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Eerie quiet, eagles and distress calls: The isolated life of Nootka Island’s lighthouse keepers

On the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, on Nootka Island, Mark and Joanne Tiglmann run the federally operated lighthouse at the entrance to Friendly Cove. They will retire in September after 12 years “keeping the light.” The National Post’s Douglas Quan reports on the beauty and isolation of the job as a lighthouse keeper.

Even after all these years, Mark Tiglmann still wakes up every morning and stares out his windows with wonder.

It’s not difficult to see why. One side opens up to the untamed Pacific. The other side overlooks the azure-blue waters of Friendly Cove and the majestic rainforest beyond.

“One day I look out and there are four humpbacks right in front of my kitchen. I’ve seen orcas training their young how to hunt seals,” he said. “When we have the herring spawn in Friendly Cove … everything comes to dine. All the trees are decorated with eagles. It’s like living in a National Geographic. It’s so loud with wildlife.”

The Nootka Lighthouse in Friendly Cove, British Columbia Ben Nelms for National Post
For the past 12 years, Mark and his wife, Joanne, former high school sweethearts and long-haul truckers from Alberta, have lived on this rocky outpost on the southern tip of Nootka Island ― a “piece of frickin’ paradise,” Mark called it — as keepers of a federally owned lighthouse, one of 27 along British Columbia’s coast.

Like all keepers, their daily duties — phoning in weather reports seven times a day, responding to distress calls from boaters and non-stop maintenance work ― are performed largely out of the public eye.

While the Tiglmanns, both 61, said they love their job, they are anxious to get on with their “glory years,” which is why they are building wooden transport crates, packing up their belongings and retiring in September.

Mark and Joanne Tiglmann at the Nootka Sound lighthouse in Friendly Cove, British Columbia Ben Nelms for National Post
Before they do, they gave the National Post a peek inside the life of a lighthouse keeper, including the not-so-romantic aspects of the job.

If you’ve ever dreamed of escaping the urban rat race and becoming a keeper of the light, be warned: it isn’t exactly a holiday on the beach. “If you’ve got marital problems, they’re going to escalate,” Joanne said.

Being a keeper in a remote place like this is really a lifestyle, not a job, said Joanne. It’s meant for someone who is “a little bit anti-social, a little bit off the wall. It’s not meant for someone who likes to shop in the mall.”

Nootka Sound is pictured from an airplane near Gold River, British Columbia on July 11, 2017 Ben Nelms for National Post
The first lighthouse on Nootka Island went into service in 1911. It was a squat, wooden structure that helped ensure the safe movement of goods produced in canneries, lumber mills and mines.

Keepers in those days had to deal with dismal wages and working conditions. In Keepers of the Light, a book about the history of B.C. lighthouses, Donald Graham writes that early keepers were a special breed “who knew hunger, deprivation and despair as constant companions in the absence of any others” and “who contemplated and sometimes carried out the ultimate escape from their nightmarish existence.”

William Taylor, who took over the Nootka lighthouse in 1918, quit after just three months, saying the job was “impossible” to carry out. He said his wife had contracted rheumatism “owing to the dampness” from persistent and severe storms.

His successor, P. Foley, a returned soldier, didn’t fare much better, asking to be relieved after a month, saying he had been sick the whole time and couldn’t go against the “will of God.”

Mark and Joanne Tiglmann talk on their balcony at the Nootka Sound lighthouse Ben Nelms for National Post
No question, long stretches of isolation can put a strain on couples, the Tiglmanns said.

“There’s so many divorces, husbands and wives running off with other keepers or other people,” Joanne said.

The current Nootka station ― decked out in red-and-white trim and powered by two diesel generators ― was built in 1958 with more creature comforts.

Its longest-serving keepers, Ed and Pat Kidder, a delightfully curmudgeony couple, spent three decades here before retiring in 2003.

In Leaving the Lights, a film documenting their final year, the couple described how the job generally attracts people who like to keep to themselves. “We don’t socialize, we don’t get together for dinners, we don’t get together for beer or coffee. We just don’t.”

Mark and Joanne Tiglmann eat dinner at the Nootka Sound lighthouse Ben Nelms for National Post
The Tiglmanns, who were looking to settle down after years of crisscrossing North America as long-haul truck drivers, said the job appealed to their “anti-establishment” sensibilities. But first they had to pay their dues — doing relief work at more than a dozen stations, then landing an assistant keeper’s gig on middle-of-nowhere Green Island, the northernmost station. Not only was the island small and bereft of any trees, it was the only station on the coast that reported freezing spray.

“It felt like you were living in an igloo,” Joanne said.

After a year, they pounced at the opening on Nootka Island.

Besides the isolation, one of the more demanding aspects of the job, which pays between $38,498 and $64,451, is having to file daily weather reports every three hours, from 4:40 a.m. until 10:40 p.m.

Mark Tiglmann makes a weather report Ben Nelms for National Post
“The coffee pot’s on 24/7,” Mark said.

On a recent morning this summer, Joanne emerged from her home in a light fleece and walked through the semi-darkness to file the day’s first weather report. Her faithful white bijon, Lucy, was at her side.

A symphony of birds chirped away while nearby sports fishermen hit the water for the first bite.

