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.”