About the Author
Katherine L. House is a freelance writer who has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, FamilyFun magazine, FamilyTree magazine, and the New Jersey Lighthouse Society's newsletter. She has visited more than 100 lighthouses in the U.S. and Canada.
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Lighthouses for Kids
History, Science, and Lore with 21 Activities
By Katherine L. House
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2008 Katherine L. House
All rights reserved.
Growing Up at a Lighthouse
True Stories of Keepers' Kids
Eight-year-old Philmore Wass searched the shoreline as he scurried to the outhouse on a cold December morning in 1925. Low-lying fog on Maine's Libby Island kept him from seeing far. He could barely make out the shape of tall stakes that looked like fence posts sticking out of the water. Puzzled, he ran back to the house and grabbed the spyglass that hung over the kitchen table. The magnifier revealed what his eyes could not see: the broken masts of a sailing ship. The ship must have wrecked the previous night when howling winds had kept him awake.
Philmore had seen shipwrecks before near this island where his father was a lighthouse keeper. Right now, Dad was on the mainland with Philmore's older brother. Mrs. Wass called the nearby Coast Guard station to tell them about the tragedy. The Wass family was lucky to have a telephone. Not all homes — and certainly not all lighthouses — had one in the 1920s. The Wass's phone worked using an underground cable that often went out in bad storms. On this day, it was working, and Philmore's mother was relieved to learn that the ship's crew had been rescued.
The lighthouse keeper's son could not wait for the fog to lift so that he could see what had happened. How big was the ship? What cargo had it been carrying? What kind of damage had it endured? Philmore remembered an earlier shipwreck near rocky Libby Island. He had been sad to see a majestic ship destroyed by the unpredictable force of the sea. After the fog lifted, Philmore realized the ship must have been heading to one of New England's many paper mills. Cords of wood floated on the water, turning it a whitish-brown color.
Philmore, his sister Nonie, and her friend went outside to explore. They walked the length of snow-covered Libby Island to reach the sandbar separating it from its neighboring island, "Big Libby." As they drew closer, they noticed that two of the ship's three masts were still connected to the deck, but leaned at an odd angle. The rigging, or ropes that supported the sails, swung back and forth in the wind. The ship's shredded sails hung from cords of wood. "It was difficult to comprehend that the wind and the seas, combined with the destructive power of Libby's Ledges, could so totally destroy a ship of this size and strength in a few hours," he wrote.
When the tide went out, the children waded across the bar to the wreck. "Feeling like midgets, we stood near the hull and looked up at the largest manmade structure we had ever seen," Philmore recalled. The three managed to reach the stern, or rear, of the John C. Myers and climb aboard. Dishes, food, even furniture, had been hurled about. The odor of large chunks of salt pork floating in the water made Philmore's stomach flip-flop. Like others who lived along the coast at the time, the keeper's son knew that once a ship was totally wrecked, anyone could salvage what was left. The search for souvenirs began.
Soon he spotted a beautiful black mahogany box. Hoping that it held treasures, Philmore opened it. It was empty, except for its lovely velvet lining. Philmore wondered if the box had held a sextant or maybe a compass to help the captain find his way. Had the crew rescued the valuable instrument, or was it lost forever in the cold dark ocean? The children could not linger long. If the tide came in, they would be trapped for hours on "Big Libby." Armed with his precious box, Philmore began to walk home with the older girls. "It had been a unique and exciting adventure," he realized. "How many other kids ever had a chance to explore a wrecked ship hours after she had struck the rocks?"
Besides having the rare chance to explore shipwrecks, children of lighthouse keepers peered into tide pools, scoured the shoreline for treasures, and learned to handle boats at an early age. Often their brothers and sisters were the only children to play with. Sometimes it was difficult to keep quiet so that the tired keepers could catch up on sleep during the day. From the time they were young, lighthouse children helped with chores to keep the lighthouse and the keeper's house clean and orderly. Most important, they were proud of the jobs their fathers and mothers held. Even in times of illness, bad weather, and family crisis, they did what they could to keep the lights burning.
Treasures from the Sea
Whether they lived on an island or on the mainland, along the ocean, a lake, or a river, children who grew up at lighthouses looked for adventure along the water. They often walked the coastline in search of shells, driftwood, or other treasures. For some, a new tide might even bring exotic food.
William Spear Jr. grew up along the Delaware Bay where his father served as keeper of the Deepwater Range Lights for over 30 years. After a shipwreck, bunches of canned food floated ashore, but not before their labels washed off. "Mother would open a can, hoping that it would be beans or tomatoes, and we would be delighted to find out that it contained peaches or cherries," he later recalled.
Not every shipwreck brought such a selection of treats. Harold Jennings was born in 1921 on an island in Boston Harbor, where his father was a lighthouse keeper. Once, after a ship wrecked nearby, 150-pound (68 kg) boxes of coconut washed ashore. "I thought I would never want to see another shred of coconut in my life," Harold later wrote. "We would have coconut in everything."
