“For Those in Peril on the Sea…” Lighthouse and Life-Saving Service Records

By Carolyn L. Barkley

In 1789 the ninth act passed by the new United States Congress required that the twelve lighthouses, under individual state control during the colonial period, be ceded to the new federal government. The United States Lighthouse Establishment was created to oversee “aids to navigation” and was placed under the aegis of the Treasury Department.

At first, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, reviewed contracts and appointed keepers, but in 1792 he turned over that responsibility to the Commissioner of the Revenue, where it remained until Albert Gallatin, a close confidant of Thomas Jefferson, became the fourth Secretary of the Treasury in 1801. Following Gallatin’s two terms in office, the responsibility for the Lighthouse Establishment reverted to the Commissioner of the Revenue until 1820, when Stephen Pleasonton, Fifth Auditor of the Treasury, assumed the responsibility. Local-level administration fell to the various collectors of customs.

By 1822 there were seventy lighthouses. Succeeding years saw a quantum leap to 256 lighthouses by 1842, in addition to thirty light vessels. Throughout the mid-1800s, the Army Corps of Engineers played an increasing role in choosing sites for lighthouses as well as in their design and construction. The quality of service deteriorated, however, to such an extent that by 1851 Congress was forced to investigate conditions at the nation’s many navigational aid facilities. This work resulted in the establishment of a United States Lighthouse Board that operated between 1852 and 1910.  By 1896 lighthouse keepers had become civil service employees and by 1910, there were 11,713 aids to navigation (lighthouses, light ships, buoys, etc.) throughout the country. During that year, Congress abolished the cumbersome Board and authorized the establishment of the Bureau of Lighthouses under the Department of Commerce. The Bureau remained in existence until 1939, when its responsibilities were transferred to the United States Coast Guard.

The Lighthouse Board was not the only agency interested in protecting sailors, their ships and cargoes. Federal life-saving services had been available from as early as 1841, but, operating on a voluntary basis, they were less than efficient. In 1871, under the leadership of Sumner I. Kimball, head of the Treasury Department’s Revenue Marine Board, the United States Life-Saving Service was reorganized into a network of life-saving stations situated along at-risk portions of the coastline at intervals of five-miles. New regulations mandated weekly drills. Such diligence soon insured quality service provided by highly professional surf men. The Life-Saving Service remained in existence until 1915, when it too was incorporated into the United States Coast Guard.

It is important to follow these chains of responsibility in order to locate records pertaining to lighthouses, their keepers, placement, construction and maintenance, as well as information about life-saving personnel and activities. Several sets of records provide information on the construction and operation of lighthouses as well as the activities undertaken by the crews of the life-saving stations.

Registers of Lighthouse Keepers, 1845-1912 are available at the National Archives as microfilm publication M1373. Published in nineteen volumes, the registers list personnel in five regions: New England; New York to Virginia; North Carolina to Texas; the Great Lakes; and the West Coast/Alaska and Hawaii. Within each region, information is provided chronologically. Indices exist by surname of the keeper and/or the name of the lighthouse. A significant caveat to the use of these indices is that each time a volume or part of a volume was filmed, the entire index was included. Thus there may be references and pagination included in a given index for entries that do not appear in that volume.

For example, on roll 2, which ostensibly covers New York, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia, there are index entries for Edgartown, Massachusetts (page 29), and Kalamazoo River, Michigan (page 149), although the indicated pages do not appear on that roll. Most entries provide the name of the superintendent, the name of the lighthouse, and a list of keepers, their salaries, and their date of appointment. For the Cape Henry (Virginia) lighthouse, for example, the superintendent was the customs collector at Norfolk and the keepers listed were Thomas David (appointed May 6, 1837), James Atkinson (appointed July 9, 1846), Thomas Harrison (appointed October 17, 1851), and William Diggs (appointed June 20, 1853). Assistant keepers included Louis B. Diggs (appointed July 24, 1855), Charles Jarvis (appointed February 1, 1859), and Miles W. Diggs (appointed October 7, 1859). The standard pay for the Cape Henry keepers during the period was $500 per year, with assistants receiving half that amount.

