Life in a Lighthouse


Beginning with the lighting of the Fort Gratiot Light in 1825, and continuing until 1983, when the last manually operated lighthouse in Michigan was automated, lighthouse keepers kept the lights lit each night. A keeper's life was unique. It was very different from that experienced by most Americans in the late twentieth century. This section of the exhibit discusses six aspects of a keeper's life. The seventh and closing section discusses the sources used to create this portion of the exhibit.


For most of the nineteenth century keepers were political appointees. Generally the local collector of customs nominated an individual to the Secretary of the Treasury, who formally appointed each keeper. The collector of customs, also a political appointee, most often used keeper nominations to repay political favors. Until the 1850s this system of appointment stymied all efforts to reform the service and establish a merit appointment system. Slowly, however, various reforms were put in place that limited the range of political appointments.

By the 1870s the Lighthouse Board, which then was responsible for the operation of all lighthouses in the U.S., had established basic characteristics that keepers must possess. Newly appointed keepers should be between the ages of eighteen and fifty. A keeper should be able to read and write, keep simple financial accounts, be able to pull and sail a boat, and possess sufficient skill to maintain the equipment and perform minor repairs. Nominations from the collectors of customs were forwarded to the Board, which arranged for each nominee to be interviewed. A three month probationary period, overseen by the Board, was also required before an appointment became permanent.

In 1896 light house keepers became members of the federal civil service, removing them entirely from the process of political appointment. In 1939, when the Lighthouse Service became a part of the U.S. Coast Guard, keepers who were then working had a choice of either retaining their civilian status or becoming members of the Coast Guard. After 1939 all newly employed individuals who worked with Great Lakes navigational aids were members of the Coast Guard.

The Work

In the early parts of the nineteenth century there was little by way of formal regulation that defined a keeper's responsibilities. However, as the Lighthouse Board became increasingly involved in the work of running the lights it established an ever growing lists of rules and regulations that defined the keeper's daily routine.

In 1852 the first written rules for keepers were promulgated. A keeper could be immediately dismissed if he or she were discovered intoxicated or, if for any reason, the light was extinguished. Without written permission a keeper could leave his or her station for only two reasons, to draw pay or to attend Sunday religious services.

By 1858 the third edition of these rules had become very extensive, running to eighty-seven printed pages. In addition to general guidelines and rules regarding conduct, the publication included very specific instructions regarding the operation and maintenance of the light. The Lighthouse Board outlined 131 separate tasks keepers were to perform in order to use and maintain a Fresnel lens apparatus. For example keepers were told that after lighting the "central wick, No. 1" should be raised 3/10 of an inch.

Such detailed instructions left little to the keeper's judgement, however, they likely represented the only way the Lighthouse Board could effectively run its often remote system of lighthouses using untrained personnel who were usually political appointees. The Board constructed a system that would work reasonably well if the keeper was conscientious, could read, and was willing to follow instructions.

Although a keeper's work was sometimes glamorized in the press, the daily routine of a keeper typically involved performing very routinized tasks, often in an isolated, uncomfortable setting. Maxwell Gertz, reflecting on his years at the Manituou Island Light recalled:

"We had two big air compressors in the engine room that was for the foghorn. ... And then there was three generators and a big bank of batteries. ... So all those machinery had to be serviced, and oil had to be changed constantly. ... Plus if anybody knows living around the water, that painting and deterioration of the buildings around the water is more so than inland. Plus the light had to be maintained. ... Well that all had to be polished and kept right up to--oh boy. Oh, every day there was a man up there [who] had to check it out to make sure that the light operated properly...and that the lens were clean and all the brass. You had a lot of work on the inside. The tower, it seemed like it was forever in need of attention inside because of the condensation."

James F. Sheridan, who grew up during the 1910s at the Saugutuck Light where his father was keeper, recalls about his father's work:

"Things that I remember mostly about his duties were, there seemed to always be a paintbrush in his hand. ..... The government put great stock in painting. They painted and they repainted and they painted, until paint usually built up so it had so many coats there was no sharp edges at all anymore. Not such a thing as a sharp edge in any corner of a piece of wood. It always had a curved edge."

