Keeper Hawkey Details Emerge

Published by admin at 12:39 AM under

The search continues for a photograph of John L. Hawkey, keeper at Sea Girt Lighthouse from 1910-17. He was – until now – the least known of all Sea Girt keepers and the only one missing from the popular Keepers Gallery photo exhibit at the lighthouse. But some intriguing clues and interesting details of this man of mystery have emerged.

A newspaper article last year about efforts of Sea Girt Lighthouse docents to learn more about keeper Hawkey and hopefully find a photo intrigued Dan Herzog, a member of the Sea Girt Lighthouse Citizens Committee.

Dan, who lives in Sea Girt with his wife and their two children, was inspired to launch his own Hawkey hunt. He knows where to look. "I've had good results finding family history with genealogical research,” noted Dan, Senior Programmer/Analyst with Barnabas Health. “After reading the story about the search for John Hawkey, I tried this approach to find more information about John."five_fathoms_lightship

The starting point for Dan was what little was previously known about Hawkey, who joined the predecessor of the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1872. He served many years as the engineering officer aboard Five Fathoms Lightship, anchored 15 miles east of Cape May Lighthouse, and then on Northeast End Light Vessel, No. 44, anchored some seven miles off North Wildwood before coming to Sea Girt.


Because of his offshore postings, it had been assumed – erroneously – by Sea Girt Lighthouse historians and docents that he was a bachelor.

But what Dan uncovered in census records was that Hawkey, born in Massachusetts in 1845, was in fact married. In 1876, at the age of 31, he married Viola J. Tinker, age 23, of Connecticut.

In the 1880 census, Hawkey listed his trade as “engineer” and his workplace as “lightship.” John and Viola resided in Lower Township, Cape May City in a home they owned. The household also included her mother and his parents. By 1900, Viola’s mother was still living with them, although John’s parents were not, probably having died sometime after the previous census. John and Viola had no children. The Hawkey home was on Banks Road in what is now the historic downtown district of Cape May near the harbor.

Northeast_End_Lightship_44Pursing Dan’s leads, lighthouse trustees then checked Lighthouse Service regulations of that period and contemporaneous newspaper accounts of the lightship life. Hawkey likely would have commuted to work, spending 10 days at home before having to return for three weeks aboard ship. He most likely would have gone to and from his lightship by a launch or supply ship out of Cape May Harbor.

As engineer aboard a lightship, he would have been the officer in charge of maintaining and repairing the ship’s lantern apparatus and other equipment to keep everything shipshape.

Five Fathoms Lightship was a wooden, sail-powered ship. Oil lamps were rigged to the masts so as to project light to passing ships. Northeast End Light Vessel, No. 44 “was the first iron lightship built as such in the United States,” according to the New Jersey Lighthouse Society. No. 44 was steam powered and had metal skeleton towers fore and aft atop which were lanterns.

Aboard Ship

The New York Times offered a detailed account of lightship duty in a 1903 article titled “Lonely Life of Lightship Sailors.” A typical lightship crew numbered 14 – captain, mate, engineer, assistant, 3 firemen, 6 able-bodied seamen and a cook. The majority of men aboard lightships were married, according to The Times, which reported:

It is a dreary and lonesome existence at best, life aboard a lightship; within sight and almost within hearing of a coast that teems with life and human interest, where something important is happening almost every hour of every day, and to be as ignorant of it for days at a time as though you were living on the moon; to be shut out of sight from the coast for days at a time by an impenetrable fog, and to hear no sound but the mournful bleat of the horn that conveys no message but that of imminent danger; to keep long, silent watches in the bitter Winter nights, and to realize that not only your safety and that of your shipmates on the lightship depends on your vigilance, but the lives of scores, possibly hundreds of others, going down to the sea in ships whom you never saw and never expect to see. Twenty or twenty-one days of this each month, then ten days ashore if the weather will permit – that is the life of a coastguardsman on a lightship.

Automatically-Operating Door

Off-duty aboard ship, lightship sailors passed time as mariners everywhere typically did – playing cards, reading books and magazines from the ship’s library, writing letters, whittling, tying knots, painting. And perhaps it was aboard ship or at home, that lightship engineer Hawkey or his father, a retired sailor also named John, brainstormed the invention for which he was awarded a patent.

Among the intriguing evidence Dan Herzog uncovered was a fleeting reference in an online edition of the journal American Architect and Architecture, Volume 13, (1883) to United States Patent 274,765 issued that year to John L. Hawkey, of Cape May, New Jersey for an “Automatically-Operating Door.”

The brief reference appeared in a list of newly issued building patents. The list also included patents for waterproof paint, a fire escape, a sliding door lock, a revolving water-closet stench trap, and a new method of manufacturing Portland cement.

Peculiar Arrangement

A lighthouse trustee followed Dan’s lead and checked the United States Patent and Trademark Office and discovered Patent 274,765, with drawings and specifications:

To all whom it may concern:

Be it known, that I, John L. Hawkey, a citizen of the United States of America, residing in Cape May city, in the county of Cape May and State of New Jersey, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Automatically Operating Doors.

HAWKEY_PATENT_DIAGRAMThis invention relates to an improvement in that class of door-operating devices in which one door is operated by the motion of another; and the invention consists in the peculiar arrangement and construction of parts.

Which Hawkey was the inventor is unknown at this point, although strong evidence points to the younger Hawkey, the lightship engineer. His job required mechanical and technical skills and the ability to solve problems – all traits of an inventor. He would have been 37 – in the prime of his life – when the patent was issued. In contrast, in 1883, his father was 67 and a “retired sailor,” according to census records.

Furthermore, the name of the inventor as it appears on the patent is John L. Hawkey. In filling out the census forms and signing all lighthouse documents while keeper at Sea Girt, the son always included his middle initial, while census forms of 1870 and 1880 identify the father simply as John Hawkey – no middle initial.

While a photo of Sea Girt light keeper Hawkey has yet to be found, we offer instead the diagram of the Automatically-Operating Door that accompanies Patent 274,765.

Last Post

Hawkey would have been 64 when he was assigned his last posting as keeper at Sea Girt Lighthouse, which was considered a plum assignment for a respected Lighthouse Service veteran because of the pleasant surroundings and the fact there were only 42 steps from the keeper’s office to the lantern room – a reward for valued service.

He arrived at Sea Girt July 23, 1910, relieving Harriet Yates, who had been acting keeper for two months since her husband, Abram, Sea Girt’s second keeper, died on the job May 29.

During his 7-year tenure at Sea Girt, Hawkey served reliably and instituted changes and improvements in accordance with instructions from headquarters. In 1912, he changed the light source for the 4th order Fresnel lens from a kerosene wick lamp and a red chimney projecting a red beacon to a 35mm incandescent oil vapor lamp with a clear glass chimney that produced a brighter, white light. Given his engineering background, he kept meticulous notes and wrote official reports with precision and technical detail.

John Hawkey was still light keeper when he died in 1917 at age 71, the second keeper at Sea Girt to die in the post. Census records indicate that his widow went on to live for many years in a house on Beacon Boulevard just two blocks from the lighthouse.

Researchers at the Cape May Historical and Genealogical Society provided the final details of the Hawkey story. Viola Hawkey died in 1954 at age 94. She was buried alongside her husband in historic Cold Spring Presbyterian Cemetery, near Cape May City.

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