More often, the sea provided daily food and sometimes treats. In southern California, Norma Engel often pried abalone, a type of mollusk, off the rocks at low tide. Her father was a keeper at Ballast Point Lighthouse in the early 1900s. Sometimes the family dried the "meat" from the shells on the fence. "It was cheaper than gum, there was always a ready supply, it satisfied our hunger for a spell, and it was an excellent gum massage," Norma remembers.
Water and Gardens
Finding fresh seafood was not usually a problem for keepers' families; having enough water to drink was. In some places, keepers had access to springs or wells. Families living along freshwater lakes drank lake water. Salt water could not be used for drinking water, so many lighthouse families relied on water collection systems. When it rained, water was funneled off the keeper's house into a large container called a cistern.
Sometimes bird droppings or dirt from the roof made its way into the water. In dry regions, keepers constantly worried about having enough to drink.
Taking care of a vegetable or flower garden was a common pastime for lighthouse keepers and their families. Fresh vegetables were a nice treat at stations far from stores, and growing food saved keepers money. Flower gardens cheered families in areas used to fog or bleak winters. Working in a garden was also a good way to pass time.
Dangers All Around
Lighthouse children learned from an early age that their rugged surroundings could be dangerous. High winds could suddenly capsize a small boat. A wave that did not look very big could come ashore with such force that it could hurl objects — and even people — into the sea. Without knowledge of tidal patterns, someone could become stranded on a low-lying piece of land or have trouble maneuvering a boat.
To ensure the safety of young children, parents sometimes used ropes to make a harness or leash. Naturally, the rope was short enough that a child could not reach the water or fall over a cliff. On Petit Manan Island off the coast of Maine, the keeper and his wife beckoned children back to the house with a bell if they thought their offspring had wandered too far.
The steep clay cliffs surrounding the Point Arena Lighthouse in California presented constant problems. The Owens family moved to the light station in 1937, and six Owens sisters called the light station home. One day, three of the girls used a ladder to get down the cliffs so that they could play in a cave. Unfortunately, while they were playing, the tide came in, and they could no longer get to the ladder. The oldest girl managed to scale the cliff, but her younger sisters could not. The oldest sister retrieved ropes from the fog signal building and somehow managed to haul her siblings up the cliff. Their parents did not find out about the incident until the girls told them many years later.
The terrain posed hazards for animals, too. The family cow once made it to a ledge several feet below the lighthouse, but she could not get back up. To rescue Bessie, Keeper Owens had to tie one end of a rope to a car and the other end around the cow. As the vehicle was driven away from the cliff, Bessie gradually rose up over the bluff, thanks to the pushing and prodding of some men who had gone to the ledge to help.
Bessie was fine, but the family dog, Pal, was not as lucky. After he fell to the beach below the lighthouse, he died from injuries a few days later.
Even though families were careful, the threat of drowning was a constant danger. Sometimes a curious child got too close to slippery rocks or did not pay attention to nearby waves. On a hot day, the water might have been too tempting for a child, even one who could not swim. Over time, several keepers' children drowned while playing near the water, or traveling back and forth to an offshore lighthouse. The heart-wrenching possibility of having a child drown was not the only thing that worried keepers. Families living at offshore stations could not get to town when the seas were rough, causing Mrs. Wass "an ever-present fear that [a family member] might sustain a serious injury."
Because of this isolation, keepers learned to be resourceful when it came to medical care, just as they were used to fixing things at the lighthouse. Vernon Gaskill and his siblings liked to run up and down the stairs of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse for fun. Their father was a keeper at the North Carolina lighthouse. One day, Vernon's younger brother fell down the stairs and bit his tongue, leaving a little piece barely hanging on. "Daddy took the scissors that he used to trim the [wick] and cut it off," remembers Vernon. "It didn't affect his speech any but he had a little less tongue than he had before."
In the summer, when it was warm and storms were less frequent, lighthouse children took advantage of opportunities their lifestyle offered. In places with a sandy shoreline, they swam in the nearby lake or ocean. On a rocky island, they might transform a large tide pool into a swimming hole. Picnics at a scenic spot near the water were a favorite activity, especially on Sundays. Depending on where they lived and weather conditions, lighthouse children sometimes used a small boat. First, though, they had to be old enough and strong enough to handle the boat's oars.
Keepers' kids also had to learn to tie knots to secure their boat wherever they went. When the family of Keeper Roscoe Chandler of Maine's Blue Hill Bay Lighthouse went on a picnic on a nearby island, one of the children failed to secure the boat properly, and it floated away. Quick thinking to the rescue! The keeper and the children gathered driftwood while Mrs. Chandler tore her petticoat into strips. After assembling a raft from these supplies, the keeper paddled out to the boat. The children probably received a knot-tying lesson after that!