Joanne stared into the distance. If she can see the horizon, as she was able to that morning, she knows the visibility is 15 nautical miles.

Above, the 14-metre tower used a 35-watt bulb the size of a thumb to emit a concentrated beam through a plastic prism — not the broad band of light seen in Hollywood movies.

Read more about things you did not know about lighthouses on a CNN article.

Joanne Tiglmann submits a weather report in the early morning hours Ben Nelms for National Post
All lights along the coast rotate at different intervals to aid mariners in their navigation. The Nootka station is on a 12-second loop.

Later, Joanne settled down at a desk in the radio room and waited for the Coast Guard to prompt her over the ALN phone, a communication system that connects all lighthouses.

Weather reports are delivered with quick efficiency: “Good morning,” she said. “We are overcast… one-five …. west … zero-six … one-foot chop, low southwest.” Translation: the skies are overcast, with 15-nautical-mile visibility, winds are blowing from the west at six knots, with one-foot waves and low southwest swells.

An aerial view of the lighthouse Ben Nelms for National Post
Subsequent reports include cloud heights, air temperature and dew point to aid pilots in the air.

From time to time the radio will crackle with a distress call. There have been numerous fishermen who’ve suffered heart attacks on the water.

“These old guys come out on a fishing charter, hook on to that big salmon, right?” Mark said. “Blood’s flowin’ and yeah…”

A handful of times each year, they get calls from fishermen who’ve impaled their hands or feet with fish hooks.

Friendly Cove, British Columbia on July 12, 2017 Ben Nelms for National Post
Their predecessors, the Kidders, famously logged some 20 lifesaving rescues, including the rescue of a Vietnamese family that had been knocked unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning on a clam boat.

The Tiglmanns share day-to-day duties: checking outside weather instruments for temperature and humidity levels; tending to vegetables in the greenhouse; painting in the summer. There are always weeds that need to be whacked.

In their free time, Joanne will collect sea glass on the beach for jewellery. Mark will work on carpentry projects.

Visits from bears eager to snack on blackberries keep them on their toes. But they are most fearful of cougars that lurk in the shadows.

In the summer, Friendly Cove is a magnet for hikers and kayakers, as well as lighthouse geeks and history buffs on boats tracing the path of Capt. James Cook.

Mark Tiglmann walks to check his weather indicators at the lighthouse Ben Nelms for National Post
Come fall and winter, it gets eerily quiet. Storms bring ferocious waves that pound the rocks, sending vibrations through the house.

To be sure, the Internet and TV have made the isolation more tolerable. But that doesn’t mean the Tiglmanns don’t stock up on vitamin D and bathe in UV lights for a pick-me up during the grey doldrums.

Then there’s the added frustration of dealing with federal bureaucracy.

Several years ago, a Coast Guard helicopter landed on the station’s helipad to deliver some shocking news: the agency had decided to begin removing all remaining lightkeepers in B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mark, who had just returned from helping out a stranded mariner who had a hole in his boat, was furious.

“I just went off on this guy.”

That set into motion a wave of petitions and the formation of a Senate committee to examine the issue.

A dock in Friendly Cove Ben Nelms for National Post
Joanne compiled a report of all the incident reports they had responded to and presented it to senators during a town hall in November 2010.

“It was scary ― I’d never spoken in front of senators before,” she said.

The backlash paid off and the government backed down.

The Senate committee’s final report noted that keepers are the “ultimate backup or safety net” and that automated equipment was no match for a keepers’ “watchful eyes on the skies and on the water.”

Keepers, though not trained in search and rescue, save lives by spotting boats in distress, relaying weak radio signals, providing first aid and sanctuary, patching boats and preparing staging grounds for evacuations, the report said.

While the de-staffing crisis was averted, the frustrations continued, the Tiglmanns said. When contaminated soil was discovered in their garden, it took the Coast Guard nine years before new soil was delivered. The Coast Guard also took away their rescue boat.

Mark and Joanne Tiglmann tend to their garden at the Nootka Lighthouse Ben Nelms for National Post
And the fear of a shut down never really went away. Mark thinks the government is “getting ready to take another big run at us.”

“You never know if you’re going to have a job,” he said.

In an email, Michelle Imbeau, a spokeswoman for Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the work of all Coast Guard employees is valued.

“The government has no plans to de-staff light stations,” she wrote.

The Tiglmanns are planning to retire in September Ben Nelms for National Post
Still, the Tiglmanns are ready to move on. They plan to split their time between Parksville, B.C., and Costa Rica.

“Somebody told us the best years are between 60 and 70. And we’ve had so many friends and acquaintances work till retirement and then pass away. We don’t want to become a statistic,” Joanne said.

Traditionally, when someone retires from the lights, all the other keepers on the coast will join in unison to sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow over the radio phone.

“It’s gonna be tough,” said Mark. “I’m a pretty well-travelled person and there aren’t many chunks of real estate that will beat this.”

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Keepers Duties

Being a lighthouse keeper was not a 9-to-5 job. It was anything but. A typical tour of duty began before dusk and continued well past dawn. The keeper tended to routine but essential duties, made repairs as needed, and was always prepared to respond to any emergency, including shipwrecks.

