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LIGHTHOUSES AND THEIR KEEPERS


By: Jim Manniso

Imagine being on a lonely peninsula some hundred and thirty-five feet above the sea in a dark, damp, cold tower. You look out and see that a storm is brewing over toward the northeast. The sky is a solemn, dark gray. In the distance the rumble of thunder and flashes of lightening, set an ominous threat of an impending Nor’easter. You think, it won’t be long until the storm will be lashing out against anything in its path.

You, then, run up the spiral staircase of the lighthouse with exuberant energy until you reach the light room. There, you check that all three brass oil lamps are full, the Fresnel light-projecting lens is clean. You light the Aladdin oil lamp and observe with satisfaction its glow that now radiates with yellow-white light. You feel comforted as you view the beacon of light projecting out into the turbulent sea. You’re confident that this beacon of light sends hope and guidance to those who are on the rough waters. You say a silent prayer, that in this storm that is now striking with fury, all ships will find safe harbor. Once again, you feel satisfaction that you have done your job as keeper of the lights.

Lighthouses:

Lighthouses have been constructed near navigable waterways in most parts of the world. The purpose of these ‘beacons of light’ is to provide a navigational aid to guide captains and crews of ships to pilot their vessels into safer waters and secure harbors.

Keepers of the Light:

In the days before modern automation, lighthouse keepers were employed to maintain and operate lighthouses. It took a special kind of person to be a lighthouse keeper. The job was a lonely one, the work monotonous and demanding, but of vital importance. Keeping the light functioning in all kinds of weather conditions was an around the clock commitment. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three hundred sixty-five days a year the lighthouse had to be manned.

The following is the first in a series that will feature lighthouses and keepers of the light. This article will profile one of the many lighthouse (features) to come and focus on one particularly special lighthouse keeper:

TURKEY POINT LIGHT STATION


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Turkey Point Lighthouse
Location: Chesapeake Bay, mouth of the Elk and Northeast Rivers
Date Built: 1833
Type of Structure: Conical brick and masonry tower
Height: 35 feet (height of tower)
Characteristics: Flashing white with one red sector
Foghorn: Fog bell tower (no longer standing)
Builder: John Donahoo
Appropriation: $5,000
Range: 8 miles
Status: Standing and Active

KEEPERS OF THE TURKEY POINT LIGHT:

The first keeper at Turkey Point was Robert C. Lusby who served from August 10, 1833, to August 18, 1841, when John C. Waters took over for just under two years until Robert returned on June 3, 1843. The first of many women keepers was Elizabeth Lusby, Robert's wife who replaced him upon his death and served from May 8, 1844, to at least 1861. Edward Cloman took over on March 13, 1862 until December 30, 1865 when John Crouch was appointed keeper. Mr. Crouch died on July 3, 1873, and his wife Rebecca L. Crouch assumed his duties on October 2, 1873, until she died on July 11, 1895. Their daughter, Georgiana S. Brumfield, who lived at the station since the age of 16, served as keeper from July 26, 1895 until 1919, retiring at age 70 after living 54 years at Turkey Point. She died in June 1934. Caleb Stowe from North Carolina served from 1919 to 1922. C. W. "Harry" Salter served from 1922 until he died in 1925.

In 1921, Caleb Stowe noticed a disabled powerboat with seven men onboard and towed it with the station's boat to Town Point Wharf. In May 1923, C. W. Salter noticed that a motorboat towing a "Floating Department Store Loaded with Bankrupt Merchandise" valued at $25,000 had become disabled, and the barge was about to be caught in a strong northeast wind. He took the station's boat and towed the barge to safety under the point out of the wind.

Salter's wife, Fannie May Salter, took over her husband's duties in 1925 thanks to the personally granted authorization of then President Calvin Coolidge. Because of her age, the Civil Service had told Fannie that she could not succeed her husband. However, she appealed to her senator who took it to the White House, which then overruled the Civil Service. She served until August 1947 when she retired at age 65, with 22 years of service as lighthouse keeper, and another 23 years previously assisting her late husband who was keeper at several stations. She stated, "Oh, it was an easy-like chore, but my feet got tired, and climbing the tower has given me fallen arches."

