Dreams of Being a Lighthouse Keeper

For years past, adults and children of all ages had dreams of growing up to be an adventurous lighthouse keeper. That dream is slowly dimming as the world automates its lighthouses.

The following article from The Guardian  brings to our attention the dimming of the dream in the UK

The lure of the lighthouse for our islanded souls
With the last lights set to go out, many of us will miss these concrete symbols of our humanity

by Joe Moran The Guardian, Saturday 12 April 2014.

Lighthouse, County Durham

The tower lights, the ones that rise impossibly out of the sea and carry the most romantic connotations for landlubberly ignoramuses like me, were the most dreaded by the keepers.’ Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA

Growing up, I wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. Just like Moominpappa in Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, my ambition was to live on the loneliest lighthouse on the remotest skerry farthest from land. It didn’t end well for Moominpappa, the island he and the other Moomins settled on being barren and desolate, inhabited only by a silent fisherman who turned out to be the ex-lighthouse keeper driven mad by loneliness. It didn’t put me off.

I have since met many compatriots who have had the same dream, for there is something about lighthouses that seems to speak to our islanded souls. more . . .

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Now, to celebrate the quincentenary of Trinity House, the organisation responsible for the lighthouses of England and Wales, an exhibition is opening at the National Maritime Museum. Guiding Lights will display intricate models of lighthouses and lighthouse keepers’ personal effects. It is hard to imagine a similarly pulse-quickening exhibition about air-traffic controllers or road-safety officers, although our lives are similarly in their hands.

“I meant nothing by the lighthouse,” Virginia Woolf wrote of its role in her most celebrated novel, “but I trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions.” Lighthouses, Woolf realised, are endlessly suggestive signifiers of both human isolation and our ultimate connectedness to each other. Artists, from John Constable to Eric Ravilious, have made them the focus of their paintings, which can’t simply be to do with their pleasingly vertical contrast with the horizon.

I suspect that lighthouses appeal especially to introverts like me, who need to make strategic withdrawals from the social world but also want to retain some basic link with humanity. A beam sweeping the horizon for the benefit of ships passing in the night is just that kind of minimal human connection. “Nothing must be allowed to silence our voices … We must call out to one another,” wrote Janet Frame, a shy New Zealand writer also fascinated by lighthouses, “across seas and deserts flashing words instead of mirrors and lights.”

I finally cured my lighthouse fantasy by reading Tony Parker’s oral history of lighthouse keepers. Looking after a light – no keeper ever called it a lighthouse – was, I learned, a tedious job, with little to do but linger over meals and make ships in bottles. One keeper was so lonely that in the middle of the night he switched on the transmitter and listened to the ships radioing each other, just to hear some other human voices. The tower lights, the ones that rise impossibly out of the sea and carry the most romantic connotations for landlubberly ignoramuses like me, were the most dreaded by the keepers. Without even a bit of rock to walk around on and escape from your housemates, they were the lighthouse-keeping equivalent of being posted to Siberia.

In any case, I was well out of it because lighthouse keeping was not a job with prospects.

The lighthouses began to be automated in the 1970s and the last keeper left the last occupied lighthouse in 1998. Now, in an age of radar and computerised navigation systems, working lighthouses are an endangered species. Their haunting fog signals are being switched off. Their black-and-red painted stripes, meant to stand out against the land and sky, are being left to peel off. And many lighthouses are being decommissioned, turned into holiday cottages or expensively renovated homes.

No doubt satnav will now do the job just as well, but it will be a shame when the last lighthouse turns off its light. In an age when we have to justify public projects with the consumerist language of stakeholders and end users, lighthouses still feel like an uncomplicated social good that belongs to us all. They are the concrete symbol of our common humanity, of the fact that people we may never meet – at whom we may do no more than flash our lights in the dark – are also our concern.

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One of my dad’s oldest friends was a lighthouse keeper for a few years. He was sometimes posted to those lights that stand alone on a rock. In a ‘big sea’ waves could be so high that water would come down the chimney and put the fire out. He also said that if your hearing went dull it meant that the level you were on was underwater because of a big swell – and a thick metal door was the only thing keeping the Atlantic out.

