US Lighthouse Society Video Shorts
Lighthouse Keepers: In Their Own Words
A few choice nuggets from keepers in the old Lighthouse Service from around the U.S.
Women Who Kept the Lights, in Their Own Words
From 1776 to the present day, more than 140 women have served as keepers of American lighthouses. Today, the only official keeper in the United States still employed by the U.S. Coast Guard is Sally Snowman at Boston Light Station. In addition to women light keepers, there were many assistant keepers and also countless wives and daughters who helped maintain the lights along with assisting with daily chores. Not much was written about female lighthouse keepers until the book "Women Who Kept the Lights" by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford. This video is dedicated to the memory of J. Candace Clifford.
The Second Minot's Ledge Lighthouse
The first (1850) lighthouse at Minot's Ledge, on the southern approach to Boston Harbor,
was destroyed in an April 1851 storm, taking with it the lives of two young assistant keepers.
The construction of the second tower was one of the great achievements in American
lighthouse building. Constructed of 1079 blocks of granite weighing 3514 tons, the light
went into service in 1860 and it remains in use today.
The First Minot's Ledge Lighthouse
Minot’s Ledge—about a mile offshore, near the border between the towns of Cohasset and
Scituate on the south shore of Boston, Massachusetts—is a 25-foot-wide rock ledge that is
part of the dangerous Cohasset Rocks. In 1847, Congress appropriated funds for a lighthouse
on Minot’s Ledge. Capt. William H. Swift of the Corps of Topographical Engineers planned
an iron pile lighthouse at Minot’s Ledge, a 70-foot-tall, spidery structure with piles drilled
into the rock, on the theory that waves would pass harmlessly through the structure. The
lighthouse was lighted for the first time on January 1, 1850.
This is the story of its fate.
Keeper William C. Williams at Boon Island, Maine
Boon Island is a desolate pile of granite several miles off the southern Maine towns of Kittery
and York. The present lighthouse, the third built on the island, went into service on
New Year’s Day in 1855. It’s the tallest lighthouse in New England at 133 feet tall.
Captain William Converse Williams, a native of Kittery, went to Boon Island as second assistant
keeper in 1885. He advanced to first assistant in late 1886, and then became principal keeper in 1888.
He went on to serve 23 years in the position. He was described as "a refined gentleman of the
old school." Years after his retirement, Williams said that being able to walk about his front yard
without fear of being washed into the sea brought him great contentment.
Destruction Island, Washington
The federal government considered putting a lighthouse on Destruction Island, about three miles
off the Washington coast, as early as the mid-1800s. As shipping along this part of the coast increased,
there were several shipwrecks around Destruction Island in 1888-1889 alone. A lighthouse was built
between 1889 and 1891, with the work supervised by the Army Corps of Engineers. The brick tower,
standing on a sandstone base, is 94 feet tall. The entire tower is sheathed in a layer of iron.
Destruction Island was among the most isolated light stations on the West Coast. The light was automated
and destaffed in 1968. The Coast Guard deemed the lighthouse unnecessary and discontinued it in 2008.
With nobody caring for it, the tower is falling into ruin. The two keepers’ dwellings have been demolished.
The first-order Fresnel lens is now on display at the Westport Maritime Museum.
Race Rock Lighthouse, New York
The four-mile long stretch of water between Little Gull Island and Fishers Island to the northeast --
known as The Race -- marks the place where Long Island Sound, Block Island Sound, and
Fishers Island Sound all meet. The Race develops currents in excess of five knots and has been
treacherous to navigation for centuries. In the late 1860s, funds were appropriated for the construction
of a lighthouse on Race Rock, about 3200 feet off the southern tip of Fishers Island. Two fascinating
characters were involved in the construction of the lighthouse: Francis Hopkinson Smith, who was
also a successful artist and writer, and master diver Thomas Scott. Construction took almost eight
years in all and included a major tragedy.
The Storm Child at Boston Light
Boston Light Station on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts, was the site of the
first lighthouse on the North American continent (1716). No child was born on the island until 1932,
when a daughter, Georgia, was born to Josephine and Assistant Keeper Ralph Norwood. This is their
unusual story, which was the inspiration for a popular book.
Georgia Norwood Emerson passed away in Boothbay, Maine, in 2015.
Kate Walker at Robbins Reef, NY
Kate Walker, who would become one of the most famous lighthouse keepers in the world, was born
Katherine Gortler in Germany in 1846. She was appointed keeper at Robbins Reef Lighthouse off
the northern tip of Staten Island in New York Harbor after her husband died in 1886. By her own account,
Kate saved fifty people from drowning during her years at the lighthouse, but estimates by others range
as high as seventy-five. Kate remained keeper until 1919. She died in 1931, at the age of eighty-four,
after a long illness. She will never be forgotten for the long years she served the mariners of
New York Harbor, honoring her husband’s last request -- "Mind the light, Kate."
Point Bonita, California
Point Bonita was the first light station on the West Coast to have a fog signal, and it was the last one
in California to be automated and destaffed. It is reached by a unique suspension bridge. The
National Park Service opened the station to the public in 1984.
Joshua Card was keeper at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in New Castle, New Hampshire, for 35 years.
When he retired in 1909, he was the oldest lighthouse keeper in the United States at the age of 86.
This is his story.