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Sailor’s Delight

Eric Jay Dolin's latest book, "Brilliant Beacons," is a study of American history through its lighthouses and coastlines.

Fred Tanneau/Getty

The storms were so bad that first winter at Minot’s Ledge Light, a lighthouse drilled into a reef a mile off the Massachusetts coast, that in 1850 the keeper’s cat eventually threw itself from the watch room, 70 feet up. The keeper, Isaac Dunham, arrived at the railing in time to see the cat still alive on the rocks, before it was swept away by a passing wave.

Minot’s Ledge Light didn’t have a cottage or a garden or anything resembling the models you might find in a gift shop in Maine. It was a lonely iron cylinder elevated by nine metal piles. The summer before it was completed, Henry David Thoreau saw the lighthouse from a boat on his way from up the coast. “Here was the new iron lighthouse, then unfinished, in the shape of an egg-shell painted red, and placed high on iron pillars, like the ovum of a sea monster floating on the waves—destined to be phosphorescent,” he wrote in 1849. “As we passed it at half-tide, we saw the spray tossed up nearly to the shell. A man was to live in that egg-shell day and night.”

Dunham, the former cat owner, lived in the “egg-shell” for ten months. As gales pounded the lighthouse, his logbook entries soften to poetry; he writes of the wrathful ocean and his own faint place just above it. From March 31, 1850: “For this month ends, and I thank God that I am yet in the Land of the Living.” On April 6 of the same year: “An ugly sea which makes the lighthouse reel like a drunken man—I hope God, in mercy, stills the raging sea—or we must perish.” And later: “We cannot survive the night—if it is to be so—O God receive my unworthy soul for Christ sake for in him I put my trust.” Dunham quit ten months after starting, in October. His successors only lasted a few months before a spring storm sheared the lighthouse completely from the reef. A fisherman found a bottle they’d thrown before Minot’s Ledge Light collapsed into the sea. The note inside read: “The lighthouse won’t stand over to night. She shakes two feet each way now.” Their bodies were later recovered.

The men of Minot’s Ledge Light had been put in that hellish iron room and killed by the sea for one simple reason: Somebody had to light the wicks. Minot’s Ledge Light probably saved dozens of ships and their crews from disastrous ends. Between 1832 and 1842, before the lighthouse was built, more than 40 ships had been lost to the reef.

There are two kinds of lighthouses, each blinking polar messages. Those like Minot’s Ledge Light—perched on reefs or shoals or wherever the seafloor rears up—say, over and over, stay away, stay away. Those at the mouths of harbors, like the ancient lighthouse Pharos, the 450-foot, marble and limestone building from 300BC that watched over Alexandria, say, this way to safety, this way. (Pharos lends the root to pharology, the study of lighthouse construction and illumination.) The dichotomy provides a readymade metaphor. In one design, you find a beacon of life and death. Unsurprisingly, lighthouses appear everywhere in literature.

Eric Jay Dolin—whose superb books Leviathan: The History of Whaling in America and When America First Met China: An Exotic History of Tea, Drugs, and Money in the Age of Sail are required reading for those interested in maritime history—has turned his gaze landward in his latest effort, Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse. Dolin guides us through the history of the American lighthouse, from the bureaucracy that built and managed them, to the men who tended them, through the wars that doused them, the science and engineering that lit them, and the storms that pummeled them. This magnificent compendium is a paean to the buildings that guided safe passage for the economic prosperity of a young nation with huge, dangerous coastlines.

Dolin begins in 1716 with the construction of the granite Boston Lighthouse, a this-way beacon replacing the bonfires Bostonians burned at the mouth of their harbor. The story ends, more or less, in 2002, when the last living civilian keeper passed away. To the extent that Brilliant Beacons is an American history, its arc exists as a policy overhaul, when the system matured from “the worst I ever saw in any part of the world,” as one mariner testified in a 1844 document presented to Congress, to one of the most advanced and largest of any country.

Dolin is a brilliant researcher and seasoned writer, allowing this mostly chronological sweep moments to pause and eddy into all the stories bound to emerge from heroic engineering, isolation, and fortitude. We see lighthouse keepers in the Civil War secretly burying lenses and barrels of whale oil in orange groves or river bands; criminal mooncussers hanging lanterns to horses’ necks at night and walking them down the beach to mimic ships rocking safely in a nonexistent harbor; we see the county’s most talented stone masons zip-lining in oversized trousers from the mast of a ship to a cursed island in the Pacific Northwest; heroic female keepers rowing out in storms to haul aboard drowning sailors; keepers so sick of each other that they ate dinner facing different directions; a drunk assistant keeper chasing his boss around the lighthouse with a butcher’s knife; and the invention of a lens that could bend candlelight into a horizon-reaching beam. Dolin leaves little out, and in less capable hands, the book might lose momentum for its sprawl. But just as in Leviathan, the surplus feels only giving.

