports expected 6am to 6pm every three hours. Even though she wasn't paid, wife Brenda was his help-mate and back-up for all tasks. Lighthouse command inspected Russell's work, which included house cleanliness.
  4. Rain supplied much of their water, stored in cisterns. Fog suddenly rolling in brought unexpected guests. Scuba divers became disoriented, ending up on the island two different times. They also endured some Nor'Easters, one with lots of ice. Russ had to brave the slippery gallery to scrape it off the lens and windows.

  • Fannie May Salter - At Turkey Point Lighthouse on the northern end of Chesapeake Bay
  1. North past Baltimore, it's near where Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania come together at the mouth of the Susquehanna River. 
  2. She was by her husband's side helping him while he was lighthouse keeper there. When he died in 1925, she made the request to replace him. It was granted by President Calvin Coolidge, and she was appointed permanent keeper. 
  3. When appointed, she was the only woman lighthouse keeper in the U.S. Coast Guard service. She retired in 1947, age 65, when the light was automated.6
Fannie May Salter is polishing the great lens in the Turkey Point Lighthouse, a weekly task.Fannie May Polishing the Lens
  • George Easterbrook - At Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, Second Assistant Keeper4
  1. His experience one stormy night sent him in a different career direction. The lone keeper near midnight, he was out on the gallery, to clean salt grime from windows. Buffeted by strong winds, the lantern room door catch wouldn't fasten. He was about to brace it when a gust of wind blew it shut. This time it caught, locking him out!
  2. No one else was returning until morning. He worried the light would extinguish in about two hours. He'd lose pay, maybe his job. But if a ship wrecked, he'd be responsible! He was crazily thinking of a solution.
  3. He grabbed the thick lightning-rod wire, using it to climb down the side of the tower. Near the bottom was a rocky ledge. The wind continuously swung him about. He was exhausted, finally getting to a spot with foot-room. He let go of the wire, clinging to the tower side. Once reaching wider ground, he fell, conking out.
  4. When he awoke, he went inside the tower, climbed the stairs, and refreshed the light. The experience so unnerved him at age 17, he resigned two weeks later. He ended up with a career as a physician.
  • Ted Pedersen - Keeper Cape Saint Elias, Alaska.
  1. The Cape itself is unique with it's jutting skyward peak, like a squeezed pyramid pointing to a crest at 1,620 feet high. The lighthouse construction began in 1915, finished by the next year. A very isolated assignment.
  2. The Coast Guard Service manned the station, when in 1961 an assistant keeper crewman got a dinghy and rowed off, after complaining of claustrophobia. He never returned. The next year a Boatswain's Mate was removed. His mental condition dangerously deteriorated, with crazy orders to his team. 
  3. Now it's automated. If you're hardy, you can get a Stay On the Island>
Ted Pedersen - Lighthouse Keeper at Cape Saint Elias, AlaskaTed Pedersen, Keeper - Photo circa 1935


Boston Light

A drawing of the original Boston Lighthouse on the harbor with the Keeper's houseDrawing of The First Boston Lighthouse with its Keeper's Home

This iconic light started it all in the U.S. Let's see a few of the lighthouse keepers who were there, and a bit of their stories.

  • George Worthylake - Light dues from the boats and ships entering Boston harbor paid the lighthouse expenses and his salary. He began his work in the fall of 1716, getting paid 50 pounds a year. So meager a sustenance he also had to pilot boats when possible. One day he was with his family returning to the lighthouse by boat. It overturned and they all drowned on November 3, 1718.
  • Ralph Norwood - Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class, US Coast Guard. He was there when the lighthouse was celebrating its 58th anniversary in 1941. Boston Light's location is on what's referred to as Lighthouse Island, but named Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor.
Ralph Norwood, BM 2nd Class, US Coast Guard, getting Boston Light ready to  celebrate the 58th anniversary by cleaning the lensRalph Norwood, BM 2nd Class, US Coast Guard, Getting Ready for Boston Light 58th Anniversary: September 14, 1941
Light Station Boston, Massachusetts Keeper of Boston Light, Ralph Norwood works on light's burnerNorwood Works on Boston Light's Burner for Anniversary Celebration

