"The lighthouse and lightship appeal to the interest and better instinct of man because they are symbolic of never ceasing watchfulness, of steadfast endurance in every exposure, of widespread helpfulness. The building and keeping of the lights is a picturesque and humanitarian work of the nation." George Putnam First Commissioner of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses
The life of the keepers involved 24 hour attention to the diligent maintenance of the light. The daily regimen was tedious and repetitive. At dusk, the tower light had to be lit and maintained during the night, which meant the fuel needed to be replenished. By day, the lamps required thorough cleaning and polishing. Other safety features, such as the foghorn and radio, also needed constant care.
"The keepers existence was made arduous by many factors, not least of which may have been the incessant journey up and down the steep, narrow staircase" (Caravan, 1996). In Westport, Washington, the lighthouse at Grays Harbor has 135 steps. (I know, I climbed them.) It is the tallest light on the U.S. west coast.
Stairs at Grays Harbor Lighthouse Photo by Joe Mabel
Keepers, along with First or Second Assistants, were also required to maintain the lighthouse, the surrounding buildings, and the grounds. Lighthouse keepers were often isolated and lonely. Men tended most lighthouses. Yet, hundreds of women have tended lights. Hannah Thomas, the first woman in federal service, kept the lights of Gurnet Point Lighthouse at Plymouth, Massachusetts burning during the Revolutionary War. The difficult job of all lighthouse keepers held tremendous responsibility for the safety of others.
Caravan, J. (1996). American Lighthouses. Philadelphia: Courage Books.