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
With a few exceptions, only one keeper was appointed per station; however,
some keepers took it upon themselves to hire an assistant. 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."
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."
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.
Acting upon the Secretary's suggestion, Pleasonton
issued the following instructions.
TO THE KEEPERS OF LIGHT HOUSES WITHIN THE UNITED STATES
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
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
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
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
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." 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. In 1867, an Act of Congress fixed the average annual
salary of a lighthouse keeper at $600.
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." 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." 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),
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,"
6. Several years later, Pleasonton struck out No. 6 of the Instructions and modified No. 7 to replace contractors with
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.