Faithful Attention

“Constant and faithful attention to their duties shall be required of all persons in the service, and no employees shall be absent from his station or duty without authority,” states Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service in its 1927 edition.

Lives depended on the light keeper. And the light keeper depended on the 124-page Instructions To Employees of the United States Lighthouse Service as the official orders and procedures of the U.S. Lighthouse Service. A copy of the guide, belonging to one of the Sea Girt keepers, is on display at the lighthouse. All instructions that follow come from this invaluable guide, except where noted.

On Duty

“Lights must be exhibited punctually at sunset and kept lighted at full intensity until sunrise, when the lights will be extinguished and the apparatus put in order without delay for relighting.” NAVESINK_BEACON

Preparations for lighting the beacon began well before dusk. The keeper first inspected the Fresnel lens and its many prisms, which were cleaned that morning. The lamp that produced the light was checked and the supply of fuel refilled. The wick was trimmed and lighted. The weights, which dropped down the tower shaft driving gears that caused the lens to revolve, were unlocked, hand cranked up to the top and a new descent started.

“At stations having one or more assistant keepers, watches must be kept and so divided. At stations having no assistant, the keeper must not leave the light for at least half an hour after lighting, in order to see that it is burning properly, and must visit the light at least twice between 8 p.m. and sunrise, and on stormy nights must be constantly looked after.”

At the tallest lighthouses, such as Barnegat with more than 200 steps to the top, and lighthouses with larger, more complicated lenses, such as Twin Lights with 1st order and 2nd order Fresnel lenses, there was a keeper and assistant keepers to share the duties. A smaller lighthouse with fewer than 50 steps to the top and smaller, simpler lens such as Sea Girt, had a lone keeper.

Lights Out

KEEPER_CLEANS_LENS_npsAt dawn, the keeper turned off the lamp by turning off the fuel that had kept the wick burning throughout the night. The weights were stopped and locked. The Fresnel lens stopped turning.

The keeper then proceeded to clean the lens. “Clean lens and lantern daily. (a) To clean lens wipe with soft linen cloth and finally polish with a thorough dry buff skin. … (b) All material used for cleaning lens or lantern glass must be free from grit of any kind.”

After the Fresnel lens was cleaned, a linen lens bag was placed over the lens and the curtains that hung on the lantern room windows were drawn to prevent the rays of the sun discoloring the prisms of the lens or reigniting the lamp.

Lighthouse beacons were turned off during the daytime to save on the cost of fuel, the biggest expense in operating a lighthouse. In emergencies, such as a shipwreck, a lamp could remain lighted past dawn at the discretion of the keeper to project its guiding beacon. But this exception would have to be promptly reported in writing to the USLHS District Superintendent.

Daymarks

With the lighthouse beacons turned off during daytime, mariners navigated by scanning the coastline through their binoculars looking for landmarks. Lighthouses serve during the daylight as landmarks known as daymarks.

Just as the beacon of each lighthouse had its own signature of blinks on and off to help mariners identify the light, so too each lighthouse was intentionally made to appear different from other nearby lighthouses to enable the sailors to distinguish one from another and thereby figure out where they were.

Thus Navesink Twin Lights to the north resembles a brownstone fortress with two imposing towers, while Sea Girt is a Victorian red-brick home with a wrap-around porch and a 44-foot tower rising above the front entrance, and Barnegat Lighthouse to the south is a 172-foot-tall tower painted red over white stripes.

Do It, Then Document It

When not in the lighthouse, the keeper would spend some time everyday outside surveying weather and tide conditions and taking readings. Where installed and under the keeper’s command, buoys and markers would be checked and repositioned as needed. If there was a launch, lifeboat or any other vessel assigned to the station, it too was checked.

And much of what the keeper did, he or she then recorded in the official logbook for the keeper’s future reference and inspection by officials from USLHS District Office. No matter the lighthouse, there was constant recordkeeping and a lot of paperwork.

In the required logbook, the keeper made daily handwritten entries in ink detailing operations at the lighthouse, weather and water conditions, ship traffic and anything out of the ordinary at the light station, the surrounding community or in the local waters.

On display at Sea Girt Lighthouse is the 1903-06 logbook of keeper Abram Yates. (The logbook was discovered and donated to the lighthouse collection by Richard O. Venino).

The keeper also maintained a daily expense book and a general accounts book.

Other Duties

“Besides the requirements as to physical ability, the civil-service requirements as to experience and fitness include ability as a waterman or boatman accustomed to handling and pulling sail and motor boats in all kinds of weather, and in certain cases ability to properly handle and care for fog-signal apparatus and machinery. Ability to read and write is required in all cases.”

In addition to tending the light, the keeper’s routine duties included:

o Clean the tower and living quarters daily.

o Paint as needed.

o Make repairs as needed in the tower and living quarters and fix apparatus, furnishings and machinery therein.

o Install any replacement equipment as needed.

o Keep a current inventory of all supplies needed in the tower and living quarters

o Clean the chimney(s), stove and heaters regularly.

o Conduct tours of the lighthouse for USLHS inspectors and engineers during quarterly inspections and for approved civilians and dignitaries upon request.

o Maintain the grounds.

o Plant and tend a personal vegetable garden.

