Being a lighthouse keeper was not a 9-to-5 job. It was anything but. A typical tour of duty began before dusk and continued well past dawn. The keeper tended to routine but essential duties, made repairs as needed, and was always prepared to respond to any emergency, including shipwrecks.
“Constant and faithful attention to their duties shall be required of all persons in the service, and no employees shall be absent from his station or duty without authority,” states Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service in its 1927 edition.
Lives depended on the light keeper. And the light keeper depended on the 124-page Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service as the official orders and procedures of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. A copy of the guide, belonging to one of the Sea Girt keepers, is on display at the lighthouse. All instructions that follow come from this invaluable guide, except where noted.
“Lights must be exhibited punctually at sunset and kept lighted at full intensity until sunrise, when the lights will be extinguished and the apparatus put in order without delay for relighting.”
Preparations for lighting the beacon began well before dusk. The keeper first inspected the Fresnel lens and its many prisms, which were cleaned that morning. The lamp that produced the light was checked and the supply of fuel refilled. The wick was trimmed and lighted. The weights, which dropped down the tower shaft driving gears that caused the lens to revolve, were unlocked, hand cranked up to the top and a new descent started.
“At stations having one or more assistant keepers, watches must be kept and so divided. At stations having no assistant, the keeper must not leave the light for at least half an hour after lighting, in order to see that it is burning properly, and must visit the light at least twice between 8 p.m. and sunrise, and on stormy nights must be constantly looked after.”
At the tallest lighthouses, such as Barnegat with more than 200 steps to the top, and lighthouses with larger, more complicated lenses, such as Twin Lights with 1st order and 2nd order Fresnel lenses, there was a keeper and assistant keepers to share the duties. A smaller lighthouse with fewer than 50 steps to the top and smaller, simpler lens such as Sea Girt, had a lone keeper.
At dawn, the keeper turned off the lamp by turning off the fuel that had kept the wick burning throughout the night. The weights were stopped and locked. The Fresnel lens stopped turning.
The keeper then proceeded to clean the lens. “Clean lens and lantern daily. (a) To clean lens wipe with soft linen cloth and finally polish with a thorough dry buff skin. … (b) All material used for cleaning lens or lantern glass must be free from grit of any kind.”
After the Fresnel lens was cleaned, a linen lens bag was placed over the lens and the curtains that hung on the lantern room windows were drawn to prevent the rays of the sun discoloring the prisms of the lens or reigniting the lamp.
Lighthouse beacons were turned off during the daytime to save on the cost of fuel, the biggest expense in operating a lighthouse. In emergencies, such as a shipwreck, a lamp could remain lighted past dawn at the discretion of the keeper to project its guiding beacon. But this exception would have to be promptly reported in writing to the USLHS District Superintendent.
With the lighthouse beacons turned off during daytime, mariners navigated by scanning the coastline through their binoculars looking for landmarks. Lighthouses serve during the daylight as landmarks known as daymarks.
Just as the beacon of each lighthouse had its own signature of blinks on and off to help mariners identify the light, so too each lighthouse was intentionally made to appear different from other nearby lighthouses to enable the sailors to distinguish one from another and thereby figure out where they were.
Thus Navesink Twin Lights to the north resembles a brownstone fortress with two imposing towers, while Sea Girt is a Victorian red-brick home with a wrap-around porch and a 44-foot tower rising above the front entrance, and Barnegat Lighthouse to the south is a 172-foot-tall tower painted red over white stripes.
Do It, Then Document It
When not in the lighthouse, the keeper would spend some time everyday outside surveying weather and tide conditions and taking readings. Where installed and under the keeper’s command, buoys and markers would be checked and repositioned as needed. If there was a launch, lifeboat or any other vessel assigned to the station, it too was checked.
And much of what the keeper did, he or she then recorded in the official logbook for the keeper’s future reference and inspection by officials from USLHS District Office. No matter the lighthouse, there was constant recordkeeping and a lot of paperwork.
In the required logbook, the keeper made daily handwritten entries in ink detailing operations at the lighthouse, weather and water conditions, ship traffic and anything out of the ordinary at the light station, the surrounding community or in the local waters.
On display at Sea Girt Lighthouse is the 1903-06 logbook of keeper Abram Yates. (The logbook was discovered and donated to the lighthouse collection by Richard O. Venino).
The keeper also maintained a daily expense book and a general accounts book.
“Besides the requirements as to physical ability, the civil-service requirements as to experience and fitness include ability as a waterman or boatman accustomed to handling and pulling sail and motor boats in all kinds of weather, and in certain cases ability to properly handle and care for fog-signal apparatus and machinery. Ability to read and write is required in all cases.”
In addition to tending the light, the keeper’s routine duties included:
o Clean the tower and living quarters daily.
o Paint as needed.
o Make repairs as needed in the tower and living quarters and fix apparatus, furnishings and machinery therein.
o Install any replacement equipment as needed.
o Keep a current inventory of all supplies needed in the tower and living quarters
o Clean the chimney(s), stove and heaters regularly.
o Conduct tours of the lighthouse for USLHS inspectors and engineers during quarterly inspections and for approved civilians and dignitaries upon request.
o Maintain the grounds.
o Plant and tend a personal vegetable garden.
The household chores tended to be done by the keeper’s family, who contributed significantly to the smooth operation of the lighthouse. (See this website’s related story Ladies of the Lighthouse).
