Captain Joshua Kenney Card here at Portsmouth Harbor Light, over at the New Hampshire Seacoast. As the Christmas holiday is coming up I thought I’d tell you a true story about a lighthouse down in Connecticut, with a tie-in to Christmas. I hope you enjoy it.
Stamford Harbor Lighthouse is a caisson light about 3600 feet offshore in western Long Island Sound, established in 1882. John J. Cook was the keeper 1907 to 1909; he later went to a much longer stint at Rhode Island’s Dutch Island Light Station. Cook, originally from Denmark, went to sea early in life and was said to possess a large collection of medals from his years in the U.S. Navy.
In May 1908, a newspaper story with the headline “Heroine Passes Night of Terror” told a genuinely harrowing tale. Cook’s mother-in-law, Louisa Weickman, was living at the lighthouse with her daughter Martha and Keeper Cook that spring. Martha was feeling ill and left to spend some time on shore with friends. After some days had passed, word came back to the lighthouse that she was anxious to return and Cook set out in the station’s fifteen-foot motor launch to pick her up.
Cook picked up his wife and headed back for the lighthouse in the afternoon. The wind picked up from the northwest, and at about 5:30 Mrs. Weickman saw the boat approaching. Cook was struggling against the wind and tide and the boat was briefly hung up on a rock. The keeper got out in knee-high water and shoved the boat off, but another landing attempt was unsuccessful. Pushing off from another rock, Cook lost one of his two oars in the water. “We’ll go back to shore and come out when this is over,” shouted the keeper to his mother-in-law. “You keep the light going.”
Mrs. Weickman watched the little boat drift away, but then a steamer passed by and she lost sight of the launch. She feared that they had been struck and killed by the steamer. “I have known a lot of sorrow,” she said, “but I don’t think I ever suffered so much as that night. I was powerless to do anything. . . .All I could do was watch, pray and hope.” Despite her anxiety, Mrs. Weickman lit the lighthouse lamp at sunset and sat by one of the tower’s windows. She stayed at the window all night. “Sleep I did not dream of,” she said, “food I did not want.”
The next day passed with no word. Finally, about 10:00 that night, a man came near the lighthouse in a boat and told Mrs. Weickman that Martha and John had been picked up on Long Island. They had gone ashore near Eaton’s Neck, and a surfman from the lifesaving station there found the empty boat and then Keeper Cook plodding down the beach carrying his weakened wife in his arms. Cook was concerned that the light might have gone out in the lighthouse. But the lifesaving station crew contacted someone in Stamford and learned that the light had not failed. The family was soon reunited. “My prayers are answered,” said Mrs. Weickman.
The following December, John J. Cook and family again made the newspapers. A reporter asked the keeper how he could possibly enjoy Christmas in such an isolated, lonely place. Cook’s reply showed him to be quite a philosopher:
I dunno, it is pretty lonesome here sometimes, especially in winter, but we manage to enjoy our holidays. We can’t go to church on Christmas and we miss the nice music and the fine sermons, but there is a compensation for that. What more soul-stirring music could there be than that of wind and wave as they whistle and roar or moan and swish past our little home?
And that light aloft is a sermon in itself. Many a fervent “Thank God,” many a heart-deep prayer has gone up, maybe from people who wouldn’t be thinking of such things ashore, when the red gleam of Stamford Light was made out in a storm, or the bell heard in a fog. My little light has its mission just as your pulpit preacher has his; and no one who has watched it through the terrible winter storms can fail to appreciate this, and with it his responsibility. Human life, yes, human souls depend upon that light Christmas and every other night of the year, and I dare guess it’s compensation for the loss of a Christmas sermon to keep the light burning steadily.
Keeper Cook explained that with such unpredictable weather and sea conditions, preparations and Christmas shopping had to be done well in advance. He described the Christmas feast they had a year earlier, with goose, mince pie, and plum pudding. Christmas evening would be spent much like any other, with conversation, card playing, or perhaps reading books or newspapers.
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