The household chores tended to be done by the keeper’s family, who contributed significantly to the smooth operation of the lighthouse. (See this website’s related story Ladies of the Lighthouse).

Dressed for the Occasion

Uniforms were introduced in 1883. At the time, the then Lighthouse Board advised: “It is believed that uniforming the personnel of the service, some 1,600 in number, will aid in maintaining its discipline, increase its efficiency, raise its tone, and add to the esprit de corps.”

Regulations for Uniforms (a 14-page pamphlet published by the USLHS and issued to all personnel) provided descriptions and illustrations of the dress uniforms and work uniforms and who should wear which and when.

Most of the time, personnel at land-based stations, off-shore lights and USLHS vessels wore work uniforms of dungaree blouses and trousers or overalls and the conical, flat-top navy blue caps. On work detail, black or tan shoes could be worn with black socks.

When at USLHS functions or in public representing the Service, keepers and other personnel were required to wear the dress uniform, which was the same as a U.S. Navy officer’s uniform but with USLHS markings. The dress jacket was a navy blue, double-breasted sack coat made of serge or flannel with a double row of gilt buttons. The trousers were made of matching material, as was the vest. The tie was black, worn with a white shirt. Shoes were black.

During summer, keepers and other officers had the option of wearing a white, single-breasted dress jacket of linen, heavy drill, or duck, that buttoned to the neck with a stiff standing collar and matching pants, white socks and shoes. A white cap cover was put over the navy blue uniform cap.

Women keepers were exempted from the uniform regulations. Male keepers had to buy their own uniforms.

Emergency Preparedness

While much was routine, the keeper was prepared to deal with the unexpected.

Fire was a constant worry, due to the fuel used in the lamp, lubricating oil used in lantern mechanism, paints and varnish stored for when the building was repainted, and the coal and wood stored for use in the fireplaces and stove of the living quarters.

To minimize damage, flammable supplies were usually kept in a separate stone or brick outbuilding. Fuel and other supplies were brought into the lighthouse in small amounts as needed. Sea Girt had a red brick supply building on the west side of the property.

Fire buckets painted red and filled with water or sand were located throughout lighthouses – towers and living quarters – and checked daily and fire drills conducted monthly.

And at any time, the keeper was ready to respond to shipwrecks. “It shall be the duty of light keepers and their assistants, and officers and crews of vessels of The Lighthouse Service, to give or summon aid to vessels in distress, whether public or private, and to assist in saving life and property from perils of the sea whenever it is practicable to do so.”

Reports

Any emergency and the keeper’s response to it required the keeper immediately after the event to write and submit a detailed report to the USLHS District Superintendent on official USLHS stationery.

Keepers also completed and submitted these official reports to the District Office:

o Lighthouse inventory upon taking up a new post.

o Monthly report on conditions at the light station.

o Monthly report on the condition and operations of the fog system.

o Quarterly pay voucher.

o Quarterly expense report with accompanying receipts.

o Annual list of returned equipment.

o Damage reports as necessary.

o Requisitions for equipment and supplies as necessary.

o Inventory of returned items upon leaving a post, to be matched against the inventory list submitted upon assuming the post.

Taking Leave

The lighthouse required a qualified person to be on duty at all times, easily done at larger lights with a keeper and assistant keepers to take over from one another.

But at smaller lighthouses with lone keepers, such as Sea Girt, the keeper basically was on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If the lone keep needed to leave the lighthouse property, it was permissible to put a qualified, pre-approved family member in charge.

Keepers were entitled to 15-30 days leave per year, depending on circumstances and the staffing at the lighthouse. Requests for leave had to be put in writing by the applying keeper and reviewed and approved by the District Superintendent’s Office.

“At stations having only one keeper the station may be left in charge of a member of the keeper’s family during his absence on leave, without charge to the Government, provided that where, by reason of the character of the machinery or other conditions at a station, such an arrangement for the relief of the keeper is considered impracticable or inadvisable by the superintendent, arrangement may be made to allow the keeper not exceeding 15 days’ leave in any calendar year, by the employment of a substitute, where necessary, at Government expense.”

Benefits

Pay was below what the keepers could have earned in the private sector for comparable work but in line with government pay. In 1940, at the end of his career, George Thomas, the last keeper assigned to Sea Girt by the U.S. Lighthouse Service, was earning $1,680 a year.

Motivation for any keeper came in the quarterly visits by an inspector from the District Office who inspected the lighthouse and graded the keeper on its condition and operation. Low-rated keepers risked reprimand, reassignment or dismissal. Top-rated keepers were awarded the Inspector’s Efficiency Star, a gold-star medal the keeper could wear for the next twelve months. The Efficiency Star program aimed “to promote efficiency and friendly rivalry among lighthouse keepers.” Sea Girt’s keepers, including George Thomas, won numerous Efficiency Stars. Such recognition could advance careers and pay grade.

And despite the long hours and comparatively low salaries, the job of a lighthouse keeper had many attractions and benefits. Keepers were held in high regard in their communities and among seafarers. For those keepers who had grown up in port cities or shore towns and were steeped in the lore and tradition of the sea, running a lighthouse enabled them to carry on in this tradition.