Before the station was electrified, Fannie would fill and light one of the two lamps at dusk, climb the tower and place the lamp within the lens, then recheck it about one hour later, and again at 10 pm before going to bed. From her bedroom in the keeper's quarters she could see if the light was functioning properly and would immediately awake if the light ever went out. With electricity installed in 1943, she only had to turn on a switch, which lit a 100 watt bulb, which in combination with the lens produced 680 candlepower of light. Once she had to manually strike the fog bell when it suddenly failed as a steamer was heading for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal in a fog. She rang the bell four times a minute for 55 minutes until the steamer had safely passed. In so doing, she was away from the phone when her son-in-law tried to call and tell her that her daughter had given birth to her granddaughter. The Lighthouse Board in 1928 authorized $25 per month for a laborer to wind the fog bell striking mechanism for Mrs. Salter during months of the year when fog was prevalent. This fee was reduced to $15 per month in 1932. Upon retirement, she moved to another house six miles away, but she was still within sight of the light. She died at age 83 in 1966. Turkey Point Lighthouse had more women lighthouse keepers than any other lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.

It was 14 miles over poor roads to the nearest store; the station families typically raised fruits, vegetables, chickens, turkeys, sheep, and pigs. During World War II, the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal became an important inland shipping corridor due to the threat of submarine warfare off the Atlantic. Because of this increased shipping, the Turkey Point Lighthouse became an especially important aid to navigation, and a detachment of Coast Guard personnel were assigned to the station as a precaution against saboteurs.

Historical Information:

Turkey Point is a 100 foot bluff at the tip of a peninsula dividing the Northeast and Elk Rivers at the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay. Efforts to build a lighthouse on the bluff were stalled initially because the landowners valued the property at several times what the Government considered the going rate. Eventually the Maryland State Legislature was asked to condemn the land and a commission set the value at $564, which the Government paid. Probably due to its remote location, John Donahoo was the only bidder and after some negotiation he was awarded a construction contract of $4,355. A contract of $419 for the lamps went to James Geddes. Using the same plans as the Concord Point tower in Havre de Grace, MD (with some small changes), Donahoo completed the 35 foot brick tower and a small 1 ½ story brick keepers dwelling by July of 1833. It was outfitted with 11 lamps, each with a corresponding 15 inch reflector.

In 1855 the old Argand style lighting system was replaced by a single lamp and a fourth order Fresnel lens.

In 1867 the lantern was completely refitted and designed to properly display the Fresnel lens.

In 1868 a new Franklin lamp was installed

In April 1888 a fog bell tower with automated ringing mechanism was installed. Because of its location atop the bluff, the fog bell sat as low to the ground as possible in order to be heard far away. To accommodate this design, a 30 foot well was dug beneath it into which the counterweights fell.

1889 the dwelling was enlarged with the addition of a second story and a porch.

In 1933 the lamp was changed from oil to vaporized kerosene. Nine years later, in 1942 it was electrified and an electric fog horn was installed.

The light was fully automated in 1947 and the keeper, Mrs. Fannie Mae Slater, retired. She was the last woman lighthouse keeper in the United States (see below for more information).

In its remote location the lighthouse suffered from a fair amount of neglect and vandalism over the next couple decades. The tower was broken into and the Fresnel lens was stolen. In 1972 the keepers dwelling had decayed to such state of disrepair that it had to be torn down. Since that time the tower has been refurbished and the grounds are now well maintained. It is now situated in Elkneck State Park at the mid point of a scenic, 2 mile, loop trail.

(Researched and drafted by Matthew B. Jenkins, a volunteer through the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Light House Society.)

Lighthouse was officially listed on the National Register of Historic Places, 2 December 2002.

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