Path Through Maritime History: Lighthouses & Life-Saving
Path Through Maritime History: Lighthouses & Life-Saving
"Nothing indicated the liberality, prosperity and intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of the mariner to its shores." -Report of the United States Lighthouse Board, 1868 The "Path Through Maritime History: Lighthouses & Life-Saving" exhibit was created by New York Sea Grant, sponsored by Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Inc., and designed by the H. Lee White Maritime Museum at Oswego for the Great New York State Fair 2018 Explore 70 of New York State's unique lighthouses in one place!
Lemoyne, a Jesuit priest, missionary to the Huron and ambassador to the Iroquois, left Quebec City, New France on July 2, 1654 on a mission to broker peace with the Iroquois who occupied much of present day western New York. His mission was to retrieve captive Huron in Iroquois possession and perform missionary work. On August 16, 1654, Lemoyne made a discovery in Onondaga territory that left a lasting impression on all those that followed. He discovered the saft springs of Syracuse (hence the nickname Salt City), which the Onondaga dare not drink given their belief that "...there is an evil spirit in it."
In 1789, all U.S. lighthouses were transferred to the Federal Government, making them responsible for the construction, maintenance, outfitting, and staffing of all lighthouses thereafter. This meant that in addition to determining the locations of lighthouses and appointing keepers, they were also responsible for selecting the mechanisms used to produce the required amount of light. The reflector-type lamp (shown left arranged in a lantern & as originally patented) was the official lamp of the United States until the early 1850s, and was completely phased out by the end of the Civil War in favor of the vastly superior Fresnel Lens.
Early 19th Century Lights:
The Lewis Lamp (shown above) was patented by Winslow Lewis and its advantage was that it used less than half of the oil of those it replaced. It had a parabolic (or curved) reflector behind the lamp, and a 4-inch glass magnifying lens in front of it which focused the light out to sea. In 1812, the Lewis Lamp was selected by the United States for use in most American lighthouses. Groups of lamps were used to provide a bright enough light, depending on need. The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse in Rochester, NY was originally outfitted with 10 reflector-type Lewis Lamps, and was upgraded to a fourth order Fresnel Lens in 1855.
Know Your Lighthouse Lingo!
The source of light is known as the "optic" and the magnification of that light is caused by the "lens." The lens is housed in the "lantern" of the tower which is surrounded by windows known as "storm panes."
The Fresnel Lens
The Fresnel lens, actually a series of standardized lens sizes, is said to be the most significant contribution to lighthouse technology ever made. It was invented by Augustin-Jean Fresnel (1755-1827), a French physicist who made significant contributions to the science of light and optics, and serviced as the Commissioner of French Lighthouses from 1819 until his death. The first Fresnel lens installed in the United States was at Navesink, overlooking the approach to New York Harbor in 1841, and became commonplace in the decades thereafter. Today, Fresnel lens technology is used in everything from illumination to photography, solar power, projection and much, much more. Today, nine Fresnel lenses continue to operate in a New York State lighthouse with the largest being a second order lens at the Staten Island Rear Range Lighthouse.
Fresnel lenses come in different sizes, known as orders. A first order lens is the largest and most powerful, and can be 12 feet high with more than a 6 foot diameter. First order lenses are used primarily as seacoast lights, as their beam is visible over twenty miles out to sea. A sixth order lens is the smallest lens, being only about one foot wide and is used primarily in harbors and channels.
A Keeper's Life
How It Works:
Fresnel's design was based on refraction, or the bending of light through glass. Through a series of circular reflective glass prisms, getting smaller in size as they move toward the center of the lens, light is captured and reflected seaward in a single horizontal direction. For example, an open flame loses nearly 97% of its light. By placing a reflector behind it, it can project upwards of 17% of the light produced. Placing that same light inside of a Fresnel lens can capture upwards of 83%, making it visible for many miles out to sea from a single light of source. In 1857, the Montauk Point Lighthouse on Long Island (shown here) was upgraded to a First Order Fresnel Lens. It is the oldest lighthouse in New York, and the 4th oldest active lighthouse in the United States.
A Keeper's Life
Famed New York artist Norman Rockwell's "The Lighthouse Keepers Daughter" -1923 From the cover of "The Literary Digest" of July 28,1923 as printed by the Funk & Wagnalis company of New York City A lighthouse keeper is the person responsible for tending and caring for a lighthouse - particularly the light and lens. The men and women who tended the light were people of unparalleled dedication and courage. Being a keeper was one of toughest jobs around. They worked long hours and were willing to put their own lives in danger in order to keep others safe. They worked in all kinds of weather, especially during hurricanes, blizzards, and gales when passing ships were in the greatest danger. Keepers lived at the lighthouse and were at work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
It wasn't until the 1870 that the U.S. Lighthouse Board established basic requirements a keeper must possess. All keepers had to be between the ages of 18 and 50, able to read and write, keep financial accounts, be able to pull and sail a boat, and possess the necessary skills to maintain the equipment. This required a formal interview process, as well as three month probationary period to be permanently appointed.