Many land-based light stations, such as Sea Girt Lighthouse, also provided comfortable quarters in desirable settings, which was especially attractive to married keepers with children. There was enough land to plant a vegetable garden. The water was nearby for fishing and recreation. Neighbors were welcoming. In addition to free housing, the Lighthouse Service provided a fuel allowance.

The prospect of a pension upon retirement also kept many keepers working diligently. George Thomas retired March 31, 1941 with an annual Lighthouse Service pension of $1,015, moving to Ocean Grove.

While often repetitious, the work of a lighthouse keeper was invaluable. A keeper not only carried a weighty responsibility but also the satisfaction of helping people every day by keeping bright the light that guided countless ships – their crews, passengers and cargo – safely to the next beacon.

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A day in the life of America’s last lighthouse keeper

LITTLE BREWSTER ISLAND, Boston Harbor (Reuters Life!) – The sole remaining lighthouse keeper in the United States may be the last one but she isn’t about to disappear.

Sally Snowman stands in front of Boston Light on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor, Massachusetts May 15, 2008. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Sally Snowman, 56, is part historian, part tour guide and part maintenance worker who tends Boston Light, a beacon that rises 89 feet (27 meter) on its own island and had guided sailors for almost three centuries.

Her charge, and specifically the 12-sided rotating lens that casts its beam 27 nautical miles out to sea, fills her with a great sense of security.

“When you’re out at night on the island, you can actually see the 12 rays,” said the ex-schoolteacher. “It actually looks like the rays are going out to the curvature of the earth and it feels so protected, like nothing’s going to harm me. It’s awesome.”

The U.S. Coast Guard has automated the other 278 federally run lighthouses, finding this a more cost-effective way to manage navigational aids that have become less critical since the advent of global positioning systems that harness satellite technology.

But Boston Light, which in 1716 became the first lighthouse in the former British colonies, keeps its keeper thanks to Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy who two decades ago helped push through legislation requiring a full-time attendant.

Snowman got the job in 2003 when the Coast Guard decided it could be held by a civilian. Now she resides on the three-acre

island for up to a week at a time.

She makes sure the lighthouse, keeper’s cottage and other buildings are maintained, the 1,000-watt light is lit, and the grounds are in shape for the 4,000 tourists who travel the nine nautical miles from Boston Harbor each year.

RADIATING HOPE AND SECURITY
Snowman dresses the part, wearing a bonnet and long dress to reflect how women dressed in 1783 when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts rebuilt the tower that was blown up by retreating British troops in 1776, as the Revolutionary War got underway.

Twice a day she walks the island’s perimeter to inspect its buildings, making sure that the light is still drawing power from an undersea cable stretching from the mainland, and that the island’s water and communications systems work properly.

In between, she oversees a crew of about 100 volunteers who help to take weather readings and fill the hundreds of tiny holes that pock the island, thanks to a population of muskrats.

Automation is not the only change facing lighthouses.

As navigators rely on other technologies to find their way, the U.S. government has begun selling or donating to historic preservation groups lights no longer necessary for navigation.

More than 300 lights have passed into private hands this way, according to Coast Guard officials.

But for recreational boaters and small fishing vessels, which represent a sizable chunk of Boston Harbor traffic, the lights still play a role.

“They help with approaches because they can be seen from a great distance away,” said David Bryan, general manager of the Boston Sailing Club, which teaches sailing and navigation.

“If the idea is that now everyone is using GPS and you don’t need light houses, I would say that redundant information is very important when navigating.”

“For many, it has a sense of hope and spirituality, not religion, but spirituality,” she said in an interview atop the tower, looking out over Boston Harbor. “They look at it and see it as a coming home and safety.”

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Men of the Lights

A unique way of life for the many men and their families who manned our lighthouses for well over a century, lightkeeping was also a demanding, skilled and rewarding role. Despite the fact that the 1980s brought technological advances that meant lighthouses could be automated – lessening the need for permanent lightkeepers on site – it’s still the stories of the men who tended the light that draw us back to these coastal towers. The very last lighthouse automation on these shores came into effect in 2012.

Keeping Watch
In today’s busy, always-on age it’s easy to romanticise an isolated coastal life surrounded by stunning scenery. There were no doubt many good days but there was also plenty of danger among nature’s beauty, not to mention the unending routine of daily work. Confined to a lighthouse station with the close and inescapable company of maybe only one or two other men for weeks on end, it’s little wonder that ex-lighthouse keepers say it took a ‘special sort’ of character to take on the role!

Duties Day & Night
Lighthouses ran like clockwork with meticulous timing and attention to detail. There were usually three keepers and the clock was divided into six four-hour watches. The duty lighthouse keeper’s main job was obviously to ‘keep a good light’ as the rules and regulations put it. In the days of paraffin-vapour lamps that meant tending the light in the lantern of the lighthouse, and regularly winding the rotation mechanism that controlled the light’s flash. When electrification came along for the lights and the rotation mechanism, life was made much easier. The keepers could then spend the night in the messroom or kitchen watching an indicator to check the light was working.

