Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.
Let me dispel a bit of misinformation that is circulating, prompted by self-appointed experts who never check the accuracy of their assumptions. As far as I’ve been able to research, women who kept the lights were paid the same salary as male keepers. My husband John was paid $600 a year; and when I finally received his appointment, I was paid $600 a year. With their housing provided, in the 1890s a family could live, frugally, on less than $2 a day.
The Gold Rush in 1849 in California led to a steep increase in everyone’s salary on the West Coast because skilled labor became very hard to find. After several vessels experienced difficulty in the waters along the West Coast, Congress passed acts in 1850 and 1851 that provided funds for eight lighthouses to be built along the Pacific Coast. Light from a fixed, third-order Fresnel lens was first shown from Alcatraz Lighthouse on June 1, 1854, with Michael Kassin eventually receiving an annual salary of $1,100 as head keeper and John Sloan being paid $700 to serve as his assistant.
As I’ve already told you, I earned $600 a year in 1894. Emma Taberrah, who in 1904 was appointed keeper of the Cumberland Head Light Station, earned only $480, but she was keeping a minor station on Lake Champlain in Upstate New York and did not tend a fog signal.
In 1918 Congress decreed that the average salary for light keepers should be $840. These salaries were supplemented by food supplies brought by tender to locations where there was no suitable land for gardening or keeping livestock.
Information is from F. Ross Holland, Maryland Lighthouses of the Chesapeake Bay (Maryland Historical Trust Press and The Friends of St. Clements Island Museum, 1997); <Lighthousefriends.com>; Clifford, Women Who Kept the Lights (available from the Keeper’s Locker); and Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 7, July 1918.
Submitted May 10, 2018
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Candace was the US Lighthouse Society historian from 2016 until she passed away in August 2018. For 30 years, her work involved lighthouse history. She worked with the National Park Service and the Council of American Maritime Museums. She was a noted author and was considered the most knowledgable person on lighthouse information at the National Archives. Books by Candace Clifford include: Women who Kept the Lights: a History of Thirty-eight Female Lighthouse Keepers , Mind the Light Katie, and Maine Lighthouses, Documentation of their Past.