Becoming a Keeper
Prior to 1896, lighthouse keepers were political appointees as the local Collector of Customs nominated an individual to the Secretary of the Treasury for formal appointment. After the American Civil War, many veterans were appointed as keepers to augment the growing service. In 1896, lighthouse keepers became members of the federal civil service, removing the process of political appointment, and in 1939 the Coast Guard assumed control of all U.S. aids-to-navigation giving then current keepers the option to enlist, while all new recruits became members of the Coast Guard.
Family Life at the Light:
At all but the most isolated lighthouses, keepers were permitted - often encouraged - to raise a family. A keeper's family often proved to be extraordinarily helpful, as they assisted in maintaining the grounds, managing the livestock and gardens, and often understood how to properly operate the light. Many women became keepers when their husbands or fathers past away in service to a lighthouse because they were already equipped with the requisite skills to operate that particular light station. When William Murray was Keeper of the Hudson-Athens Lighthouse (shown left) between 1918 & 1920, he and his wife Lillian gave birth to three children at the Lighthouse.
A Keeper's Day: A Day in the Life of a Keeper
The primary duty of a lighthouse keeper was to light the tower's lamp every night and make sure that the lamp stayed lit until the sun rose the next day, or all day during inclement weather such as a hurricane. This occured 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with no exceptions. They could not call in sick and rarely took a day off. During daylight hours the lamps had to be fueled, the wicks trimmed, and the lenses and windows kept free of soot to ensure proper illumination. Other duties included maintaining the clockwork mechanisms and fog bells, cleaning and maintaining the lighthouse's grounds, recording weather and ship activity, assisting mariners in distress, tending the gardens and livestock, giving the public tours, and much, much more. Each of the above tasks was meticulously recorded in a log book while wearing a neatly kept uniform. Failure to complete these tasks was grounds for disciplinary action, or even removal from the Service.
The Keeper's Uniform:
Uniforms (as shown left) were introduced to the Lighthouse Service beginning in 1884 and were adorned with insignia and ornamental buttons. The wearing of both dress and fatigue uniforms became mandatory for all male lighthouse keepers, while female keepers were not assigned a uniform. The uniform consisted of a coat, vest, trousers and cap. Given that keepers had to pay for their own uniforms, they were often ordered from larger outfitters, or custom designed by a local tailor leading to slight differences from one to the next. Life at an offshore lighthouse wasn't easy, and life at the Tarrytown Lighthouse required the keeper to row to town or tranverse atop the iced over Hudson River for supplies. On occasion, the keeper's day was met with the need for selfless service, as well. Throughout the 1920, Tarrytown Keeper John Brown was commended for rescuing three women, a man, and a child in 1922. He later rescued two men from drowning in 1925 and in 1929 went to the rescue of a sinking steamship. A keeper's day was anything but ordinary! The Tarrytown Lighthouse (shown here) was built in 1883 and is the only caisson-style lighthouse remaining on the Hudson River.
Ladies of the Lights
The Keepers List:
Bluff Point Lighthouse: Mary J. Herwerth -1881-1903
Cow Island Lighthouse: Mrs. Thomas Hudson - 1853-1873
Cumberland Head Light: Emma D. Tabberrah - 1904-1919
Elm Tree Lighthouse: Sarah Ann Hooper - 1859-1867
Fort Columbus Fog Bell: Leslie Moore - 1873-1882
New Baltimore Stake Light: Eliza Smith - 1864-1870
Old Field Point Lighthouse: Mrs. Edward Shoemaker - 1826-1827, Elizabeth Smith -1830-1856, Mary A. Foser -1856-1869
Robbins Reef Lighthouse: Kate Walker - 1894-1919
Rondout Creek Lighthouse: Catherine Murdock - 1857-1907
Saugerties Lighthouse: Kate A. Crowley - 1873-1885
Schodack Channel Light: Joanna Lawton - 1860-1873
Stony Point Lighthouse: Nancy Rose - 1857-1904, Melinda Rose - 1904-1905
Stuyvesant Lighthouse: Christa Whitbeck - 1841-1853, Ann Whitbeck -1853-1866
Throngs Neck Lighthouse: Ellen Lyons - 1876-1881
The Female Keepers of New York State:
Women were first officially assigned as keepers of lighthouses beginning in the 1830s, making it one of the first U.S. government positions available to women nearly a century before obtaining the right to vote. Civilian women continued to manage lighthouses until 1947. New York State's first female lighthouse keeper was Mrs. Edward Shoemaker, who in 1826 replaced her deceased husband at the Old Field Point light Station at Long Island Sound. This occurrence was not unusual at the time, as the wives, daughters and relatives of keepers were often well trained at managing the aids to navigation, performing rescues, and all other tasks required of the keeper. Throughout its history, New York State has had at least 20 female primary lighthouse keepers who served for at least one year. Mrs. Catherine Murdock served as Keeper of the Rondout Creek Light Station (shown below) on the Hudson River for 50 years between 1857 and 1907, making her the longest serving female lighthouse keeper in New York State's history.