Bringing supplies for the lighthouse was also often very hard, tedious work. Leland L. Richards, who grew up at the Pointe Aux Barques Light during the 1920s, recalls:

Once a year the lighthouse boat--it was the Aspen, the Amaranth, or the Marigold--stopped out there about two miles. They didn't dare come any closer. And they loaded everything into their small boats with the crew loading it. And that kerosene alone was a big deal. It filled the oil house and its--the oil house is ten or twelve feet in diameter and higher than this room [about eight feet], so you know. It had shelves all the way around see. It was round. And they'd put the kerosene in there. And the, of course, when we had to take the kerosene out of there in five-gallon cans and carry it all the way to the top of the lighthouse, that was something. That was really hard work."

If the actual work was great, the paperwork that accompanied it could also be very burdensome. The keeper was responsible for accounting annually for virtually every item used on the station, both as a record of past activity and to determine what supplies would be needed for the next season. Maxwell Gertz remembered:

Daily Log"That would be fuel, that'd be paintbrushes, paint, soap that was needed, toilet paper. You could name it. Everything that you'd use at home. Plus all the engines, all the necessary lubricating oils, all the gasoline that was used for the boat. Well, you could name anything and it had to be -- We'd have a record of that."

In addition the keeper was expected to maintain a log of daily events. Donald L. Nelson, who between 1953 and 1955 was stationed at the Keweenaw Waterway Lower Entry Light, recalled that, paradoxically, one of the hardest parts of his job was working while others enjoyed themselves.

"Well, the most difficult time, I think, was in the beautiful weather of July and August. It may sound funny. But that, I think, would be the hardest time because there you were on the station and everybody is out there boating by, in their cruisers and enjoying themselves. And here you were, watch-standing."

A typical day at a light house was passed cleaning, fixing, and recording, as well standing watch, making sure the light burned brightly.


Despite their many duties, keepers often found themselves with a great deal of time on their hands. To occupy themselves keepers turned to a variety of recreational activities. Reading was a common pastime. To facilitate this pastime in 1876 the Lighthouse Service began to assemble and distribute to the lights portable libraries. A typical library consisted of about fifty books, usually a mix history, fiction, poetry, scientific works, and always a bible. Originally libraries were left at a station for six months, however their popularity led the Lighthouse Board to direct that the libraries be moved every three months. Stations continued to receive portable libraries into the 1920s. Studying was also common. Many keepers used their spare hours to take correspondence courses and improve themselves and their skills.

Fishing was popular, both for recreational reasons and to supplement the station's food. Maxwell Gertz recalls that at the Manitou Island Light,

"The fishing was great. Some of the best. ... You could take a skiff out front and row around for five minutes, come in with a three to five pound nice lake trout, prepare it, put it on a cookie sheet, and put it in an oven and broil it in there, and it would be the best."

Sometimes keepers developed time consuming personal hobbies. Building models from sheets of balsa wood, particularly of ships or airplanes, was one way to pass the hours. Others sought out the unique resources available to them at their site. Maxwell Gertz spent time on the beach picking agates that eventually became jewelry. A keeper at the Rock of Ages Light, taking advantage of a regular supply of dead birds, became an accomplished taxidermist. Ultimately a game of cards, often solitaire, became a way to pass the time.

Domestic Life

The Lighthouse Board early on expressed a preference to hire married men, whom the Board considered more reliable. Until the Coast Guard assumed control of the lights in 1939, this remained a common practice and the majority of keepers were married. Because of this all but the most isolated lights frequently were inhabited not only by the keeper, but also his wife and family.

Keepers wives often proved to be extraordinarily resourceful and resilient. Often they stood watch in the keepers absence. James A. Goudreau, who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s at the South Fox Island and Poverty Island Lights, recalls:

"A lot of women used to stand watched for the men. They'd [the men] work all day, and then still had your watched to stand. If they happened to be working extra hard or something, needed a little extra rest... So, the wife might get up..."

