Keep The Light Burning, Dear
By Martha DePhillips
“Keep the light burning, dear,” shouts the lighthouse keeper as he rows away from Long Island’s ocean shore. What could it have been like for wives and children living in lighthouses on Long Islandin the late 18th century? Leaping waves whipping at their wooden framed houses and howling winds threatening to blow their home into the pounding ocean?
“Few systematic records of keeper appointments exist before 1828. Any attempt to peer back into history and summon up the women who might have been keeping lighthouses at the turn of the nineteenth century is obscured by gaps in historical records…” stated in the book Women Who Kept the Lights by Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.
Henry Osmers, historian at the Montauk Library, and author of On Eagles Beak: A History of Montauk Point Lighthouse says that in his research there was no evidence to show that a woman was ever a lighthouse keeper at the Montauk Lighthouse. Very little was written about the brave women who manned the lighthouses in the event their husband succumbed to the dangers of storms. Mr. Osmers says the wives may have “assisted their husbands at times.”
Robin Strong, archivist at the Montauk Library, and descendant of Emily Scott, daughter of Captain James G. Scott who was a lighthouse keeper at the Montauk Lighthouse for 25 years, shared Emily’s journals. Though obscure, there is a mention of a time when a woman manned the light while husband rowed back for supplies in nearby East
OnMay 9, 1832Patrick Talmage Gould becameMontauk Point’s fourth lighthouse keeper along with his wife, Jerusha. Emily’s journal notes some of the experiences during the Gould’s stay at the cottage next to the lighthouse tower.
“If the summers were calm and crowded, the winters were wild and desolate. Storms were frequent and visitors were few. The Gould family would have to travel toEast Hamptonto pick up supplies. One such time, a storm blew up. Jerusha, Gould’s wife, had to light the lanterns in the lighthouse herself, crawling along the ground because of the extremely high winds.” Once inside Jerusha climbed the 128 iron, spiral steps to the watchdeck to reach the light in the80’tower.”
Living in the cottage and tending to the light meant filling the lanterns “every few hours with sperm oil” was only part of the tasks at the Point. “They grew their own vegetables, raised chickens, and fished daily in order to maintain a well-stocked pantry. Indian women helped Jerusha with meal preparations when the Goulds cooked for invited summer guests.
The summers brought many interesting people to the Gould cottage next to the lighthouse. One such guest was Walt Whitman who was turned away because they could not accommodate him. Whitman wrote in The Brooklyn Standard “…most appalling news met us upon returning from this nice exercise! Our master of the revels had utterly failed to negotiate a dinner for us at the Gould cottage!”
( Henry Osmers says that the title of his book On Eagles Beak was inspired by Walt Whitman’s poem “From Montauk Point”.)
Barbara Borsack, great granddaughter of Emily Scott Strong, wrote: TALES OF THE MONTAUK LIGHT in the East Hampton Star.
“It was a lonely life, though,” wrote Emily, “with only a few Montaukett Indians for company, especially when the fishing season was over and the cattle had been driven back to town.”
Friends were few at the lighthouse for a child. “One shipwreck that was particularly enjoyable for Emily,” wrote Ms. Borsack, “was of a ship that carried the captain’s sister along with the male crew. In the two weeks the girls became fast friends. A gift from this new friend was presented when the girls finally departed. It was a beautiful amethyst ring which had come from some foreign port, and which Emily passed down to one of her granddaughters many years later along with the tale.”
Lighthouse keepers were appointed at first by the President who delegated it to the Secretary of the Treasury Department. Stephen Pleasonton, fifth auditor, became the Superintendent overseeing the lighthouse keepers. By the 1820s, “there were 55 lighthouses on the eastern coast” as recorded by authors Mary Louise Clifford and J. Candace Clifford.