There are terrible stories. One was the lighthouse often had to eat the tallow candles when ships bringing supplies could not make it through the rough sea. Also the tradition of 2 keepers came into being when one single went out of his mind.
I’ve a slight problem with repeated ref to concrete. Most early lights were built with granite(or timber with plinth granite) interlocked water proof hydraulic cement. Smeaton’s Eddystone the prototype, and later Stephenson family business up north.

To be honest lighthouses are no longer necessary as the coastline is now starkly outlined by the amount of light pollution from our towns, cities and villages. You really can’t miss it when sailing down the coast. Also our new technologies are way in advance of anything we’ve had in the past and even a small yacht can now pinpoint its position to a matter of metres on the ocean. So if we do have any shipping catastrophes in the future they are likely to be down to human error.

“even a small yacht can now pinpoint its position to a matter of metres”

I too sail a small yacht in and around NW Scotland and, because I lack all but the most basic GPS, compasses and echo sounder, greatly value our lighthouses – albeit, unmanned. You will know that whenever NATO carry out exercises in the Minch, warships regularly cause GPS screens to go blank!!!  Serious accidents are not unknown.

You are referring to an exercise 2 years ago where warships blocked GPS for 20 miles. There were no accidents but due to complaints Warships in UK waters are now banned from blocking GPS. I’m not sure about other navies though.

Not every small boat has radar… not all coastlines are outlined by light pollution.

But most people now have mobile phones/iPads/Tablets with GPS.

Please, please, please do not go to sea relying on an iPad/phone etc for navigation! Road signs, and indeed ‘roads’ themselves are fairly limited at sea in my experience.

I can see one of our oldest lighthouses from here. It is on the top of St Catherine’s Down and known locally as the Pepperpot. It was built by local people as a punishment for buying smuggled wine. There was an oratory attached to it at one time to say prayers for the souls of the shipwrecked of whom there were many and the graves in the churchyard will attest. Although high up it wasn’t much use as the mist which frequently covers that part of the coast line blocked out the light when it was most needed and many ships went aground on the notorious Atherfield ledge. The new lighthouse built by the shore is a beautiful building and it would be a great shame if it were to become just another house, although coastal erosion and land slips might put off anyone but the most foolhardy from purchasing.

Foolish idea turning these off. Given potential failures of equipment these are very useful as a last backup. Oh well I’m sure it saves some middle managers budget some money somewhere.

This is a shame, lighthouses are exciting. I don’t think it’s possible to go on holidays to the coast without spending some time watching out for the distant lights and trying to identify them. I know we used to look forward to foggy days so we could hear their fog horns going off.

And at night, if you were staying in a house nearby, some of the beam would sweep around the bedroom from time to time.

Many years ago I recall reading an article in some sailing magazine. Title was The Antikythera Light. The author told of sailing through a storm in the Eastern Med. He had been at sea for days on end and the storm had bounced his small boat around quite a bit. This was long before GPS and he didn’t know exactly where he was. He knew he was approaching the Greek islands and some very dangerous and rocky shores. Then, flickering on the horizon in the far distance and through the storm…a flashing light. Lights flash in timed sequences and those are indicated on charts. He identified this one as the light on Antikythera, the island in the center of the passage through into the Aegean Sea.

Now he knew where he was. Now he was safe. He wrote of his grateful appreciation, not only for the light keeper whose job it was to help people the keeper would never see, but to the society that posted the man there and built the tower and light that led him to safety out of a storm, money spent for no special benefit to the community but only to the benefit of passing strangers in need of help.It was a wonderful essay on how humanity consists of people doing altruistic things, not only for strangers, but for strangers they would never know needed the help. Lighthouses are a symbol of what is best in all of us.