Many women played a vital role in the operation of the lights. For example Elizabeth Whitney Van Riper Williams came to the Beaver Island Light in 1869 when her husband was appointed to succeed Peter McKinley. In fact McKinley had been in chronic poor health and for almost nine years his daughters Effie and Mary had effectively run the light. Elizabeth learned well from her husband that which was needed to operate a light efficiently and when he died trying to rescue a ship's crew she was appointed keeper of the light. In 1878 Elizabeth remarried, but she continued on as a keeper. In 1884 she was appointed keeper of the Little Traverse Lighthouse.

Frequently children were born at a light. John Malone was in 1875 appointed keeper of the newly built Menagerie Island Light on Isle Royale. Grateful for the appointment, Malone named his first child, who was born at the light, after the Inspector who had appointed him. Eventually Mrs. Malone bore twelve children by John, all given birth at the light. The Malone's continued their tradition of naming their children in honor of the sitting district inspector, a feat that proved difficult during the year when two inspectors held the post but which was resolved when Mrs. Malone fortuitously gave birth to twins.

Efforts were made to assign keepers with school age children to lights with nearby schools. "Nearby," however, was a relative term and many children endured considerable difficulties to attend school. Dorotha Dodge, whose father tended various Detroit River lights in the early years of the twentieth century recalls:

"Well it was a mile from Mamajuda [a light, now abandoned, that once was in the Detroit River] to Wyandotte, and Daddy would row it over there, take me too--had to go by boat. ....

But one time Daddy came and got me from school and the wind was blowing just something terrible. So one of the fellows there where ... we used to dock the boat, he said, 'You better not go, Jim.' 'Oh,' he says, 'I gotta go.' He says, 'Stella's over there all alone.'"

Difficult as Doretha's daily trip was, many keepers children were unable to regularly attend public school and were, instead, home schooled.

In an era before radio and television children living at lighthouses often struggled to amuse themselves. James Goudreau recalls that while he was growing up at the Poverty Island Light

"The kids were a major problem. They had a couple that were like the Katzenjammer kids; they were in constant trouble."

At Poverty Island children would often get into trouble by using the keeper's tools for their own purposes or "defacing" the station by using the paint left over in an old bucket to ornament the sidewalk. Goudreau recalls that children who got into serious trouble were locked in an abandoned coal bin.

"...when they closed the door it was dark in there also. So that you could hear somebody say, 'You're going to the coal bin' and you knew that somebody had messed up, real bad."

Regulations were very specific that children never should be allowed near the light itself. Virtually all the children raised at lighthouses recall how seriously this rule was taken. Goudreau recalls,

"They wouldn't let me touch it. Oh, my god, that would be sacrilegious to go up there and touch the lights. No, I might put fingerprints on the lens or something. Can't do that."

Occasionally, if a station were not too isolated, relatives might come to visit. Don Nelson recalled the mid-summer holidays as particularly popular among family.

"Because it seemed to be that the Fourth of July was a summer break when the relatives seemed to feel, 'Hey, wouldn't it be nice to spend three or four days down at a lighthouse?' So we'd have people sleeping all over."

The Season's End

Lake navigation ceased during the winter and therefore during the winter there was no need for many lights. Thus the keepers of the most isolated stations were allowed to extinguish their light at the close of the navigation season and spend the winter in nearby towns or villages.

Leaving the lighthouse at the end of the season often proved difficult and dangerous. Deaths were common when keepers, leaving a lighthouse in a small, open vessel, ran into sudden storms. In 1900, for example, five keepers died on their way home for the season. The passage of time in some ways made the annual ritual of leaving the lights more complex, as crews from ever more remote points needed to be brought home.

The exploits of the tender Marigold at the end of the 1911 season exemplify the problems experienced at the close of the season. On December 2 the Marigold removed the keepers from Stannard Rock Light. A week later, having weathered a severe storm and running low of both food and fuel, the Marigold plucked the crew from Raspberry Light in Wisconsin's Apostle Islands.

