Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Duties of a Lighthouse Keeper

When one speaks of the duties of "keeping" a lighthhouse, what exactly might they be talking about? For most of us, we know that "keeping" a light meant turning on the light every night at dusk and turning it off every morning after sunrise, but what exactly did that entail.

In the early days of lighthouses, wicked candles were the source of light. Maintaining these candles was no easy task. Lighthouse keepers couldn't just light the candle and forget about it. As candles burn down, they become dimmer and therefore harder for the mariners to see. To keep the candles burning brightly, keepers had to trim the candle wicks every few hours throughout the night.

These same candles also produced smoke that would cover the lighthouse lens with soot and carbon. The build up of carbon would also diminish the effectiveness of the light. In addition to trimming the wicks every few hours, keepers also had to polish the lighthouse lens regularly. Often these duties were completed while braving the elements of nature - wind, rain, and snow.

As technologies improved, oil became the chief source of lighting the coasts. Oil would often be stored in buildings near the lighthouse, but would have to be hauled up to the top of the lighthouse before the light could be lit. Few, if any, lighthouses were equipped with a pulley system, meaning that the keeper's only option was to climb the many steps leading to the top. Even at a small lighthouse like Gurnet Point in Massachusetts, this could be a difficult task.

Keepers were responsible for all supplies required by the lighthouse. During the day, keepers performed maintenance on the structures, stocked supplies and maintained the small boat used for rescues or going ashore if the lighthouse was stationed in the middle of the water. In addition to the duties required of keeping the light, many keepers alos had to tend to family farms and take care of livestock in order to supply the food used at the lighthouse. For women keepers, caring for family was also a necessity.

As if these duties weren't enough, one of the most difficult tasks of a lighthouse keeper was saving lives. Livesaving missions were almost always conducted in the worst conditions, usually storms in the dark of night. Keepers used small rowboats, and later motorized boats, to help rescue shipwrecked mariners. Ida Lewis, the most famous female lighthouse keeper, is known to have saved at least 18 lives during her tenure at the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Rhode Island.

For their trouble, lighthouse keepers received a small salary. Hannah Thomas, the first female lighthouse keeper, earned £80 per year from the state of Masschusetts for keeping the Gurnet Point Light from 1786 to 1789. By comparison, a minister in Canton, Massachusetts was paid £190 in 1786. From this salary, keepers were expected to purchase all the supplies for the lighthouse. They were not reimbursed for their expenses in maintaining the light.

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