A good few years ago we did the soundtrack to this short documentary about the some of the last people to man the lighthouses, they tell their stories and explain how automation affected them, very sad some of it: http://vimeo.com/m/71760571

Bishop Rock lighthouse – the westernmost point of the Isles of Scilly – that’s the one I’d most like to go inside. And I’d pay good money to see the BBC documentary about it, by Tony Parker, first shown just over 40 years ago:  http://trinityhousehistory.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/on-this-day-in-trinity-house-history-6-february/

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Poetry – The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders

This is too good not to reprint. The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders by Edgar Guest (Wikipedia article on Edgar Guest). This is one the better lighthouse poems. I sometimes wonder too – all those beautiful lighthouses destroyed because of automation.

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The Lighthouse Keeper Wonders
by Edgar Guest (1881 – 1959)

The light I have tended for 40 years
is now to be run by a set of gears.
The Keeper said, And it isn’t nice
to be put ashore by a mere device.
Now, fair or foul the wind that blow
or smooth or rough the sea below,
It is all the same. The ships at night
will run to an automatic light.

The clock and gear which truly turn
are timed and set so the light shall burn.
But did ever an automatic thing
set plants about in early Spring?
And did ever a bit of wire and gear
a cry for help in darkness hear?
Or welcome callers and show them through
the lighthouse rooms as I used to do?
‘Tis not in malice these things I say
All men must bow to the newer way. Continue reading

Government Contracts to Paint Lighthouses

The title is a tiny bit misleading. The government is not contracting to paint the lighthouse (is not doing the job themselves using government personnel as in the olden days) but is contracting out to private persons to do the work previously done by government workers.

An interesting article on the Peggys1 Cove lighthouse in Nova Scotia says:

 

Peggys Cove lighthouse crumbling
Province, feds negotiate while structure suffers

 

However, dealing with the problem is not as straightforward as sending someone the tab. Peggys Cove is owned by the federal government, which is currently getting out of the lighthouse business. The Nova Scotia government is in negotiations to take over the site, but no date has been set for completion of the talks.

So who is going to paint Peggys Cove, and many other abandoned lighthouses?

One of the commenter’s on the above site made the following reply:

Here’s the link for all those interested in bidding. Go create an account on Merx and bid away your $400.00 to paint it.

http://www.merx.com/English/nonmember.asp?WCE=Show&TAB=1&State=1&hcode=DSmmOnl5zU6FVjU16CWLSQ%3D%3D

Now that Merx site is very interesting. It shows Canadian Public Tenders for jobs the Canadian Government puts out for bids. I searched but could not finds anything lighthouse-related, but maybe you will have better luck. Let me know if you find anything.

There are some interesting jobs available, but one thing comes to mind. What has happened to the Public Works Department of the Canadian Government? They used to do all the painting and construction projects..Does Public Works no longer exist?

Aha! I found it! It is now called Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC). They pay me my pension, but do they do anything else? Check out PWGSC website and see if you can find out.

Not much there about painting old lighthouses. Lots on procurement and disposal though. So I guess they just buy stuff and dispose of it when no longer needed. Is any reader working for PWGSC that can better fill us in on the workings of PWGSC?

So, unless the community is going to do the work and pay for the job itself, I guess Canadian lighthouse are headed for a dim future (pun intended).

FOOTNOTE:
1 Peggys Cove (2009 population: approx. 46), also known as Peggy’s Cove from 1961 to 1976, is a small rural community located on the eastern shore of St. Margarets Bay in Nova Scotia’s Halifax Regional Municipality.- Wikipedia

In Memorium – Prospect Point Lighthouse – Automated!

Prospect Point Lighthouse

Latitude 49 18 50.4N, Longitude 123 08 29.1W       List of Lights #392 

Established: October 01, 1888       Automated: January 1926 

Three nautical miles east of Point Atkinson, situated at the base of a cliff, stands the lonely and short-lived lighthouse called Prospect Point.

The light was first manned in October 1888 and was overshadowed by the importance of the Signal Station on the cliff above. This signal station operated in conjunction with Brockton Point  to signal when ships were coming into or out of Vancouver Harbour. 

In January 1926 the poor lightkeeper was informed by the Department of Marine and Fisheries that the lighthouse would be electrified and would then be operated by the Prospect Point Signal Station. He was out of a job after years keeping both systems working.

