A Life of Duty
Keepers’ dwellings were small, damp and lacking in comforts. Pay was poor. Few of the lighthouses had wells, so keepers had to rely on cisterns or travel to the mainland even for water. Mail and supplies came by boat, but crossings and landings could be difficult and unpredictable. Most keepers served in the days before radio or telephone; some relied on carrier pigeons to bring important news.
The keeper’s main job was to make sure that the light shone every night from sunset to sunrise and to sound the foghorn during inclement weather. This mainly meant keeping the wicks trimmed and lit precisely on time, lugging oil up the stairs to keep them burning, keeping all the buildings whitewashed and mechanical parts polished and operating smoothly. Keepers also were required “to aid wrecked persons as far as lies in their power,” as one government circular put it. Most of the keepers were men, although many brought families with them. By the second half of the 19th century, a handful of lights provided some sort of facility for teaching the keepers’ children.