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Lighthouse Keepers in the Nineteenth Century

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The following text was excerpted with the author's permission from Nineteenth-Century Lights: Historic Images of American Lighthouses by Candace and Mary Louise Clifford (Alexandria, VA: Cypress Communications, 2000)

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, keeper appointments and dismissals were approved by the President. Choices were often political. Although no formal instructions were given, a certain level of efficiency was expected. Responding to a letter castigating the keeper of the Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia, President Thomas Jefferson stated, "I think the keepers of lighthouses should be dismissed for small degrees of remissness, because of the calamities which even these produce."[1]

With a few exceptions, only one keeper was appointed per station; however, some keepers took it upon themselves to hire an assistant.[2] The keeper's routine was to light the lamps at twilight, then trim the wicks between 11 and 12 that night. I.W.P. Lewis, engineer to the U.S. Light-house Survey, remarked that it was not uncommon for a light gradually to disappear between 3 and 4 a.m. He added, "The best keepers are found to be old sailors, who are accustomed to watch at night, who are more likely to turn out in a driving snow storm and find their way to the light-house to trim their lamps, because in such weather they know by experience the value of a light, while on similar occasions the landsman keeper would be apt to consider such weather as the best excuse for remaining snug in bed."[3]

Keeper salaries were not high. Many keepers supplemented their incomes with other activities, acting as pilots or fisherman, often leaving their wives and children to tend the lamps. Fifth Auditor Stephen Pleasonton, administrator of the Lighthouse Establishment from 1820 to 1852, had no qualms about appointing female keepers to replace related male keepers who died in service. In 1851, he wrote, "So necessary is it that the Lights should be in the hands of experienced keepers that I have, in order to effect that object as possible, recommended on the death of a keeper, that his widow, if steady and respectable should be app't to succeed him, and in this way some 30 odd widows have been appointed."[4]

As early as 1809, keepers were expected to keep records of their oil usage. Used to keep the lamps lit, oil was a precious commodity. After the lighthouses were fitted up with Winslow Lewis's patent reflectors and lamps, a form was issued in 1813 to guide keepers in tracking their annual oil usage, supplies on hand, and repairs needed.

In April 1835, the Secretary of the Treasury wrote,

    the propriety of issuing a general letter or circular to each Lightkeeper, whether of House or Boat, instructing him in regard to the time of making light in the evening,to his attention to the Light during the night, by trimming it, etc.,to a judicious economy in the use and application of the oil, so as to produce the best light at the smallest expense,to the necessity of strict care in respect to the cleanliness, order and safety of the lamps, reflectors, lens & other machinery, and the importance of a careful supervision and preservation from fire and depredation of the property of the United States under his charge. The general course to be pursued in his sickness or absence, and in case of accidents might also be usefully prescribed. The sale of...spirits should be forbidden on the premises of the United States, and civility should be enjoined as a duty to strangers wishing to examine the Lights, and, in case of shipwrecks near, every practical effort required to be made to render reasonable and efficient relief, and all due vigilance exercised to detect and expose every breech of the revenue laws in his neighborhood.[5]

Acting upon the Secretary's suggestion, Pleasonton issued the following instructions.



1. You are to light the lamps every evening at sun-setting, and keep them continually burning, bright and clear, till sun-rising.

2. You are to be careful that the lamps, reflectors, and lanterns, are constantly kept clean, and in order; and particularly to be careful that no lamps, wood, or candles, be left burning any where as to endanger fire.

3. In order to maintain the greatest degree of light during the night, the wicks are to be trimmed every four hours, taking care that they are exactly even on the top.

4. You are to keep an exact amount of the quantity of oil received from time to time; the number of gallons, quarts, gills, &c., consumed each night; and deliver a copy of the same to the Superintendent every three months, ending 31 March, 30 June, 30 September, and 31 December, in each year; with an account of the quantity on hand at the time.

5. You are not to sell, or permit to be sold, any spirituous liquors on the premises of the United States; but will treat with civility and attention, such strangers as may visit the Light- house under your charge, and as may conduct themselves in an orderly manner.

6. You will receive no tube-glasses, wicks, or any other article which the contractors, Messr. Morgan & Co., at New Bedford, are bound to supply, which shall not be of suitable kind; and if the oil they supply, should, on trial, prove bad, you will immediately acquaint the Superintendent therewith, in order that he may exact from them a compliance with this contract.[6]

7. Should the contractors omit to supply the quantity of oil, wicks, tube-glasses, or other articles necessary to keep the lights in continual operation, you will give the Superintendent timely notice thereof, that he may inform the contractors and direct them to forward the requisite supplies.

8. You will not absent yourself from the Light-house at any time, without first obtaining the consent of the Superintendent, unless the occasion be so sudden and urgent as not to admit of an application to that officer; in which case, by leaving a suitable substitute, you may be absent for twenty-four hours.

9. All your communications intended for this office, must be transmitted through the Superintendent, through whom the proper answer will be returned.