Fog Watch
A major hazard for shipping, the keepers would always be watchful for fog. If fog rolled in, watches were doubled with one keeper operating the fog signal and the other tending the light. When the fog was bad enough, the keeper sounded the fog signal, by detonating an explosive or sounding a siren.

Red Foghorn at St Johns Lighthouse Donegal. Great Lighthouses of Ireland

Keeping it all Shipshape
The lighthouses were always kept impeccably spick and span. In true maritime tradition, everything had to be ‘shipshape’. So, as well as their watch duties, lighthouse keepers also spent a lot of time on ‘housework’ doing tasks like cleaning the lighting apparatus, polishing the optic and lantern glass, checking and servicing the engines, painting, keeping boat-landings and steps free of seaweed, not to mention keeping the accommodation clean.

While the keepers’ priority was the light and other Aids to Navigation, they also kept an eye on the water and on vessels that passed their way. Keepers would even get calls from fishermen’s wives asking for updates on their husbands’ whereabouts at sea!

Time Off
Usually, each man was at the lighthouse for six weeks at a time and then on leave for two. On island and remote headland lighthouses (like Clare Island, Loop Head, Valentia Island or Fanad Head) they might see no one but other keepers and the crew of the relief boat during that period. Separation from their families was difficult at times. At Ballycotton in East Cork however, the keepers’ families even stood on the quay on the mainland at a certain time each day to wave to their fathers.

Food
Where conditions permitted, the keepers would sometimes have a garden and maybe a few chickens. Fresh vegetables and eggs were a welcome addition to a diet that often relied on dried and tinned food.

Offshore lighthouses would receive a package of fresh food on a ‘relief day’ (when a keeper changed shifts). This, of course, was weather dependent! Sometimes the relief boat could be delayed for days or even weeks, so the men kept a large stock of food at the station just in case.

Today
There are 70 lighthouses around the island of Ireland still at work today. Twelve of these are part of Great Lighthouses of Ireland and are dotted around the Irish and Northern Irish coast. They stand as testament to these lightkeeping men and their proud, steadfast tradition of service and dedication to safety at sea.

BBC’s article shares about whats it like to live in a lighthouse.

You can experience something of life as it was at one of the Great Lighthouses of Ireland. Many of the lighthouses offer comfortable and characterful visitor accommodation in what were once the lightkeepers’ very houses.

Find out how you can enjoy an unforgettable lighthouse stay of your own. From escapes along the Wild Atlantic Way to the beauty of Ireland’s Ancient East – the coastal life is calling!

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The Lonely, Lifesaving Job of Lighthouse Keepers, Revealed at the National Lighthouse Museum

On the northwest coast of Vancouver Island, on Nootka Island, Mark and Joanne Tiglmann run the federally operated lighthouse at the entrance to Friendly Cove. They will retire in September after 12 years “keeping the light.” The National Post’s Douglas Quan reports on the beauty and isolation of the job as a lighthouse keeper.

Even after all these years, Mark Tiglmann still wakes up every morning and stares out his windows with wonder.

It’s not difficult to see why. One side opens up to the untamed Pacific. The other side overlooks the azure-blue waters of Friendly Cove and the majestic rainforest beyond.

“One day I look out and there are four humpbacks right in front of my kitchen. I’ve seen orcas training their young how to hunt seals,” he said. “When we have the herring spawn in Friendly Cove … everything comes to dine. All the trees are decorated with eagles. It’s like living in a National Geographic. It’s so loud with wildlife.”

For the past 12 years, Mark and his wife, Joanne, former high school sweethearts and long-haul truckers from Alberta, have lived on this rocky outpost on the southern tip of Nootka Island ― a “piece of frickin’ paradise,” Mark called it — as keepers of a federally owned lighthouse, one of 27 along British Columbia’s coast.

Like all keepers, their daily duties — phoning in weather reports seven times a day, responding to distress calls from boaters and non-stop maintenance work ― are performed largely out of the public eye.

While the Tiglmanns, both 61, said they love their job, they are anxious to get on with their “glory years,” which is why they are building wooden transport crates, packing up their belongings and retiring in September.

If you’ve ever dreamed of escaping the urban rat race and becoming a keeper of the light, be warned: it isn’t exactly a holiday on the beach. “If you’ve got marital problems, they’re going to escalate,” Joanne said.

Being a keeper in a remote place like this is really a lifestyle, not a job, said Joanne. It’s meant for someone who is “a little bit anti-social, a little bit off the wall. It’s not meant for someone who likes to shop in the mall.”

The first lighthouse on Nootka Island went into service in 1911. It was a squat, wooden structure that helped ensure the safe movement of goods produced in canneries, lumber mills and mines.

Keepers in those days had to deal with dismal wages and working conditions. In Keepers of the Light, a book about the history of B.C. lighthouses, Donald Graham writes that early keepers were a special breed “who knew hunger, deprivation and despair as constant companions in the absence of any others” and “who contemplated and sometimes carried out the ultimate escape from their nightmarish existence.”

William Taylor, who took over the Nootka lighthouse in 1918, quit after just three months, saying the job was “impossible” to carry out. He said his wife had contracted rheumatism “owing to the dampness” from persistent and severe storms.

His successor, P. Foley, a returned soldier, didn’t fare much better, asking to be relieved after a month, saying he had been sick the whole time and couldn’t go against the “will of God.”