Despite the ship's dwindling stocks, the crew of the Marigold pressed on, realizing that the situation of the keepers at other lights was becoming desperate. The Marigold reached Sand Island and Outer Island lights on December 11. On December 16 the Marigold came near the Rock of Ages light, where the keepers had left to eat only one remaining can of food. Ice presented a serious threat at the Rock of Ages Light and two of the keepers suffered frostbite when transferring from the light to the Marigold.

Returning to Duluth with virtually no coal left in its bunkers, the Marigold had to ram its way through two miles of solid ice to finally reach port. Despite this harrowing voyage, the crew of the Marigold entered port prepared for a speedy resupplying of their vessel and a hasty departure to rescue keepers stranded on the Passage Island and Devil's Island lights. Fortunately for the crew of the Marigold, they learned in Duluth that a Canadian icebreaker had already rescued the keepers at Passage Island, while the crew of Devil's Island Light had walked over the lake's frozen surface to safety.

Dramatic Rescues and Spirits from the Past

The popular press's fascination with lighthouse keepers was often fueled by keeper's dramatic rescues of individuals from sinking vessels. Typical of these rescue accounts are two stories from 1906; one of Klass Hamringa, stationed on Isle Royale and the other of Martin Knudsen, stationed at the Pilot Island Light off Green Bay, Wisconsin. The sharp-eyed Hamringa noticed in December smoke coming from a distant portion of the island. Rowing seven miles he discovered forty-three survivors of the passenger ship Monarch, which had been driven aground several days earlier in a violent storm. Although high seas kept Hamringa from reaching shore, he was able to contact the tug Whalen, the crew of which rescued the passengers.

Martin Knudsen, observing from his light the wreck of the A.P. Nichols walked out to the doomed ship in the night by way of several shoals. Despite violent seas often reaching to his neck, he nevertheless reached the ship and eventually guided six survivors back to the shore.

Not all the heroes of the lights were men, or necessarily even keepers. For example, on May 11, 1890, Maebelle L. Mason, the fourteen year old daughter of a light house keeper along the Detroit River, saw a rowboat with a man in it capsize. Her father away, Maebelle launched the family boat, rowed for more than a mile, hauled the drowning man into her boat, and rowed back to the station.

Stories of dramatic rescues by keepers and their families were many and frequently became a staple of newspaper accounts of the keeper's lives.

Perhaps because of the isolation experienced at many lights and the occasional tragedies that occured within or near them, it is not surprising that several stations eventually were rumored to be haunted. One of the best known ghosts is said to live at the now abandoned Waugoshance Light.

John Herman was first stationed at Waugoshance in 1885. Herman was well known both for his practical jokes and his heavy drinking while on shore leave, the latter a condition that occasionally persisted after his return to the light. One evening in August 1894 a well lit Herman in jest locked his assistant in the lamp room, then walked out on the light's pier, perhaps for a breathe of air. The temporarily imprisoned assistant watched Herman stagger along the pier and then suddenly disappear.

Tradition has it that after Herman's death strange occurrences, practical jokes similar to those played by Herman but for which no one now claimed responsibility, began to occur at Waugoshance. Chairs were mysteriously kicked out from under keepers. Doors would open or lock without explanation. On occasion an unseen being reportedly shoveled coal into the boiler. Although officially the Waugoshance Light was abandoned when it was replaced by the White Shoal Light, rumors persist that Waugoshance was really abandoned because no one wanted to contend with the ghost of Johnnie Herman.


In writing this brief account of a keeper's life information was taken primarily from Charles K. Hyde, The Northern Lights: Lighthouses of The Upper Great Lakes (Lansing: Two Peninsula Press, 1986). Quotations were taken from LuAnne Gaykowski Kozma, editor, Living at a Lighthouse: Oral Histories from the Great Lakes (Detroit: Great Lakes Lighthouse Keepers Association, 1987).