History of Life Jackets
Personal flotation devices have been used since ancient times, but the first modern-day version of a wearable life jacket has its origins in 1851 and was invented by Captain John Ross Ward for the United Kingdom's National Lifeboat Institute.
In 1852, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring passenger steamboats to carry a float or life preserver for every passenger on board, but it was not until after the Titanic sank that international regulations existed, like those established by the first International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) in 1913. Early Cork Life Vest and Throwable PFD
The buoyancy of early life jackets was mainly provided by cork blocks (as in the example shown above-right) or balsa wood. For a time in the early to mid-20th century, Kapok (a vegetable material) was used giving more dexterity to the wearer, but lost buoyancy when compressed or sat on. The early materials were eventually replaced with synthetic materials, like foam.
The Life Jacket Evolves:
The inflatable life jacket, invented in the 1930s, was popularized during World War II and was used by allied air forces as part of their standard flight gear. It was known then as the "Mary West" as it resembled the physique of the then popular film star. Early life jackets contained one major flaw, though; as they failed keep an unconscious wearer's head upright. Self-righting life jackets didn't become standard for recreational water sports until the 1960s as USCG regulations continually improved. Since 1952, the United States Coast Guard has maintained regulations that stipulate when, where and how each of the five types of approves personal flotation devices are used in the U.S.
Lighthouses of New York
A Lighthouse is a tower or other structure that contains a beacon light to warn or guide ships at sea or along inland waterways. As such, they are essential to the mariner's safe passage as well as the commercial and economic success of the locations that employ them.
New York's Lighthouses:
There are over 90 lighthouses, light ships, or other such culturally significant sites currently within the borders of New York State. While each has their own unique significance, some of New York State's lighthouses shine bright on the national stage too. The Montauk Point Lighthouse (1797) is the oldest in the State (4th oldest active light in the U.S.) and was the first public works project of the United States Government. The Sandy Hook Lighthouse (1761) is the oldest standing lighthouse in the United States, located at the entrance of New York Harbor. The Statue of Liberty doubled as a lighthouse between 1886 and 1902, and was the first electrically lit beacon in the United States. The Charlotte-Genesee Lighthouse (1822) is the oldest active lighthouse on Lake Ontario. New York State is home to 2,625 miles of shoreline with 1,530 square miles of estuaries, bays, and harbors making aids to navigation a critical component of water-based travel and commerce. Explore 70 of New York State's iconic lighthouses at the interactive kiosk and the lives of keepers and the workings of beacons, here at 'Path Through Maritime History: Lighthouses & Life-Saving" exhibit. The "Path Through Maritime History: Lighthouses & Life-Saving" exhibit was created by New York Sea Grant, sponsored by Great Lakes Seaway Trail, Inc., and designed by the H. Lee White Maritime Museum at Oswego for the Great New York State Fair 2018.
Tragedy at the Light
One Fateful Day:
During a prolonged and historic storm on December 4, 1942 in Oswego Harbor Keeper Karl Jackson had been stranded at the Oswego West Pierhead Lighthouse for three days. That morning the winds slightly subsided and a 38-foot Pickett boat, with 11 souls aboard, left the Lifeboat Station to relieve Jackson with his two replacements. The exchange was made successfully, but as the wooden hulled boat backed away from the foundation of the Lighthouse the engine failed. The 125-pound anchor was ordered dropped to stall the drift, yet within two minutes the line snapped and the vessel continued toward the east breakwater. Hero port side crashed into the jagged rocks rolling her over and hurling most of the crew into the frigid winter waters. "they were fighting to beat the devil"
Of the ten men aboard the overturned vessel, four managed to reach the icy east arrowhead breakwater. Once the situation was noticed by the crew at the Lifeboat Station, they quickly mobilized the 36-foot motor lifeboat for a heroic and risky rescue attempt of the four survivors.
One Man's Story
Andrew Cisternino, a Syracuse native who joined the USCG in the wake of Pearl Harbor, was on watch duty that day as the station received word of the overturned vessel. Cisternino was one of the crew aboard the 36-foot motor lifeboat, piloted by BM2 Robert Burnet. Only able to spot one body in the water that of the station's commanding officer LTJG Altson Wilson, Cisternino tied a rope around his waist and leapt into the icy water despite not being a great swimmer. Unable to retrieve the body, he was pulled to safety. Andrew Cisternino lost good friends that day, and was hospitalized for exposure. "They're always in my mind," he stated during an interview with the Syracuse Post Standard in 1996. Andrew Cisternino's uniform is on display in this exhibit.
Above (left) the wreckage of the ill-fated 38-foot Pickett Boat washed ashore and (right) the memorial plaque placed in Veterans Memorial Park along the west bank of the Oswego River honoring their sacrifice. Below, the original USCG Lifeboat Station on Oswego's east-side from which the crew was stationed.