How Lighthouses Work

The Life of a Light Keeper

The lighthouses of the ancient world were manned by slaves and soldiers [source: Ray]. In Europe during the Middle Ages, monks and nuns staffed the structures. By the heyday of the late 19th century, most light keepers were professionals employed by agencies like the Lighthouse Board (later the U.S. Lighthouse Service), or the Trinity House, England's equivalent of the Lighthouse Service. Many light keepers were formerly fishermen, sailors, sons of light keepers or individuals with some other connection with the maritime field. Salaries were generally very low -- U.S. keepers earned $200 annually in the late 19th century, while Canadian keepers earned half that amount [source: Ray].

Typically, light keepers worked in two scenarios. The first, a "stag station," was a lighthouse manned by a head keeper and a few assistants who worked in shifts, spending long stretches away from their families. This was particularly common in offshore lighthouses. In the second scenario, a keeper lived with his family on the premises. With a few notable exceptions, light keepers were almost always men.

A light keeper's job required singular attention. Before automation, the scope of his responsibilities including refilling the oil in the lamps, changing and trimming the wicks, sounding the fog signal, cleaning the lens of soot and debris and otherwise keeping things tidy.

Officially, light keepers simply reported wrecks and hazards; life-saving endeavors were the province of the U.S. Lifesaving Service, a precursor to the Coast Guard. But in reality, light keepers were responsible for saving many lives [source: United States Coast Guard]. Ida Lewis, one of the few female light keepers in history, is probably the best remembered of this bunch. As the official light keeper for Lime Rock Lighthouse off the coast of Newport, R.I., between 1872 and 1911, Lewis personally rescued more than a dozen sailors from the water. These feats earned her a cover story in Harper's Weekly.

To increase efficiency, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dissolved the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939 and brought its responsibilities under the purview of the Coast Guard. Most of the records from the period before 1939 have been lost except for log books kept by the light keepers themselves, Gales says. And, unfortunately, none of the light keepers from that era are still alive. "All you have now to talk, to get actual fact-based history, are some of the families that remain," Gales says [source: Gales].