"Use of the rowboat opened a new world for me," according to Norma Engel. "It was my magic carpet (not without some effort on my part), taking me wherever I wished, floating up the bay, across to the fort wharves for play with other children, drifting out to the open ocean, or seeking out the best places for good fishing. My magic carpet carried me to the limits of my strength and endurance."
Knowing how to watch for signs in the sky and water of changing weather was essential for anyone who lived along the water. Before the Weather Channel, radio, or the Internet, people had to develop their own weather forecasts. On White Island, New Hampshire, where Celia Thaxter's father was a lighthouse keeper, Celia and her brother watched a small plant for clues about the weather. The scarlet pimpernel "clasped its small red petals together, folding its golden heart in safety from the shower that was sure to come," Celia later wrote. Another keeper's child recalled, "You get in touch with nature, and so much of your life hinges on knowing what's going to happen with the weather. You get to a point where you know when it's going to rain or the fog is coming."
Growing up in such isolated areas, kids had to be creative when they played. "Kites became a blessing to us," recalls Glenn Furst, who grew up on North Manitou Island, Michigan, where his stepfather was a keeper. "When we didn't know what to do, we would make a kite." Glenn and his younger brother also liked to collect small pieces of driftwood. They pierced the wood with a nail to make a hole for a seagull feather sail. As soon as their miniature sailboats floated out into the lake, the boys attacked them with rocks, pretending the boats were enemy warships.
At the Matinicus Island Light Station in Maine, two boys created a miniature fishing village on a pond, complete with small houses, wharves, toy boats, and a lighthouse.
Dealing with Isolation
Lighthouse life was not for everybody. While Philmore Wass enjoyed his childhood on a Maine island as the son of a lighthouse keeper, his sister said she "hated the place." Many children lived too far from towns to participate in scouting, clubs, or church activities. Depending on the location of the lighthouse, there might be only a few other children around, living at a nearby fishing village, life-saving station, or military fort. At light stations with more than one keeper, children often had other children to socialize with. In other cases, lighthouse children had only brothers and sisters to play with.
Annie Bell Hobbs lived on Boon Island in the late 19th century. Her father was a lighthouse keeper on the island nine miles (14.5 km) offshore in the Atlantic Ocean. No trees, shrubs, or even grass grew on the rocky island. Besides teenaged Annie, only two younger children called Boon Island home: her three-year-old brother and the four-year-old daughter of another keeper. In 1876, when Annie was about 14, she wrote an article for a children's magazine in which she said she had been "a prisoner" on Boon Island for two years. She reflected on her lonely life, "After school-hours, I turn my eyes and thoughts toward the mainland and think how I should like to be there, and enjoy some of those delightful sleigh-rides which I am deprived of while shut out here from the world."
When the weather was too stormy or cold to be outside, lighthouse families had to make the most of being stuck indoors. "I don't think there is any view that is anymore lonely and cold looking than a lake covered with ice," recalled Furst. On New Hampshire's White Island, it was so cold in the winter that frost accumulated on the inside of the windows in the keeper's house. For amusement, Celia Thaxter and her brother liked to press coins in the frost to create unusual patterns.
Families passed time inside playing cards, cribbage, dominos, and other games. About 1876, the Lighthouse Service began shipping portable libraries to the most isolated lighthouse stations. The libraries aimed to make the keepers "more contented with the lonely life and routine duties" of their jobs. About 40 books for adults and children were stored in a wooden carrying case. The invention of radio in the early 20th century improved life, too. Suddenly, keepers could receive current news, listen to church services, and hear weather forecasts and sports broadcasts. In some places, private citizens provided free radios to keepers to make their lives more interesting.
Going to School
The isolated lifestyle also made it challenging to get to school. Even for lighthouse families living on the mainland, school could be a few miles away. Before cars were invented, a two-mile (3-km) trip could be long and agonizing, especially in deep snow. Children living at offshore stations faced a bigger obstacle. They could go to school only when the weather was calm enough to launch a boat. If the weather worsened during the day, they had to spend the night with a friend or relative on the mainland. Sometimes parents served as teachers. Some families even sent their children to live with someone on the mainland or requested a transfer to a mainland lighthouse when their children got older.
Excerpted from Lighthouses for Kids by Katherine L. House. Copyright © 2008 Katherine L. House. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsNote to Readers,
1 Growing Up at a Lighthouse 1 True Stories of Keepers' Kids,
2 Why Lighthouses? A Short History,
3 A Field Guide to U.S. Lighthouses,
4 Amazing Construction Stories,
5 The Science Behind Lighthouses,
6 Keep the Lights Burning! The Job of the Keeper,
7 Lighthouses Today,
What People are Saying About This
"Through vivid story-telling and pictures on each page, the history of lighthouses comes alive." Curious Parents magazine
"Fun for your whole family." Newport Life