Keepers of the Light

“Keepers of the Light,” Friend, Feb. 1991, 48


Keepers of the Light

Truly the light is sweet (Eccl. 11:7).

Lighthouse keepers have the important job of warning ships of coastal dangers. Lighthouses keep ships from wrecking on hazardous rocks or sandbars. When sailors see the light, they know that they must steer away from the dangerous coastline.

Today’s lighthouse keepers have radar, electricity, and radios to aid them in their important jobs, but for many years only simple lamps and diligent, dedicated lighthouse keepers kept many ships from wrecking. Every day at sunset the lighthouse keeper would climb many steps to the top of the lighthouse. He would light the wicks of the kerosene lamps in the lantern room. Then he would climb back down the stairs to operate the machine of weights and gears that turned the large glass lenses around the lamps. The light from the kerosene lamps shone through the glass lenses, making the light so strong that it could be seen from twenty miles away. On summer nights these lights often attracted hundreds of moths.

On very foggy nights, when the light could not be seen by the sailors, the keeper would shovel coal into a small furnace. A boiler made steam that produced a foghorn blast to warn the sailors of danger.

In the morning the keeper put out the lamps and filled them with oil for the coming night. He and his family would clean the smoke off the lenses, polish the brass, and wash the windows so that the light would stay bright.

Stormy days were the most difficult. The keeper had to keep the lights burning constantly, no matter how violent the storm. He also had to be on the lookout for ships in trouble.

The family of a lighthouse keeper usually lived in a home next to the lighthouse. Children learned to help and knew how to predict the weather from looking at the skies. They learned to identify passing ships, lobster boats, schooners, seiners. They learned to sleep at night with the bright light from the lighthouse shining in their windows. And they learned to take responsibility for other family members, for the light in the tower, and for the safety of passing ships.

One young girl became famous for keeping the lights burning during a terrible storm. Abbie Burgess and her family lived at Matinicus Rock, off the coast of Maine, where Abbie’s father was the lighthouse keeper. On January 19, 1856, Captain Burgess sailed to town to buy supplies. He needed to buy oil for the lamps, food for his family, and medicine for his ill wife. He left Abbie in charge of the lighthouse.

Captain Burgess only expected to be gone for a few hours, but soon after he left, a huge storm came up that lasted four weeks, and he couldn’t sail home. During all those weeks, while her younger sister cared for their mother, Abbie kept the lights burning. All night she stood guard to make sure that not one light went out. She often had to scrape the ice off the windows so that the light could shine through. In the morning she would eat breakfast and then go to bed. When her father finally returned, he told Abbie, “Every night I watched for the lights. Every night I saw them. Then I knew that you were all right.” Like many lighthouse keepers over the years, Abbie Burgess was a brave and dedicated keeper of the light.

Photos by Tryn Paxton and Corliss Clayton

1. This lighthouse is on the pier at Duluth, Minnesota.

2, 3. The Split Rock Lighthouse beacon 168′ (51.2 m) above the Lake Superior shoreline, helps keep boats and ships safely on course.

4. The sound of foghorns in addition to the light of beacons warns ships away from dangerous coasts.