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Keeper's Responsibilities

A lighthouse keeper's most important responsibility was to keep the light operational and lit during the night and through storms and fog. To do this, a keeper would have to make many trips up the stairs of the tower every day, carrying a number of heavy supplies and tools. Once the keeper reached the lantern room, the lamp would have to be filled with oil and the wicks trimmed to provide the most light and prevent excessive smoking.

Daily Tasks

The following list names just a few of daily responsibilities performed by lighthouse keepers:

  1. Fill lamps with oil
  2. Trim wicks
  3. Wind mechanisms for turning the lamps
  4. Clean the lens
  5. Polish brass fittings
  6. Clean lantern room windows
  7. Clear windows and gallery of debris, including snow, ice, and even birds
  8. Keep grounds clean and orderly
  9. Keep all buildings and facilities in good repair
  10. Paint the lighthouse tower and buildings

Occasionally, keepers would be required to perform tasks that were less common but of great importance nonetheless. When automated fog signals failed, keepers would manually ring a bell, sometimes for hours on end until the fog cleared. Lighthouse keepers also coordinated rescue efforts when necessary, sometimes single-handedly and almost always at the risk of their own lives.

Lighthouse Photograph

However, most of the time the life of a lighthouse keeper is said to have been quite monotonous and repetitive. Frederic W. Morong, Jr., a machinist in the U.S. lighthouse service, wrote a poem titled "Brasswork: The Light-Keepers Lament" which was inspired by the complaints he often heard from lighthouse keepers while performing his duties. The 14-stanza poem humorously describes the ever-present chores of a lighthouse keeper and later earned him the title of the lighthouse keeper's "unofficial poet laureate."

In addition to performing these and other tasks, a keeper was required to document their activities in a log. Any significant task that was performed or event that occurred would be recorded in the keeper's log, as well as accounts of the weather, passing ships, and supply usage. Today, these logs from years past provide a wealth of information about the lives of keepers and the history of the lighthouses where they served.

© 2002 Lights of the Coast