Roll 1 refers to Edgartown, Massachusetts, and names two keepers, Jeremiah Pease (appointed 10 October 1843) and Sylvanus Crocker (appointed 19 April 1849). These Massachusetts lighthouse keepers received $350 per year. Please note that in roll 1, the several New England states are not arranged alphabetically, but rather geographically starting with Maine and moving south to New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, etc.

Additional detail is included on rolls 4 and 5 which list lighthouse keepers for the Great Lakes district. Entries include the name of the keeper, names of assistants, date of appointment, date of vacation (This does not mean their annual trip to the Bahamas – it refers to the date on which they left the position!), the reason for the vacation, where they were born, from what state they were appointed, and whether or not they had an army or navy record. Thus, for example, John Mortimer Reed was appointed keeper of the Cleveland (Ohio) light on May 29, 1882 at an annual salary of $450. He served for a little over two years and then was transferred. He was born in New York and was an Army veteran.

Lighthouse Deeds and Contracts, 1790-1816 (NARA microfilm publication M94) include copies of approved deeds, contracts, indentures and agreements, usually between the Secretary of the Treasury (or designee) and private building contractors, lighthouse keepers, carpenters, masons, boat builders, oil suppliers, etc. For example, on 31 March 1791, Alexander Hamilton executed a contract with John McComb Jr., a mason from New York, to construct the Cape Henry light- house in Virginia. The contract included detailed building specifications. Another contract, dated 27 February 1828, was issued by the Fifth Auditor’s Office and indicated that Winslow Lewis’s contract having expired, Messrs. Cornelius Grinnel Jr. & Co. of New Bedford (Massachusetts) would be keeping specific lighthouses and beacon lamps supplied with oil and keeping all of the lamps, reflectors and apparatus in good repair. They would also supply a “sufficient quantity” of wicks, tube glasses, buff skins, and whiting.

Lighthouse Letters 1792-1809 (NARA microfilm publication M63) include a series of correspondence sent by the Commissioner of the Revenue relating to the construction and maintenance of lighthouses. An index appears at the front of each volume. One letter, written to the customs collector at Norfolk, Virginia, concerned the location of a house for the keeper of the Cape Henry lighthouse and said, “If you separate the Dwelling from the Light House a distance the difficulty of attendance will be increased and at some seasons may be altogether impracticable. The Safety and accommodation of both Buildings, would probably be increased by connecting them in some way and providing a barrier of Logs or other materials at a convenient distance which will protect them from the accumulation of Sand. If the Keeper has sustained any material inconvenience I shall regret that you did not exercise the discretion with which you were invested by my Letter of the 28th May 1801.” Another letter, written on 23 September 1803, illustrates that bureaucracy was alive and well early in our nation’s history: “Your favor of the 11th ultimo covering your Account etc. for the purchase of 2603 gallons of oil, is just received. The Bills of Parcels not being accompanied with evidence of the payment of the money, are herewith returned. When receipted, be pleased to forward them again to this office, and your account shall immediately be put in a course of settlement.”

Additional information may be found in National Archives textual records including Miscellaneous Records, 1816-1929 (NC-31, Entry 16), primarily letters to or from individuals applying for the post of district lighthouse inspector. Parts of these records are arranged by lighthouse district, the rest are in my favorite type of record arrangement – unarranged. Correspondence Concerning Keepers and Assistants, 1821-1902 (NC 31, Entry 82) contains letters about nominations of keepers and their assistants, testimonials, lists of examination questions, notification of appointments, requests for transfer, recommendations for promotion, resignations, complaints, and reports. These letters are arranged alphabetically by surname.

