A History of the American Lighthouse
Eric Jay Dolin
Liveright, 2016, 541 pp, HC, $29.95
There's nothing dry about this 541 page history book (no pun intended).) Dolin's prose is as graceful as it is precise. His organization is inspired. It is a rare historian who has as much of a grasp on the medium as on the message and Dolan is one rare historian/author.
On the first page he recounts the experience of William Osgood in the morning hours of February 24, 1817. "The sea is a dangerous place, and the greatest dangers loom closest to shore. That is where jagged reefs, hidden sandbars, towering headlands, and rocky beaches threaten disaster." He then describes the wreck of the Union...a fine three-masted ship out of Salem, Massachusetts, sailing from Sumatra with a cargo of nearly five hundred thousand pounds of pepper and more than one hundred thousand pounds of tin." Unfortunately, during the Union's journey, the Baker's Island lighthouse was modified to exhibit only one light instead of the two which were operating when the Union departed a year earlier. The Union wrecked on the northwest corner of Baker's Island, mistaking the single light as that of the Boston Lighthouse. Fortunately, all the men on board survived and salvage operations recovered much of the tin and about half of the pepper. The ship, insured for $45,000 was a complete loss.
One of the earlist issues of discussion when the first federal Congress convened was whether the state or federal government should be responsible for lighthouses. Congress voted to make them a federal concern. As a result, as the country grew, so did the number of lighthouses. Even so, for a long time America's lighthouses were "vastly inferior to those of Great Britain and France".
Along with the structures themselves, author Dolan examines lighthouse illuminants which changed over time from whale oil and lard and vegetable oil to kerosene, acetylene, to electricity. Lamps and lenses, as well have progressed in both intensity and sophistication. The author examines the improvement of lenses ad illumination over time. Today most of the elegant Fresnel lenses have been replaced by modern optics which are more efficient if less visually attractive. Along the way, the light house "keepers" have been eliminated in favor of automation.
Of course, the keepers were the star of the show until automation left them jobless. Dolan focuses on the human component with story after story of desperate rescues as well as the domestic strategies of keeper's wives and pets and the logistics of staying well fed and healthy no matter how far offshore.
Public awareness and the popularity that comes with it increased over time. "Between 1896 and 1916, roughly four thousand people visited the rather remote Cape Blanco Lighthouse in southwestern Oregon. From July through September 1912 more than ten thousand people signed the guest register at Absecon Lighthouse in Atlantic City."
Our own Goat Island Light in Cape Porpoise Harbor is owned and maintained by the Kennebunkport Conservation Trust. A web cam was placed on the tower in 2002 and is operated from shore.