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Presidential Appointments of Lighthouse Keepers

The earliest lighthouse keeper appointments in the new nation were approved by President Washington. The practice continued with Thomas Jefferson but as the number of lighthouses grew, keeper appointments became the responsibility of the Secretary of the Treasury.(The Treasury Department administered lighthouses from 1790 to 1901). There are some exceptions however. Apparently John and Rebecca Flaherty had some sort of connection to President John Quincy Adams and his wife Louisa, and did not hesitate to use it.

According to Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers, Rebecca Flaherty wrote Mrs. Adams asking for her influence in seeking a keeper appointment at Thomas Point, Maryland, for her husband John, a War of 1812 veteran. Eventually in the spring of 1826 John received an appointment as keeper of Dry Tortugas Lighthouse in Florida. The Flahertys did not fare well at that isolated station and soon requested a switch with the keeper at Sand Key, a station nine miles from Key West. The request was granted by President Adams in the letter below.

Letter dated January 18, 1827, from Stephen Pleasonton to President John Quincy Adams requesting his approval of the keeper appointments at Dry Tortugas and Sand Key Lighthouses, Florida. National Archives, Record Group 26, Entry 17I “Correspondence Relating to the Appointment of Lighthouse Keepers, 1801 -1852.”

As you can see, President Adams noted his approval directly on the letter, not an uncommon practice, although the presidents generally just “initialed” their approval.

RG 26 E 17I Flaherty appointment extract lores.jpeg
President Adam’s approval extracted from letter above.

I did not see this letter when researching Women Who Kept the Lights, but it came to light when gathering some material for U.S. Lighthouse Society member Neil Hurley, who researches Florida light keepers and is currently writing a book on the vessels and towers that have lit Carysfort Reef in the Florida Keys.

2016 photo of Carysfort Reef Lighthouse showing both the old tower and its new replacement tower in the distance. Courtesy Neil Hurley.

Submitted by Candace Clifford, January 8, 2017

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5 thoughts on “Presidential Appointments of Lighthouse Keepers

  1. Nice piece of research. I have a copy of a letter signed by Alexander Hamilton assigning the first keeper Samuel Huston at Cape AnnLight in1793. I believe you found this for me years ago.

  2. When did presidents stop directly approving keeper appointments? I thought by the Lighthouse Board era the appointments didn’t have to go any higher than the Secretary of Treasury, but maybe I’m mistaken.

  3. Hi. Can you share with me any information about the appointment by Thomas Jefferson of the keeper of he lighthouse near Georgetown, South Carolina. I don not have the date or other information. Thank you. Dennis Dutterer

    1. Early presidents approved all lighthouse keeper appointments. The lighthouse at Georgetown went into service in 1800, when John Adams was president. so Adams presumably approved the appointment of the first keeper,John Shackleford. I have no information beyond that.

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