An important printed source containing information about lighthouse keepers is The Official Register of the United States. This series was established under an act of Congress dated 27 April 1816 that required the Department of State to produce a biennial register of the names of all federal civil employees, military and naval officers, and agents, among other content. In the 1831 volume, lighthouse personnel information can be found under the heading of Customs. For example, in Portland, New Hampshire, John Chandler, customs collector, was the superintendent of lighthouses and agent for the Marine Hospital. He was born in New York and received $3400 per year for the post. The keeper in the Portland Head lighthouse was Maine-born Joshua Freeman, who received $350 per year. Sterling Thrower was keeper of the Choctaw Point light in Mobile, Alabama. Born in North Carolina, he received $500 per year. Jeremiah Ingraham was keeper of the Barancas light in Pensacola, Florida. Born in Massachusetts, he received $550 per year.

The 1865 edition of The Official Register listed lighthouse personnel information under its own heading. After citing members of the Lighthouse Board in Washington, D.C. (including lower level staff such as messenger Gurdon Snowden and laborer Colbert Syphax), the report names various superintendents, keepers and assistant keepers; their places of birth; and their annual compensations. The keeper of the Humboldt lighthouse, beacon and fog bell in California was Maine native G. H. Nye, with a salary of $600 per year. It is interesting to note that the Cove Point, Maryland, keeper, Charles M. Hagelin, was born in Sweden; the Sullivans Island, South Carolina, keeper, Daniel Sinclair, was born in Scotland; the Chicago (lake light) keeper, John Lobstein, was born in France; and the Niagra Fort light (lake light) keeper, Francis Powley, was born in the Netherlands.

Finally, although the lighthouses, light ships, beacons and light buoys were strategically placed to warn mariners away from dangerous waters, there were many circumstances during which ships met with disaster. In those instances, crews of surf men of the Life-Saving Service were poised to offer rescue assistance. Annual reports about the activities of the Life-Saving Service were submitted to Congress beginning in 1871. These reports were printed in the U.S. Serial Set. While a few of these reports are available in the Archives Information Library Center at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., more comprehensive collections are available at Archives II (College Park, Maryland) and in various U. S. Government Depository libraries. In the 1881 report (232 pages), the Service reported that there were twenty-three stations in the district, reaching from Cape Henry to Cape Hatteras. During the 1880/81 fiscal year, the district experienced twelve disasters involving 121 persons of whom 120 were saved; only one life was lost. The value of property saved totalled $437,920 and the value lost was $117,280; three vessels were declared total losses. In addition to the statistics, however, these reports contained wonderful stories. For every rescue response that resulted in a fatality, a detailed account of the rescue attempt was provided. For example, the wreck of the Schooner J H Hartzell on Lake Michigan on 16 October 1880 filled eighteen pages of the report and included the name of the ship’s captain as well as the names of its crew of six, the lighthouse keeper, and the lifesaving station’s six-man crew. Eight such accounts were related for that year. In addition, day-by-day accounts of rescue services provided by the life-saving crews of the several regions during the fiscal year of the report are included.

Imagine that your ancestor was Annie Bennett, aged forty-one, of Chicago. On 6 July 1880, Annie was reported to have fallen from the harbor pier into the lake “at about 2 o’clock in the morning. The sound of her fall and her screams attracted the attention of the watch on the lookout at Station No. 11, 11th District (Lake Michigan). He rushed downstairs, awakening the crew on his way. The boat, which lay ready in the water, was quickly manned and pulled out to the place from which the cries came. The crew arrived just in time to catch the woman as she was sinking the second time. She was conveyed to the station, provided with dry clothes and a bed. Having been considerably injured in falling, she was obliged to remain at the station one day; and then, being unable to walk, was sent home in a carriage.” This report raises questions as to what she was doing on the docks at 2:00 in the morning, why presumably no one reported her missing, why she was not sent to a hospital, and what became of her when the carriage deposited her at her home.

If your ancestor was a lighthouse keeper or a member of a light-saving station crew, these records are essential to your research. If you have an ancestor who may have been lost at sea, or who may have been a sea captain whose vessel foundered on the rocks in a gale, these records may contain detailed specifics of their experiences or the circumstances of their deaths.

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