Prospect Point Lighthouse keeper’s house 1920 – 1930
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

Prospect Point Lighthouse (bottom) Signal Station (top)
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

Princess Victoria passing Prospect inbound 1920 – 1930
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

Princess Patricia Passing Prospect 1920 – 1930
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

SS Prince Rupert Passing Prospect 1920 – 1930
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

 

Prospect Point Signal Station 1920 – 1930
Photo by Cyril R. Littlebury from Dudley Booth Collection

The photo below shows what replaced the lighthouse – a concrete block structure with a light on top and several small electric foghorns.

 

Prospect Point 2006
Photo from Imran Flickr pages

 

Prospect Point 2006
Modern light, modern ship
Photo from pwhsu48 Webshots page.

As mentioned above, the Prospect Point and Brockton Point signal stations monitored ship traffic in and out of Vancouver harbour. 

Just across the harbour from Prospect Point, at the mouth of the Capilano river, was the tiny little-known Capilano lighthouse (aka First Narrows). (see Capilano webpage here.

Below is a photo taken from the mouth of the Capilano River showing Prospect Point today and the the probable view from the Capilano lighthouse. Beside it is a Google Earth map showing the exact location of the three lighthouses. 

Prospect Point 2006 From mouth of Capilano river
Notice – no signal station
Photo from Glamorous_Life Flickr page.

Google Earth map Showing Vancouver harbour lights
Photo from Google Earth printout.

In this 360° view you can see Prospect Point off the right-hand side of the bridge. As the scene sweeps across the harbour, The sandbanks of the Capilano River come into view with the dolphin visible in deeper water. (Zoom in using Shift, and out with Ctrl key; Pause by clicking on photo).

Keepers
John Grove PLK (1888-1926)  

Triple Island – Inside the Lighthouse – 2012

Triple Island

 

In June 22, 2011 I published an article about the Triple Island 3rd order lens which has now been replaced with a flashlight (see the article).

I have never spent any work time on Triple Island, but I have landed there once or twice with the Coast Guard helicopters as a passenger. I never did have any time to explore.

Triple Island - distant from Prince Rupert

There are two lighthouse keepers on Triple Island who rotate every twenty-eight (28) days with two other keepers. I always wondered what it would be like to live there in this day and age.

One of the keepers, my friend Glenn Borgens, has sent me some wonderful photos of the inside of the Triple Island lighthouse that I am going to share with you. For twenty-eight days, it looks like a comfortable place to live and work. Continue reading

Discovery Island Lighthouse Rots in the Sun

Automated in 1977, these videos show what happens to a sadly neglected automated lighthouse. What a place for a B&B! Thanks to Discovery Island website for the information. Just for your information discoveryisland.ca does not seem to be working anymore.

The two following videos I found on Youtube were originally posted by the website discoveryisland.ca

Take a look at the tower and lantern that the keepers so meticulously maintained. 

Originally the keepers at Discovery Island would manual record the wind speed and direction, air temperature, sea temperature, humidity, sea level pressure, wave height, ocean swell height and direction, visibility and sky condition and then report it back via radio about seven times a day. Now due to the automation of the lighthouse the weather reports have gone the same way.

The new weather Instrument are mounted on the top of the tower and measure the wind speed and temperature and then automaticly report it back to Environment Canada, when it is not broken.

Only twenty-seven MANNED lighthouses are remaining says the government!

Here Is How To Do It in Prince Edward Island

This is how you go about saving a lighthouse. Work for it! Work together for it. Councillor Rob Lantz of Charlottetown electoral ward 3 (Brighton), Charlottetown, PEI, Canada has given me permission to repost this article here from his Ward 3 Brighton blog.

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Saving the Brighton Beach Range Light
Published by Councillor Rob Lantz on January 10, 2012   in Heritage

The  Brighton Beach Range Front Light is a designated heritage resource under the city’s Zoning & Development Bylaw. The lighthouse was built in 1890. It is an iconic symbol of our nautical heritage and provides a scenic shoreline vista that is photographed as much as, maybe more than, any other site in Charlottetown.

Random photos pulled from the photo sharing site Flickr.