Part of the fun of Beacons is reading American history through this specifically coastal lens. We see the American Revolution in patriots defending or recapturing lighthouses from the British. We understand the true nature of American expansion, characterized by federal land seizures from indigenous coastal tribes as the government built more lighthouses for the growing number of ports and trade routes. We get a rare coastal perspective of the Civil War, far from the inland battlefields of Gettysburg or Bull Run, as Union ships bombarded lighthouses and Confederates defended theirs, in one case by building “a furnace that turned cannonballs into glowing projectiles that could ignite enemy ships.”

A thesis of sorts can be found in the simple equation Dolin writes in the final pages: “[W]e will never return to time when new lighthouses will be built.” The American lighthouse has been snuffed out by radio beacons, shoran (short-range navigation) and loran (long-range) radar systems, sonar, and, in one final blow, GPS. Of the 1,000 keepers tending lights in 1900s, there were fewer than 500 by 1946, 300 by the 1960s, and one—the Boston Lighthouse keeper—by 1990. By then, all lighthouses had either been automated or, in large numbers, decommissioned. Without ceremony, they’ve become as irrelevant a utility today as workhorses, lanterns, or sail-power; all those redundant lighthouses, unmanned and unmaintained, have left to be ground down by the sea.

“I think they keep me around because of public relations,” the last civilian keeper said in a 2002 interview. “That’s it. To you, it’s romantic. But when you see it every day, day after, it’s not romantic anymore.”

He raises a good question. Why are lighthouses romantic, deserving of Dolin’s thick love-letter, in a way that, say, gristmills are not? Part of the fascination probably comes from the lore around the lives of keepers. Robert Louis Stevenson, visiting Point Pinos Lighthouse in Monterey, described the keeper as if he were on holiday: “You will find the light-keeper playing the piano, making models and bows and arrows, studying dawn and sunrise in amateur oil-painting, and with a dozen other elegant pursuits and interests to surprise his brave, old-country rivals.” Life seemed different for lighthouse keepers than it was for the average citizen—keepers even lived on a different plane, their rooms stacked vertically. Of course, that wasn’t the reality, as Dolin’s research shows.

While keepers were their own bosses (with time to pursue oil painting), it was generally grueling and lonesome, especially in “stag stations,” those far-flung posts that were unsuitable for keepers’ families. It was a life of isolation and boredom. The Lighthouse Board (a 165-year-old organization) did its best to help, distributing mini-libraries in the late nineteenth century, boxes with dozens of books that traveled from one lighthouse to the next. But no number of books or other entertainment could alleviate the monotony of the job. In 1918, when Woodrow Wilson signed legislation enabling keepers to retire after 30 years of service, a huge number submitted their resignations immediately. In an interview from 1987, one Coast Guard member stationed in New London Ledge Light said: “This place is worse than prison.”

Those who did find plenty of reasons to romanticize lighthouses—and the men and women who risked their lives to tend the fires—were sailors. In 1839, a weary Russian put it best. Upon sighting the Sitka Lighthouse—no more than a cupola in present-day Alaska, housing four copper cans filled with seal oil—he wrote in his journal: “There are no words to express the feelings that induce a sailor to offer fervent prayers when he sees this mark of sympathy expressed by his fellow men. Suddenly he sees that he is no longer alone in the midst of the ocean waves; he sees that people are caring for him with paternal solicitude.”

Only a few years after the first Minot’s Ledge Light was swept away, another one was built, completed in 1860. This time, instead of metal, it was made of 1,000 granite blocks uniquely sculpted to fit and lock into each other, further held together with galvanized iron bolts and cement. This one also got a literary appraisal: “[It] rises out of the sea like a beautiful stone cannon,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once said, “mouth upward, belching forth only friendly fires.”

The second Minot’s Ledge Light has survived the past 156 years of storms, but like many other lighthouses today, was deemed unnecessary by the Coast Guard and sold to a private buyer. Now unneeded by passing ships, the light still flashes the numerical pattern assigned to it in 1894: A 1-4-3 sequence that one nineteenth-century observer noted was the same count in the words “I Love You”—a message nightly repeating on the sometimes lethal and always indifferent ocean.