The lighthouse tower, that typically tall conical structure with the bright light on top was arguably the most important building at a light station. There were many others however that were equally important to the operation of the station, and to the life of the keepers and their family members. The keeper’s house was one of course, as were the barns and sheds essential to family life, and the fog signal building, boat houses, and tramway structures essential to the functioning of the station. With the coming of kerosene as the primary fuel of the lighthouse lamps in the 1880s, the mandated fireproof “oil house” for the storage of this new and volatile fuel was another. This usually small structure was the topic of an article entitled “That Little House Out Back” in the March-April 2015 issue of Lighthouse Digest.
As alluded to above, there was that “other little house” that was critical to the life of the keepers and their families, and to the successful operation of the station. It too was typically located “out back” of the keeper’s house. This was the “outhouse” or the “privy” (short for “privacy”). For obvious reasons it was also known as the “necessary.”
Another very interesting story about privies at off-shore lighthouses, such as Thomas Point, Maryland, or along the Florida Keys, written by Sandra Shanklin, was published in the November 2008 issue of Lighthouse Digest. Land based privies deposit waste into a pit dug into the ground; this may or may not be emptiable. Some employed a box, retrievable from the back, that could be removed and dumped. Those off-shore stations had a much easier solution. Those privies were simply built to hang out over the water below; perhaps not an environmentally sensitive solution, but certainly an effective one. This article will focus on privies at on-shore light stations.
A carved moon-shaped opening in the gable end is typically associated with our image of a privy. This was intended to allow some light inside during the day, and also provided minimal ventilation. In outhouse lore, the moon however indicated that the privy was for women, the moon being the symbol of the Roman goddess Luna. Separate privies for men and women were commonplace, at least in some locales, and those for men were to have a sun-shaped opening, the sun representing the Greek god Apollo. Other decorative symbols, hearts in particular, were not uncommon.
Of course, outhouses were not unique to light stations. Historians have lively debates as to when the first privy came to be, but it was undoubtedly early on in the evolution of mankind. Its use spanned many millennia between simply squatting in the dirt and the invention of the flush toilet. Although the outhouse is thought to be a part of the rural landscape, their use was widespread in towns and cities as well until centralized sewage collection systems came into use.
Beyond their utilitarian purpose, outhouses have often provided a glimpse into other aspects of life, as the pit beneath them was often used as a garbage dump, and surprisingly interesting artifacts have often been gleaned from excavating old outhouse sites. In a recent exploration of privy sites at the Ponce de Leon Inlet Lighthouse in Florida, Museum Curator Ellen Henry turned up a Whitley’s Scotch Whisky bottle, a big blue marble, and a lamp chimney among other items.
Outhouses were still very much a part of life during the years of the Great Depression. During those years, one of the many projects of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) was to replace dilapidated privies across rural America. Over two million privies were replaced or rebuilt by the agency during those years. The First Lady at the time, Eleanor Roosevelt, was such a supporter and encourager of the project that these new privies were often referred to as “The Eleanor.”
As noted above, the outhouse was for decades a most important part of the lives of the lighthouse keepers and their families. The historical value of this part of lighthouse history is testified to by the presence of either the original, or in some cases restored or recreated versions, of the privy at light stations nationwide. These are in most cases “historic” features of the station, but in at least a few cases privies are still in use at some stations today. Maine’s Seguin Island, home to a lighthouse since 1796, features a Clivus Multrum composting outhouse. Built some years ago as a Boy Scout Eagle project, this structure, known as the fanciest outhouse on the coast of Maine, serves the many visitors to Seguin. There may well be other examples.
The oldest surviving privy at a light station is believed to be the 1836 stone one at the Pottawatomie (Rock Island) Light Station, site of the first lighthouse built on Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan shore. This is the oldest building in Door County. The first lighthouse there was also built in 1836; the present structure dates from 1857.
The privy was typically a “stand alone” building, but they were often attached to other station structures, such as a barn or the keeper’s woodshed shown in the photo from the Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station. Some light stations interpret the privy with the same enthusiasm that they do the lighthouse tower itself. Among the most informative is the interpretive panel at the Pensacola Light Station privy, pictured in this article.
If a station had one or more assistant keepers, there were likely more than one privy. Keepers may have shared some things, but family privacy was respected by the Lighthouse Establishment, and the Bureau of Lighthouses that followed. Within the family however, sharing was common place. Most privies had more than one “hole,” and it was not unusual for more than one family member to be in there at the same time. Holes were typically of different sizes to accommodate younger and smaller family members too. Outhouse lore is full of tales of users who “fell in,” and there are anecdotal tales of drownings in an outhouse.
One of the major reasons that privies remain at so many light stations, is that like the tower itself they were exceptionally well built, both above and below ground. A large number of those that remain are made of brick, although other materials are found as well.
The following text quotes some of the specifications for two brick privies built at the Pointe Aux Barques Light Station on Lake Huron in Michigan. They were built in 1908 by a Detroit contractor at the cost of $180 each. “Brick Privies – two brick privies are to be built to plans furnished. Footing and floor of vault to be concrete; foundation walls to grade to be of concrete or of brick plastered with cement mortar. Walls above grade to be of hard burned red stock brick faced with vitrified face brick of uniform shape and color. Door and window sills to be of concrete or limestone or sandstone.” Although one of them was intentionally removed, the other, made of concrete, brick, and limestone, stands as solid as the day it was built.
In an effort to obtain photos of lighthouse privies from different parts of the country, this author contacted several of the groups that now care for the surviving lighthouses in Alaska. As America’s “last frontier,” lighthouses came late to Alaska, prompted by but not built until after the height of the Klondike gold rush. The first two lighthouses in Alaska, Five Finger Island and Sentinel Island, went into service in March of 1902. By this time, “modern” plumbing was coming into vogue, and these Alaska lights and those that followed had indoor plumbing. Much like the offshore lighthouses in the Chesapeake and along the Florida Keys however, Alaska privies never had to be cleaned out as a pipe “over the side” was the normal situation.
Although the outhouse was indeed a “necessary” part of daily life at light stations as well as everywhere else, it has pretty much passed into history. Today, there is a certain amount of nostalgia associated with them, particularly among those who grew up in rural areas. For a trip down memory lane, I suggest you take a listen to the 1964 hit song by Billy Edd Wheeler entitled, “The Little Brown Shack Out Back.” Wheeler’s ode begins with the lyrics: They said we’d have to tear it down, That little old shack so dear to me. Though the health department said it’s day was over and dead, It will stand forever in my memory.”
Yet another way to trip down that memory lane can be found at outhouse museums, such as the one in Colome, South Dakota, or at the Rossignol Outhouse Museum in Liverpool, Nova Scotia.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2023 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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