Lighthouse Keepers—A Fading Profession
BY AWAKE! CORRESPONDENT IN CANADA
“THERE is absolutely nothing else I’d rather do,” lighthouse keepers have said time and time again. A man who left behind his managerial position in a plastics plant in Toronto, Canada, to become the keeper of a 106-year-old lighthouse said that the job made him feel “10 years younger.”
The primary responsibility of a lighthouse keeper is to maintain a good light for mariners. He is also required to operate and maintain foghorns as well as to supply weather information by radio to fishermen and passing vessels.
In years gone by, lighthouse keepers had to keep the oil reservoirs full, the wicks lit, and the glass panes of the lamps free of smoke. It was not unusual for keepers to spend the entire night rotating a beacon by hand to guide ships to safety when lights could not be readily repaired or to spend the night banging a fog bell with a hammer when the foghorn failed!
Weathering the Storms
Severe storms are a major concern. Once, a light keeper saw what he believed was an “immense white cloud,” but it turned out to be a single crashing wave! The wave ascended the 50-foot cliff and reached the keeper’s living quarters. This one wave did as much damage as an entire storm.
On another occasion, all night long a howling windstorm hurled waves against the lighthouse at Pubnico Harbour, Nova Scotia. All the keeper and his family could do was wait and hope. By morning the storm had subsided. But when the keeper went outside, he was amazed to see that the land around the lighthouse was gone. They were no longer attached to the mainland!
Loneliness and Monotony
When asked about loneliness, one lighthouse keeper chuckled and said: “People say to us, ‘Man, how can you stand all the loneliness?’ And we look back and ask, ‘Well, how can you stand living in the city with all that noise and hassle?’”
In times past, small collections of books were made available to the more isolated light stations in the United States. Thus, by the year 1885, there were 420 libraries in circulation. Evidently, lighthouse keepers became good readers.
A Fading Profession
In recent years manned masonry lighthouses have given way to unmanned steel-lattice towers with powerful flashing lights. No longer do seafarers peer into the dark, seeking a hazy beacon or a misty flame. Today, powerful tungsten halogen lamps and blaring, penetrating fog signals alert the mariner to the dangers of the sea.
Vessels equipped to receive signals from light stations now know their position no matter how dense the fog. Modern technology allows the navigator to travel the seas from shore to shore, confident that he can avoid hazardous sandbars, perilous reefs, and treacherous rocks near the shore.
As a consequence of modern technology, lighthouse keepers are rapidly fading from the world scene. Feeling that a part of his life is gone forever, one light keeper reflected with sadness on leaving his island home of 25 years: “We had a good life here. We never really wanted to leave.”
Still, revolving lights, subsidiary lights, emergency lights, sound signals, and radar beacons all require servicing, and stations still need upkeep. Light towers are now serviced by traveling technicians.
Those who appreciate the many years of service rendered by lighthouse keepers share the sentiments of a man in Augusta, Maine, who lamented: “It’s just not going to be the same looking out at the lighthouse and knowing the light is being operated by a computer, knowing the people are gone.”
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The First Lighthouse
The first lighthouse in recorded history was completed during the reign of Ptolemy II of Egypt. It was constructed around 300 B.C.E., and it stood on Pharos Island, just off the entrance to what is now the harbor of Alexandria. It took 20 years to build at a cost of $2.5 million.
Historical writings indicate that it was over 300 feet [90 m] high. Its upper chamber had windows facing seaward, behind which were wood fires or perhaps torches that, according to Josephus, could be seen more than 30 miles [50 km] away.
The huge stone structure was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World. Its blazing fire served as a warning light for 1,600 years, only to be destroyed, in all probability, by an earthquake.
As the centuries passed, thousands of lighthouses of various sizes and descriptions were built at ports throughout the world. Old masonry lighthouses survive today as museums and tourist attractions in national, state, county, and city parks and are viewed by millions.
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Cape Spear Lighthouse, Newfoundland, Canada