  • Sally Snowman - Boston Lighthouse is unique. With the title of first light station in the United States, it also is the last one staffed with a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper in the country. It will be done here that way, permanently, since Congress required it. And that person first chosen was a woman, Sally Snowman, a civilian. She's the only lighthouse keeper in the U.S. officially hired with that Job Title.

  • INTERVIEW WITH SALLY/BOSTON LIGHT HISTORIES:



Set to the song "Lighthouse Keeper" by Neptune's Car, the following video consists of historic images of lighthouse keepers in the northeastern U.S.

  • Music in this video: Lighthouse Keeper
  • Artist: Holly Hanson
  • Album: Strawberry Moon

Licensed to YouTube by CD Baby; CD Baby Sync Publishing, BMI - Broadcast Music Inc.



Lighthouse Keepers of Australia

With a little more than 16,000 miles of coastal waters, Australia has quite a few lighthouses and the need for keepers.

  • M. J. Rooksley - The lighthouse keeper at Bustard Head in Queensland at the turn of the 20th century. He's pictured here with others.
  1. The lighthouse has a tradition of scary deaths through the years, with a nearby graveyard reflecting that! Some say it may be haunted. 
  2. You can visit it for a tour today. It looks a bit different since some of the buildings burned down in the 1930s.
Lighthouse keeper M. J. Rooksley stands out front by a work table at Bustard Head Light in Queensland Australia in 1902Keeper M. J. Rooksley at Bustard Head Lighthouse in 1902

  • William Arnold - First lighthouse keeper at Fingal Head Lighthouse. Located in New South Wales, William arrived in 1879 when the light was completed. He lived there with his wife Henrietta. Over the years they had 11 children, one born right in the keeper's home.
  1. Their cottage had 4 rooms, plus a kitchen with a fireplace. There was no indoor bathroom. A rear veranda, and even larger front veranda made a fabulous place to entertain visitors!
  2. After he retired in 1906, three lighthouse keepers followed: Francis Brady, Charles Leverton, then Charles Thompson.
  3. The tower remains today, automated. The keeper's home was demolished. A historical marker on-site tells the story.
Lighthouse Keeper on the Gallery of Fingal Head Lighthouse.Keeper on the Gallery in 1906 - Unnamed. Is it William or Francis?


Russian Lighthouse Keepers

In many countries lighthouse keeping as a family tradition was practiced. This helped to ensure there was some means of securing a living for coming generations. Just in case there was liable to be some difficulty for that.

This head lighthouse keeper's family was watching the father as he went about the tasks. They were gathered in the engine room of what was then the Brüsterort Lighthouse. The photo was taken sometime in the 1920s.

The head lighthouse keeper and his family in the engine room of the Brüsterort Lighthouse in the 1920s.Keeper & Family at Brüsterort Lighthouse - Now Called Taran Lighthouse
Brüsterort Lighthouse in the 1920s, with its keeper's house and other work buildings.Brüsterort Lighthouse in the 1920s
Taran Beacon photo in recent years showing the keeper's quarters.Taran Lighthouse Today - Photo Attribution: Mil.ru



References

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

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

3 Jones, R. (2013). The lighthouse encyclopedia. Guilford, Connecticut.: Globe Pequot Publications

4 Waterway, W. (2014). Gay Head Lighthouse: The first light on Martha's Vineyard. Mount Pleasant, SC: Arcadia Publishing.

5 Cape St. Elias (2019). The Cape. History. Retrieved from capestelias.org/history

6 Krum, E.L. (2009-2020). History - Turkey Point Light Station. Retrieved from tpls.org/historyTPLS.html