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Keepers as Heros

Back to Keepers and Other Lighthouse Personnel

Lighthouse work included many routine, repetitive tasks, often in remote, lonely locations. This special, even vital, humanitarian work took dedication and self-sufficiency to accomplish. On occassion it called for personal bravery as well. Lighthouse keepers and lightship crews often knew of colleagues who had lost their lives to ice, tsunamis, and colossal storms. Yet these men and women perservered. A few risked their own lives to save others in peril, rescuing mariners and shore-side visitors from thin ice, storms, shipwrecks and other disasters. Some keepers would perform these acts of heroism many times over. Though most of these actions are not remembered today, at the time the federal government saw fit to present exceptionally brave keepers with gold or silver lifesaving medals. The actions of a few of these extraordinary individuals are recounted here.

In 1885, keeper Marcus A. Hanna risked his life to save the stranded crew of the schooner Australia, which smashed into a ledge during a snow storm near Cape Elizabeth Light Station, off the coast of Maine. The ship’s captain was washed away and drowned, while two of the ship hands waited as Marcus Hanna repeatedly tried to throw them a line. He succeeded in pulling one man to safety and nearly rescued the other man entirely unaided, when the assistant keeper and neighbors arrived to help. Marcus Hanna was awarded a Gold Lifesaving Medal for his valiant efforts. Thomas J. Steinhise, keeper of Seven Foot Knoll Light Station in Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, received a silver medal for rescuing six crew members of a sinking tug boat during a severe nor’easter in 1933. As waves crashed over the light station’s small boat, Steinhise pulled the men to safety. Canada expressed gratitude to Maine lighthouse keepers on at least two occasions. Moose Peak Light Station keeper C. R. Dobbins accepted a gold watch after saving the shipwrecked crew of the British schooner Ashton. Near Cuckolds Light Station in 1896, C. E. Marr and E. H. Pierce saved the schooner Aurora’s captain and crew from drowning in icy waters. Both keepers were given silver watches.

Lighthouse keeper positions were not entirely reserved for men. Women also served as assistant keepers and keepers under the direction of the Lighthouse Board, the Lighthouse Service, and the United States Coast Guard. In several instances, women succeeded their fathers or husbands as keepers, providing for mariners the same valuable services and risking their lives in the line of duty. Abbie Burgess Grant, Idawalley Zorada Lewis, and Katherine Walker are a few of the well-known examples of courageous, female lighthouse keepers that exhibited extraordinary acts of heroism.

Abbie Burgess
Photo courtesy of the USCG Historian's Office
From 1854 to 1875, Abbie Burgess Grant served as assistant keeper at Matinicus Rock Light Station on desolate Matinicus Rock, an isolated, rocky island some 15 miles off the coast of Maine. Abbie moved to Matinicus Rock with her family, following her father’s appointment as keeper in 1853. Captain Samuel Burgess taught 17-year-old Abbie to fill the lanterns atop the twin towers with oil, trim the wicks, and clean the lenses. He soon felt comfortable enough to leave her in charge for several days while he journeyed to the mainland for supplies. In 1856, Captain Burgess set out on a similar trip, at which time one of the largest storms of the nineteenth century hit Matinicus Rock. The storm raged for about one month, as Abbie independently tended the lights in addition to caring for her sick mother and siblings. Abbie Burgess kept Matinicus Light until she married Isaac Grant moved to Whitehead Light Station in 1875, where she served as keeper for over fifteen years. The U.S. Coast Guard later honored her by naming a Keeper Class buoy tender Abbie Burgess (WLM-553).

[photo] Ida Lewis
Photo courtesy of the USCG Historian's Office

Idawally (Ida) Zorada Lewis unofficially acted as the keeper of Lime Rock Light Station in Rhode Island from 1857 to 1879, after her father became ill and could no longer perform his lighthouse keeper duties. He died in 1872, at which time Ida’s mother was appointed the official keeper until Ida took over the position in 1879. Ida Lewis is credited with saving 18 lives throughout the years at Lime Rock. In 1881, the Lighthouse Board presented Ida Lewis with a gold lifesaving medal for one of her courageous efforts during an incident at Lime Rock Lighthouse. Two soldiers attempted to walk across a thin layer of ice on Newport Harbor. Ida Lewis quickly responded to their calls after the ice gave way near the lighthouse, single-handedly dragging one man out of the water. Her brother arrived on the scene and assisted with the rescue of the second man. Ida Lewis served her post at Lime Rock until 1911 and was widely celebrated for her bravery. She received numerous awards as a result including gold and silver medals from a variety of organizations, a life pension from Carnegie Foundation, a silver yoke and boat hook from Narragansett Boat Club, a lifeboat from the people of Newport, gold-plated oarlocks from Jay Gould, and a new boathouse from Jim Fisk. At the time of Ida Lewis’ retirement, Rhode Island legislature changed the name of the island on which the lighthouse stood from Lime Rock to Ida Lewis Rock. The Lighthouse Service subsequently changed the name of the light station as well.

Katie Walker
Photo courtesy of the USCG Historian's Office
At Robbins Reef Light Station, an off-shore structure located between Manhattan and Staten Island, New York, Katherine (Katie) Walker maintained the light after her husband died of pneumonia in 1886. His last words to his wife were reportedly, “Mind the light, Katie.” When she officially applied for the appointment, the government initially objected, since she only stood 4 feet and 10 inches tall and weighed a mere 100 pounds. Several men rejected the position due to the remote location of the light station and Katie Walker was eventually hired. She served as keeper at Robbins Reef Light Station from 1894 to 1919, retiring at age 73. By her own admission, Katie Walker rescued about 50 people, mostly fishermen. Although she never received a lifesaving medal, the U.S. Coast Guard christened a Keeper Class buoy tender Katherine Walker (WLM-522) in her honor.

Countless lives were saved through the valiant efforts of brave and dutiful lighthouse keepers under the U.S. lighthouse establishment. In 1939, the Lighthouse Service was merged with the U.S. Coast Guard, which assumed all duties related to aids to navigation. Advancements in radio and radar developed during World War II and the postwar period decreased the role of light stations and thus lighthouse keepers. In the mid-1960s, the Lighthouse Automation and Modernization Program (LAMP) began further eliminating the need for resident personnel with fewer than 60 light stations retaining keepers. By 1990, every functioning light station except for Boston Harbor Light was automated. An act of Congress ensures that this light will remain "manned" as a testament to the hundreds of men and women who served the lighthouse establishment.

Essay by Karmen Bisher, National Conference of State Historic Preservation Officers (NCSHPO) contractor, working for the NPS Maritime Heritage Program.

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Last Modified: Tue, Aug 9 2005 2:02:48 pm EDT

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