Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef. The possibility of tragedy was never far from a keeper’s mind, especially in heavy weather.
A serious accident occurred in 1884. The 4th District Inspector wrote the Chairman of the Light-House Board that “Henry Stevens, a seaman on board Lightship No. 40 on Five Fathom Bank, fell from aloft while in the performance of duty, and was very badly injured, and has been confined to his bed for several months. . . . The Doctor who attended him has presented a bill for $161.05 for professional services and medicine. Stevens received his injuries in the line of duty and I respectfully recommend, if it can be done, that the bill be paid by the Light-House Establishment.”
Letter from 1st Assistant Keeper Robert F. Graham at Grosse Point Light Station in Illinois to C.E. Clark, Inspector, Chicago, July 25, 1888: “Our baby died this morn. At 2 a.m. and I asked the Keeper Mr. Hagan to be excused from duty for two days untill after the funeral, but he would not grant it. He said I must write to you and ask it.”
A. Hagan, Keeper at Grosse Point, informed Inspector C.E. Clark on July 25, 1888, “that Mr. F.R. Graham, 1st Asst. left the Light on his Watch at 12:25 a.m. without calling the Keeper to attend to his sick Infant Baby. At 12 a.m the Keeper got up and looking up to the Light, seen it burning very low, went immediately up to the light, and “to my astonishment found two
strange Ladys tending to the light. I immediately dismissed the Ladys and stayed in the tower until relieved by Mr. B.”
On May 21, 1899, Keeper Myers at Lubec Channel Light in Maine noted that “the assistant keeper have to go home to stay with his son through sickness and death of his son. The principal keeper had to take his wife on as the
assistant – could not get a man to take his place at the time”
Sickness and death were a continual theme at Eagle Island Light Station in Maine. In June 1902, keeper Howard Ball reported several doctors visits to care for seven-year-old Agnes. Agnes died on July 7. On July 15, 1903, the doctor was sent for to attend Mrs. Ball. Her condition was serious and she was sent to a hospital to have her appendix removed. On February 1, 1910, son Elmer was sent to the hospital. Keeper Ball was called to his side on February 16, and on February 22 Elmer died. Tragedy struck again in January 1913 when Keeper Ball caught pneumonia after assisting a fishing vessel during a storm; he died within a week.
In June 1892 1st Assistant Keeper Wesley Smith at South Manitou Light Station in Michigan reported to the inspector that he was “sick as I strained myself when we repared the boillors though I have done my dooty so far but I must have Doctor’s help which I can’t get here. I think if I could get 15 days leaf (sic) I could get cured or helped. There is not enny (sic) doctor nearrer than 210 miles.” Keepers often worked until they dropped.
Family members died as well, causing keepers to request time off for a funeral. Keeper T. F. Smith at July 22, 1911, at a light station in North Carolina made such a request in April 1906: “I have to leave the station today with my daughter (who died yesterday morning) for Washington for enternment. I have provided a competent man for substitute. My wife will remain at the station during my absence.” Inspector McCrea granted a leave of absence.
Information is from National Archives RG 26 E (NC -31); RG 26, Entry 6;
Clifford, Maine Lighthouses, p. 73, 140.
Jeremy D’Entremont is the author of more than 20 books and hundreds of articles on lighthouses and maritime history. He is the president and historian for the American Lighthouse Foundation and founder of Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses, and he has lectured and narrated cruises throughout the Northeast and in other regions. He is also the producer and host of the U.S. Lighthouse Society podcast, “Light Hearted.” He can be emailed at Jeremy@uslhs.org