Noble Sentinels

By Henry Osmers
Eric Jay Dolin

“Brilliant Beacons”
Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, $29.95

“Brilliant Beacons” by Eric Jay Dolin illustrates the history of American lighthouses that played a role, perhaps not widely known, in the economic success of this country. If you’re looking for a comfortable description of lighthouses, from their construction to modern-day automation, this is the book for you. Mr. Dolin’s style of writing makes you feel as if he’s sitting in the room with you and relating tales of long ago.

While his approach is easy to digest, at the same time he takes you on an adventure across the country to isolated locations where lighthouse keepers kept steady vigils, ensuring safe passage of vessels in surrounding waters.

From the inception of the Lighthouse Service in 1789, and despite the obvious necessity of having them, lighthouses encountered opposition, both from outside the organization and within. Regardless of the persuasiveness of the arguments for a lighthouse — the number of shipwrecks in a certain area, or simply to guide vessels safely into ports — they were sometimes denied for fiscal or other reasons. Mr. Dolin notes that on some occasions Congress delayed construction until additional maritime mishaps convinced lawmakers of the need.

And once a lighthouse was built, there were the challenges of maintaining the beacon in an isolated, desolate location, especially in times of war. Mr. Dolin relays the stories of a number of towers that were damaged or darkened, even destroyed, during the American Revolution, probably the most famous being the Boston Lighthouse, which was blown up by retreating British forces in 1776. During the Civil War, numerous towers in the Southern states were deactivated by the Confederates so as not to aid the Union cause, and some of them were destroyed as well. During World War II, with the threat of enemy submarines, lighthouses were rendered ineffective by dimming or darkening their lights to avoid aiding the enemy.

Over the years the Lighthouse Service was not always supervised very well. Mr. Dolin points out the particularly inept and penny-pinching approach of Stephen Pleasonton as head of the service for 30 years in the early 1800s. What is remarkable, he writes, is the continual failure of Congress, even in the face of inferior tower construction and poor lighting equipment, to make changes to the system, especially the installation of the much-superior Fresnel lenses, which were already in use in many European lighthouses.

In the early 1850s, lighthouse management changed abruptly with the inception of the Lighthouse Board, which removed policies previously in place under Pleasonton and led to the immediate installation of Fresnel lenses in all lighthouses. Mr. Dolin notes the difference in the effectiveness of lighthouses under the new administration, which, in military fashion, repaired, replaced, and improved the quality of lighthouses around the country and standardized construction of keepers’ quarters and overall lighthouse procedures.

He goes on to give examples of some extraordinary lighthouse construction projects that seemed insurmountable given their perilous locations, particularly those on tiny wave-swept islands, such as Minot’s Ledge near Boston Harbor. He vividly describes the collapse of the first skeletal tower and the loss of two keepers in 1851, as well as the challenges of building a more formidable granite tower, completed in 1860 (it still stands).

Then there are more unusual stories, such as in the Farallon Islands off California, where common murre eggs were found to make for a lucrative business, and those involved resisted efforts to have a lighthouse built there.

Mr. Dolin also devotes a chapter to the daily lives of the keepers, some of whom were hailed as heroes after they assisted in the rescue of mariners from shipwrecks, though these keepers would be quick to say they were just performing their duty. He writes of the success of women keepers at a number of stations, many of whom took over when their husbands died. Of note are Abbie Burgess at the Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in Maine and Ida Lewis at the Lime Rock Lighthouse in Newport, R.I., whose acts of bravery have become legendary in the history of lighthouses.

Facing the daily challenges of maintaining the light and property, making log entries, and enduring threatening storms form the fabric of a lifestyle unimaginable today. In one extreme example, a band of Seminole Indians attacked the Cape Florida Lighthouse on Key Biscayne in 1836, which led to an extraordinary fight for survival by the keeper and his assistant. The keeper survived, despite his attempt to blow up the tower when all seemed lost.

The immense destruction of the hurricane of Sept. 21, 1938, which affected eastern Long Island and New England lighthouses, has a chapter all its own. The efforts of keepers to maintain their stations in the face of torrential waves and winds exceeding 120 miles per hour (one gust was measured at 186 miles per hour), in some cases with loss of life, were heroic.

With progress comes change, namely the takeover of the nation’s lighthouses by the Coast Guard in 1939 and their subsequent automation. Unfortunately many lighthouse stations were neglected after that, since with automation personnel were no longer needed, and some beacons were vandalized or started crumbling.

One chapter, “The New Keepers,” is dedicated to private organizations and individuals who have stepped forward to preserve and protect America’s lighthouses. A number of historical societies have opened museums at stations (the Montauk Point Lighthouse is one) to illustrate the history of these noble sentinels. The Fire Island Lighthouse is one where such an organization successfully restored the light itself.

Many of the country’s remaining lighthouses have earned inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, and 12 have been honored on a higher level as National Historic Landmarks.

As a reader of numerous volumes on lighthouses, I found “Brilliant Beacons” both exciting and enriching, and difficult to put down. The challenges faced in establishment of light stations, the keepers’ lives, and the ultimate rescue of these valuable parts of America’s maritime history are all presented in a manner that will not fail to stir the imagination.

Henry Osmers is the tour director and historian at the Montauk Point Lighthouse. His latest book is “A Legacy of Valor: A History of Lifesaving and Shipwrecks at Montauk, New York.”

“Brilliant Beacons” will be out in paperback on April 25.

The Fire Island Lighthouse Don Fick, Wikimedia Commons