Continue reading

Music Video – Roots – And No One’s In The Lighthouse!

 This song is from the album Undun by the Roots. It is called Lighthouse. The words to the chorus are interesting. Imagine lying in the ocean and seeing a lighthouse nearby and no one sees you because it is unmanned! Imagine the feeling of fear! Think automation? Unmanning lighthouses?

No one’s in the lighthouse
You’re face down in the ocean
And no one’s in the lighthouse
And it seems like you just screamed
It’s no one there to hear the sound
And it may feel like there’s no one there
That cares if you drown
Face down in the ocean

 

The rest of the lyrics can be found here. The video below is just the song as it is sung by the group. I think you must hear it a couple of times to get the meaning of the song. I know I did.

[media url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vP24wNuRXs” width=”400″ height=”300″]

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Lighthouse by Roots

[Hook: Dice Raw]
No one’s in the lighthouse
You’re face down in the ocean
And no one’s in the lighthouse
And it seems like you just screamed
It’s no one there to hear the sound
And it may feel like there’s no one there
That cares if you drown
Face down in the ocean

[Verse 2: Black Thought]
After the love is lost
Friendship dissolves
And even blood is lost
Where did it begin
The way we did each other wrong
Troubled water neither one of us could swim across
I stopped holding my breath
Now I am better off
There without a trace
And you in my head
All the halted motion of a rebel without a pause
What it do is done till you dead and gone
The grim reaper telling me to swim deeper
Where the people go to lo and behold the soul keeper
I’m not even breaking out in a sweat
Or cold fever but
I’m never paying up on my debt or tolls either
I’ll leave the memories here I won’t need them
If I stop thinking and lie, now that’s freedom
Your body’s part of the Maritime museum
Face down in the past is where I’m being
Lyrics provided by http://www.kovideo.net/
Source – http://www.kovideo.net/lighthouse-lyrics-roots-1266459.html

[Hook: Dice Raw]
And no one’s in the lighthouse
You’re face down in the ocean
And no one’s in the lighthouse
And it seems like you just screamed
It’s no one there to hear the sound
And it may feel like there’s no one there
That cares if you drown
Face down in the ocean

[Outro: Dice Raw]
If you can’t swizzim then ya bound to drizzown
Passing out life jackets bout to go didown
Get down with the captain or go down with the ship
Before the dark abyss I’m gon’ hit you wit’ dis
(Repeat)

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Humour – A Casualty of Automation

The following was supposedly an actual advertisement in an Irish newspaper: 

      1985 Blue Volkswagen Golf
      Only 15 km
      Only first gear and reverse used
      Never driven hard
      Original tires
      Original brakes
      Original fuel and oil
      Only 1 driver
      Owner wishing to sell due to employment lay-off

At least according to Dan’s Lighthouse Page!

Don’t Let the Lighthouses Go Dark – special reprint

The following article by Bella Bathhurst from the Notting Hill Editions Journal was passed to me by a BC lightkeeper. It was so well written I asked permission to reprint it here. Pay special attention to the author’s reasons for keeping lighthouses.

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Don’t Let the Lighthouses go Dark by Bella Bathhurst
– published November 10, 2011

 – published with permission from Notting Hill Editions Journal

We are jettisoning lighthouses at our peril, writes Bella Bathurst, a lighthouse historian. Even in the age of GPS, they remain immensely useful, and retain deep symbolic power.

Twelve years ago, I wrote a book called The Lighthouse Stevensons about the construction of the lights around the Scottish coastline by Robert Louis Stevenson’s family. I was lucky to arrive at exactly the right moment.  In 1999, the last of the British lights were being automated and the few remaining keepers were disappearing towards extinction. The men I spoke to were mostly at or near retirement age anyway; most saw the logic of their own removal even if they weren’t persuaded by its effects.  At the beginning of the third millennium, you don’t need three grown men to change a lightbulb.  But what none of those last keepers would ever have understood or sanctioned was the idea of the lights themselves being switched off. 

The Skerryvore Lighthouse, 10 miles south-west of Tiree, in the Hebrides

Continue reading