Dressed for the Occasion
Uniforms were introduced in 1883. At the time, the then Lighthouse Board advised: “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 the esprit de corps.”
Regulations for Uniforms (a 14-page pamphlet published by the USLHS and issued to all personnel) provided descriptions and illustrations of the dress uniforms and work uniforms and who should wear which and when.
Most of the time, personnel at land-based stations, off-shore lights and USLHS vessels wore work uniforms of dungaree blouses and trousers or overalls and the conical, flat-top navy blue caps. On work detail, black or tan shoes could be worn with black socks.
When at USLHS functions or in public representing the Service, keepers and other personnel were required to wear the dress uniform, which was the same as a U.S. Navy officer’s uniform but with USLHS markings. The dress jacket was a navy blue, double-breasted sack coat made of serge or flannel with a double row of gilt buttons. The trousers were made of matching material, as was the vest. The tie was black, worn with a white shirt. Shoes were black.
During summer, keepers and other officers had the option of wearing a white, single-breasted dress jacket of linen, heavy drill, or duck, that buttoned to the neck with a stiff standing collar and matching pants, white socks and shoes. A white cap cover was put over the navy blue uniform cap.
Women keepers were exempted from the uniform regulations. Male keepers had to buy their own uniforms.
While much was routine, the keeper was prepared to deal with the unexpected.
Fire was a constant worry, due to the fuel used in the lamp, lubricating oil used in lantern mechanism, paints and varnish stored for when the building was repainted, and the coal and wood stored for use in the fireplaces and stove of the living quarters.
To minimize damage, flammable supplies were usually kept in a separate stone or brick outbuilding. Fuel and other supplies were brought into the lighthouse in small amounts as needed. Sea Girt had a red brick supply building on the west side of the property.
Fire buckets painted red and filled with water or sand were located throughout lighthouses – towers and living quarters – and checked daily and fire drills conducted monthly.
And at any time, the keeper was ready to respond to shipwrecks. “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants, and officers and crews of vessels of The Lighthouse Service, to give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”
Any emergency and the keeper’s response to it required the keeper immediately after the event to write and submit a detailed report to the USLHS District Superintendent on official USLHS stationery.
Keepers also completed and submitted these official reports to the District Office:
o Lighthouse inventory upon taking up a new post.
o Monthly report on conditions at the light station.
o Monthly report on the condition and operations of the fog system.
o Quarterly pay voucher.
o Quarterly expense report with accompanying receipts.
o Annual list of returned equipment.
o Damage reports as necessary.
o Requisitions for equipment and supplies as necessary.
o Inventory of returned items upon leaving a post, to be matched against the inventory list submitted upon assuming the post.
The lighthouse required a qualified person to be on duty at all times, easily done at larger lights with a keeper and assistant keepers to take over from one another.
But at smaller lighthouses with lone keepers, such as Sea Girt, the keeper basically was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the lone keep needed to leave the lighthouse property, it was permissible to put a qualified, pre-approved family member in charge.
Keepers were entitled to 15-30 days leave per year, depending on circumstances and the staffing at the lighthouse. Requests for leave had to be put in writing by the applying keeper and reviewed and approved by the District Superintendent’s Office.
“At stations having only one keeper the station may be left in charge of a member of the keeper’s family during his absence on leave, without charge to the Government, provided that where, by reason of the character of the machinery or other conditions at a station, such an arrangement for the relief of the keeper is considered impracticable or inadvisable by the superintendent, arrangement may be made to allow the keeper not exceeding 15 days’ leave in any calendar year, by the employment of a substitute, where necessary, at Government expense.”
Pay was below what the keepers could have earned in the private sector for comparable work but in line with government pay. In 1940, at the end of his career, George Thomas, the last keeper assigned to Sea Girt by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was earning $1,680 a year.
Motivation for any keeper came in the quarterly visits by an inspector from the District Office who inspected the lighthouse and graded the keeper on its condition and operation. Low-rated keepers risked reprimand, reassignment or dismissal. Top-rated keepers were awarded the Inspector’s Efficiency Star, a gold-star medal the keeper could wear for the next twelve months. The Efficiency Star program aimed “to promote efficiency and friendly rivalry among lighthouse keepers.” Sea Girt’s keepers, including George Thomas, won numerous Efficiency Stars. Such recognition could advance careers and pay grade.
And despite the long hours and comparatively low salaries, the job of a lighthouse keeper had many attractions and benefits. Keepers were held in high regard in their communities and among seafarers. For those keepers who had grown up in port cities or shore towns and were steeped in the lore and tradition of the sea, running a lighthouse enabled them to carry on in this tradition.
Many land-based light stations, such as Sea Girt Lighthouse, also provided comfortable quarters in desirable settings, which was especially attractive to married keepers with children. There was enough land to plant a vegetable garden. The water was nearby for fishing and recreation. Neighbors were welcoming. In addition to free housing, the Lighthouse Service provided a fuel allowance.
The prospect of a pension upon retirement also kept many keepers working diligently. George Thomas retired March 31, 1941 with an annual Lighthouse Service pension of $1,015, moving to Ocean Grove.
While often repetitious, the work of a lighthouse keeper was invaluable. A keeper not only carried a weighty responsibility but also the satisfaction of helping people every day by keeping bright the light that guided countless ships – their crews, passengers and cargo – safely to the next beacon.