No question, long stretches of isolation can put a strain on couples, the Tiglmanns said.

“There’s so many divorces, husbands and wives running off with other keepers or other people,” Joanne said.

The current Nootka station ― decked out in red-and-white trim and powered by two diesel generators ― was built in 1958 with more creature comforts.

Its longest-serving keepers, Ed and Pat Kidder, a delightfully curmudgeony couple, spent three decades here before retiring in 2003.

In Leaving the Lights, a film documenting their final year, the couple described how the job generally attracts people who like to keep to themselves. “We don’t socialize, we don’t get together for dinners, we don’t get together for beer or coffee. We just don’t.”

The Tiglmanns, who were looking to settle down after years of crisscrossing North America as long-haul truck drivers, said the job appealed to their “anti-establishment” sensibilities. But first they had to pay their dues — doing relief work at more than a dozen stations, then landing an assistant keeper’s gig on middle-of-nowhere Green Island, the northernmost station. Not only was the island small and bereft of any trees, it was the only station on the coast that reported freezing spray.

“It felt like you were living in an igloo,” Joanne said.

After a year, they pounced at the opening on Nootka Island.

Besides the isolation, one of the more demanding aspects of the job, which pays between $38,498 and $64,451, is having to file daily weather reports every three hours, from 4:40 a.m. until 10:40 p.m.

“The coffee pot’s on 24/7,” Mark said.

On a recent morning this summer, Joanne emerged from her home in a light fleece and walked through the semi-darkness to file the day’s first weather report. Her faithful white bijon, Lucy, was at her side.

A symphony of birds chirped away while nearby sports fishermen hit the water for the first bite.

Joanne stared into the distance. If she can see the horizon, as she was able to that morning, she knows the visibility is 15 nautical miles.

Above, the 14-metre tower used a 35-watt bulb the size of a thumb to emit a concentrated beam through a plastic prism — not the broad band of light seen in Hollywood movies.

All lights along the coast rotate at different intervals to aid mariners in their navigation. The Nootka station is on a 12-second loop.

Later, Joanne settled down at a desk in the radio room and waited for the Coast Guard to prompt her over the ALN phone, a communication system that connects all lighthouses.

Weather reports are delivered with quick efficiency: “Good morning,” she said. “We are overcast… one-five …. west … zero-six … one-foot chop, low southwest.” Translation: the skies are overcast, with 15-nautical-mile visibility, winds are blowing from the west at six knots, with one-foot waves and low southwest swells.

Subsequent reports include cloud heights, air temperature and dew point to aid pilots in the air.

From time to time the radio will crackle with a distress call. There have been numerous fishermen who’ve suffered heart attacks on the water.

“These old guys come out on a fishing charter, hook on to that big salmon, right?” Mark said. “Blood’s flowin’ and yeah…”

A handful of times each year, they get calls from fishermen who’ve impaled their hands or feet with fish hooks.

Their predecessors, the Kidders, famously logged some 20 lifesaving rescues, including the rescue of a Vietnamese family that had been knocked unconscious from carbon monoxide poisoning on a clam boat.

The Tiglmanns share day-to-day duties: checking outside weather instruments for temperature and humidity levels; tending to vegetables in the greenhouse; painting in the summer. There are always weeds that need to be whacked.

In their free time, Joanne will collect sea glass on the beach for jewellery. Mark will work on carpentry projects.

Visits from bears eager to snack on blackberries keep them on their toes. But they are most fearful of cougars that lurk in the shadows.

In the summer, Friendly Cove is a magnet for hikers and kayakers, as well as lighthouse geeks and history buffs on boats tracing the path of Capt. James Cook.

Come fall and winter, it gets eerily quiet. Storms bring ferocious waves that pound the rocks, sending vibrations through the house.

To be sure, the Internet and TV have made the isolation more tolerable. But that doesn’t mean the Tiglmanns don’t stock up on vitamin D and bathe in UV lights for a pick-me up during the grey doldrums.

Then there’s the added frustration of dealing with federal bureaucracy.

Several years ago, a Coast Guard helicopter landed on the station’s helipad to deliver some shocking news: the agency had decided to begin removing all remaining lightkeepers in B.C. and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mark, who had just returned from helping out a stranded mariner who had a hole in his boat, was furious.

“I just went off on this guy.”

That set into motion a wave of petitions and the formation of a Senate committee to examine the issue.

Joanne compiled a report of all the incident reports they had responded to and presented it to senators during a town hall in November 2010.

“It was scary ― I’d never spoken in front of senators before,” she said.

The backlash paid off and the government backed down.

The Senate committee’s final report noted that keepers are the “ultimate backup or safety net” and that automated equipment was no match for a keepers’ “watchful eyes on the skies and on the water.”

Keepers, though not trained in search and rescue, save lives by spotting boats in distress, relaying weak radio signals, providing first aid and sanctuary, patching boats and preparing staging grounds for evacuations, the report said.

While the de-staffing crisis was averted, the frustrations continued, the Tiglmanns said. When contaminated soil was discovered in their garden, it took the Coast Guard nine years before new soil was delivered. The Coast Guard also took away their rescue boat.