Fifth Auditor and Acting Commissioner of the Revenue

Fifth Auditor's Office
April 23d, 1835

Seventeen years later, the newly formed Light-House Board stressed the importance of the written instructions in an 1852 report, "Inspectors and light-keepers should be provided with printed instructions, in the form of manuals of instruction, as well as those necessary to guide them in the policing of the establishments, similar to those provided for inspectors of light-houses in France and Great Britain."

The appointment of keepers was restricted to "persons between the ages of 18 and 50, who can read, write, and keep accounts, are able to do the requisite manual labor, to pull and sail a boat, and have enough mechanical ability to make necessary minor repairs about the premises, and keep them painted, whitewashed, and in order."[7] Keepers underwent a three-month probationary period before their full appointment was issued by the Secretary of Treasury. Keepers could be transferred between stations and districts. Young men with some sea experience were preferred as assistants at the larger stations, while retired sea captains or mates with families were frequently selected for stations with only one keeper. Stations with fog signals generally required an assistant with some experience as a machinist to operate the machinery and keep it in repair.[8] In 1867, an Act of Congress fixed the average annual salary of a lighthouse keeper at $600.[9]

Keepers were encouraged to cultivate the land associated with onshore stations and were forbidden to engage in any business that interfered with their presence at the station or with the proper and timely performance of their duties. It was not surprising to find a keeper working at his station, however, as a shoemaker, tailor, or a justice of the peace. Keepers were not allowed to take in boarders nor were they given pensions or compensation for injury. In 1883 male keepers were issued uniforms consisting of a coat, vest, trousers, and a cap in a dark indigo blue color. The 1885 Annual Report stated, "It is believed that uniforming the personnel of the service, some 1,600 in number, will aid in maintaining its discipline, increase its efficiency, raise its tone, and add to its esprit de corps." A regulation apron was to be worn during inside cleaning and a brown working suit for outdoor work.

Inspectors visited the stations in their districts quarterly. They were to report on repairs needed to the tower and buildings; needed renovations and improvements; condition of the station, lantern, illuminating apparatus, and related equipment. Comparisons were made of the interval of flashes and eclipses and their duration, with the intervals given in the Light List. The inspector was responsible for making sure the keeper understood the printed instructions for operating all equipment and other attendant duties. The inspector also reviewed the keeper's journal and records relating to expenditures, shipwrecks, and vessels passing. The inspector assessed the "attention of the keeper to his duties, and his ability to perform them well."[10] Both inspectors and engineers had authority to dismiss a keeper or other employee found in a state of intoxication.

Engineers superintended the "construction and renovation of the fixed aids to navigation in their respective districts."[11] The engineer or the inspector was responsible for acquiring information on the ownership of any potential site and reporting these details to the Board along with information about the topography of the site and the potential light's relationship with other lights and the water or hazard it was marking. Engineers were instructed to inspect all materials and supplies to make sure they were in conformance with contracts. When a tower was nearing completion, the engineer notified the superintendent of lights so that he could nominate the authorized number of keepers. Superintendents of lights were charged with paying salaries and dispersing other funds, as well as nominating light-keepers. Keepers were allowed to select their assistants; however, the superintendent was responsible for nominating the candidate for the appointment.

The 1875 Annual Report reported that it was time to provide keepers with reading matter. "By so doing, keepers will be made happier and more contented with their lot, and less desirous of absenting themselves from their post." By 1884, 380 libraries were being circulated amongst the stations. In 1896, lighthouse service employees were classified within the federal civil service system.

For additional information, see Instructions to Employees of the Lighthouse Service, 1881


1. National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 17J, "Records Relating to the Library of Congress Exhibit, 1785-1852."

2. An 1843 memo reported the following stations as having assistant keepers appointed by the government: Franks Island, La.; Bayou St. John, La.; South West Pass, La.; South Point, La.; Pleasonton's Island, La.; Cat Island, La.; Pass Manchac, La.; New Canal, La.; Vermillion Bay, La.; Dry Tortugas, Fla.; Sand Key, Fla.; Turtle Island, Ohio; and Navesink, N.J. Their salaries ranged from $100 to $360 per annum found in National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 17G.

3. Report of I.W.P. Lewis reproduced in Public Documents and Extracts from Reports and Papers Relating to Light-Houses, Light-Vessels, and Illumination Apparatus, and to Beacons, Buoys, and Fog Signals 1789-1871 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office), p. 370.

4. Ross Holland, Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay (Crownsville, Maryland: Maryland Historical Society Press, 1997), p. 27.

5. National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 17K, "Letters Received from the Secretary of the Treasury," 1835.

6. Several years later, Pleasonton struck out No. 6 of the Instructions and modified No. 7 to replace contractors with Superintendent.

7. Arnold Burges Johnson, The Modern Light-House Service (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1890), pp.102-103.

8. Johnson, pp.103-105.

9. George R. Putnam, Lighthouses and Lightships of the United States (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1933), p. 238.

10. U.S. Treasury Department, Organization and Duties of the Light-house Board; and Regulations, Instructions, Circulars, and General Orders of the Light-house Establishment of the United States Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1871), hereafter referred to as the 1871 Regulations, pp. 54-55.

11. 1871 Regulations, p. 57.

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Last Modified: Fri, Mar 22 2002 9:12:48 am EDT

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