Mark and Joanne Tiglmann tend to their garden at the Nootka Lightew York’s Staten Island is now home to the National Lighthouse Museum, a non-profit site in the works since 1998 that displays the artifacts and cultural history of a sometimes-overlooked job—one in which people lived a lonely life on a tiny parcel of land to maintain a light that saved sailors’ lives.

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While the museum had a soft opening of sorts a few months back, it’s now officially welcoming visitors. This weekend, in honor of National Lighthouse Day on August 7, it’s offering free admission and a number of events in celebration of its grand opening, including talks from a noted MIT professor who doubles as a lightkeeper on a remote island in Lake Superior. And the museum’s site itself is filled with history: It’s the former location of the New York Marine Hospital (popularly called The Quarantine), a place where up to 1,500 immigrants could be held if suspected of being in “poor or questionable health”—and which, in 1858, “a riotous mob of locals” burned down.

In 1862, several years after the hospital burned, the Staten Island Lighthouse Depot was erected in its place. The depot was, according to the new museum, “the key manufacturing, storage, supply and maintenance center for the U.S. Lighthouse Service’s 3rd District,” which extended from Sandy Hook, New Jersey, north to Albany, New York, and east to the Massachusetts border.

At the time—and for much of our country’s history—lighthouses were vital for keeping sailors alive, as well as for commerce. On August 7, 1789, back when George Washington was President, Congress passed an act for the establishment and support of lighthouses, beacons, buoys and public piers (the annual National Lighthouse Day commemorates that anniversary). As the museum’s executive director told the New York Times, “Lighthouses built the economy of this world.” The Founding Fathers knew that if you couldn’t sail safely into America’s harbors, “you couldn’t bring merchandise or do business.”

The new museum shows off a number of tools that helped guide ships over the years, including rusty foghorns and Fresnel lenses (pronounced freh-nel and named for French physicist Augustin Fresnel). In 1822, Fresnel created a new type of lens that revolutionized optics by more effectively reflecting and refracting light. The newly engineered system increased, by many miles, the distance at which a sailor could spot a tower’s glow. Visitors to the museum can peer at several of these lenses, which also allowed lighthouses to create individualized luminous patterns so that sailors could recognize which part of a coast they were approaching. That was a big upgrade for those navigating the ocean’s waves, who could become dangerously disoriented when every dim lighthouse looked the same. Prior to the Fresnel lens, lighthouses had only one type of light—strong and steady.

Back in the early days of the country, civilians ran these all-important beacons. And often, for the first hundred years, it was civilians with political connections, as Celestina Cuadrado, the museum’s curator, explains. “It tended to be, especially in the early to mid-19th century, like, ‘You’re a Whig? I’m a Whig!’”

At the museum, information boards tell the stories of hardworking icons like Kate Walker, a famous female lightkeeper stationed in a nearby New York harbor. (Walker’s husband was originally the lightkeeper, but came down with pneumonia; before his death, his last reported words to her were “Mind the lights, Katie.”) After she temporarily took over as head lightkeeper, Walker ran against bias: The government thought she was too small to do the job, and looked for what they thought would be a hardier man. But after several men turned down the position because the location was too isolated, Walker was hired. As the Coast Guard writes, “She not only kept the light burning but by her own account may have saved as many as 50 people.” Still, Cuadrado explains, women who became head lightkeepers “always got paid half.” Whereas men in the 19th century typically earned $600 a year to live in a solitary cylinder, she says, women earned just $300.

The lighthouse agency that Congress created went by several names over the years, including the U.S. Light-House Establishment and the U.S. Light-House Service. Cuadrado says it also became increasingly regimented, with the introduction of log books, uniforms and officially-stamped items. Today, the museum has a number of antiques on display that have been stamped with the agency’s official insignia: There’s a silver sugar bowl, and even a stamped toilet paper holder.

In 1939 the Coast Guard took over lighthouse administration, and the profession went from being civilian-based to part of the military. (Existing civilian lightkeepers could ask to hold onto their jobs if they wanted to, Cuadrado says.) By the 1970s, the last of the civilians had retired—and by the end of the decade, most light stations were unstaffed. Now, the new museum on Staten Island seeks to honor those who worked hard, often alone, providing sailors safe passage

And while the museum does not include an actual lighthouse, it does offer the next best things: models of many lighthouses around the country, as well as boat tours, which take visitors in and around New York’s historic harbor to show off these once-crucial lifesaving towers.

“You never know if you’re going to have a job,” he said.

In an email, Michelle Imbeau, a spokeswoman for Department of Fisheries and Oceans, said the work of all Coast Guard employees is valued.

“The government has no plans to de-staff light stations,” she wrote.

Still, the Tiglmanns are ready to move on. They plan to split their time between Parksville, B.C., and Costa Rica.

“Somebody told us the best years are between 60 and 70. And we’ve had so many friends and acquaintances work till retirement and then pass away. We don’t want to become a statistic,” Joanne said.

Traditionally, when someone retires from the lights, all the other keepers on the coast will join in unison to sing For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow over the radio phone.

“It’s gonna be tough,” said Mark. “I’m a pretty well-travelled person and there aren’t many chunks of real estate that will beat this.”