Digest>Archives> July 2008

Lighthouse Keepers Saved Lives Of Birds, As Well As Humans

By Ted Panayotoff


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Bird-Lore Magazine from the early 1900’s.

When Lighthouse and Life-Saving Station Keepers Saved Birds Lives As Well As Mariners Lives is the title of a new exhibit at the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine. Created jointly by the Maine Lighthouse Museum and the Audubon Societies’ Project Puffin, the exhibit explores the role of U.S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service in early efforts to preserve the seabirds along our shores and in the Great Lakes.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
October, 1936, issue of The Auk.

In the late 1800s, sea birds were being hunted to extinction for their plumes to supply the New York millinery market. In addition, sea bird eggs, principally Herring Gull eggs, were being extensively gathered to sell commercially for food. Writing in journals of the day such as The Auk of the American Ornithologist Union (AOU) and Bird-Lore, which later became the journal of the National Association of Audubon Societies, prominent ornithologists were sounding the alarm that many species of sea birds were headed for extinction if these practices were not stopped. Indeed, some sea birds such as the Great Auk in Canada were already extinct through over-hunting.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Puffin Decoy

A two pronged approach was implemented to save the sea birds; the passage of protection laws at the State and Federal level and the employment of wardens to enforce the laws at the nesting grounds along the coast. The AOU prepared a model bird protection law and lobbied for its passage at the state level. The Lacy Act, passed by Congress in 1900, banned the shipment from one state to another of birds killed in violation of state laws. With this legal authority in place, the issue of enforcement was addressed. In 1900, the AOU received a generous contribution from noted wildlife painter Abbott H. Thayer and his wealthy clients to be used to advance the work of the AOU’s Committee on the Protection of Birds. This committee, under the direction of William Dutcher and using money now available from the Thayer Fund, began to hire wardens to enforce the new bird protection laws. These AOU Wardens predated State and Federal Wardens.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Artic Tern Decoy

The AOU soon observed that many rookeries along the coast and on the Great Lakes were near light stations or life-saving stations. It followed that the AOU would solicit the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the U.S. Life-Saving Service for help with their warden program. All indications are that the requested support was enthusiastically given. In April 1900, The Auk reported: "The Union has always found the U.S. Lighthouse Board very heartily in sympathy with the work of bird protection, and it has lately issued the following order to the district officers of all lighthouse districts on the Atlantic, Gulf, Northern Lake, and Pacific coasts:

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Lighthouse keepers at Maine’s Matinicus Rock ...

"The Board requests you to issue a circular letter to all light stations in your District cautioning light keepers against the violation of the game laws of the States in which they may be stationed, and to inculcate in them a spirit of protection, not only of game birds, but of song birds, and of all bird life."

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Maine’s Eagle Island Light Station. Today, only ...

In the same issue The Auk noted: "the U.S. Lighthouse Board has issued special orders to the light keeper at the Great Duck Island Light Station, Maine to prevent the destruction of the colony of Herring Gulls that live on that lighthouse reservation." In The Auk for January 1901, the Committee’s report noted:

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Virginia’s Hog Island Life Saving Station.

"At intervals of a few miles on the Atlantic coast, the General (Federal) Government has located life-saving establishments. In Virginia the breeding grounds are located near these stations and the Committee was fortunate enough to interest and engage the services of eight of the Captains to act as wardens."

Also in The Auk for January 1901, the Committee noted:

"The coast of Maine was considered by the Committee as the most important in the special field to be worked, for the reason that it was supposed to have suffered less from the destructive work of the feather hunters than any other portion of the coast,..."

For the 1900 nesting season, the Committee employed seven paid wardens in Maine, "and in addition three light-keepers volunteered their services with the consent of the Lighthouse Board at Washington, D.C." The light-keepers were Herbert L. Spiney, 1st Assistant Keeper at Seguin Island Light; George D. Pottle, Keeper at Franklin Island Light; and James E. Hall, Keeper at Matinicus Rock Light. On Great Duck Island, Keeper William F. Stanley was also protecting the gull colony on the light station in accordance with the previous year’s direction from the Lighthouse Board. In Virginia eight life-saving station keepers served as wardens: Capt. N. B. Rich, Assateague Beach LSS; Capt. J. W. Richardson, Parramores Island LSS; Capt J. E. Johnson, Hog Island LSS; Capt. G. D. Hitchens, Smiths Island LSS; Capt. J. R. Andrews, Cobb Island LSS; Capt. J. A. D. Savage, Wachapreague LSS; Capt. J. B. Whealton, Wallops Island LSS; Capt. L. F. Taylor, Metomkin Island LSS. Capt. Johnson of Hog Island LSS was a decorated life-saver with a gold medal awarded for a rescue in 1892. At least one other light-keeper was added to the warden program; J. T. Fowler at North Dumpling Light, NY.

In January 1902, the Committee report on the 1901-nesting season in The Auk added three additional Maine lighthouse keepers and two Maine life-saving station keepers as wardens. These were Charles S. Holt, Keeper Nash Island Light; William D. Upton, Keeper Petit Manan Light; Wm. C. Gott, Keeper Pond Island Light; Capt. L. F. Wright, Cross Island LSS; and Capt. O. B. Hall, Crumple Island LSS. The warden program became better organized and wardens submitted written reports on the nesting season in their areas of responsibility. The Warden’s report of October 1901 by Keeper James E. Hall of Matinicus Rock Light details that 1000 Terns arrived May 15th, 75 Sandpipers arrived May 1st and on April 15th two pairs of Puffins and 75 Sea Pigeons (Black Guillemots) arrived.

In the 1902 nesting season, C. G. Johnson, Keeper of Sand Key Light near Key West, FL was added as a warden as was R. G. Johnson, (probably no relation) Keeper of Libby Island Light, Maine. In Virginia, Capt. N. B. Rich, the former Keeper at Assateague Beach LSS had been promoted to Superintendent of the LSS District. He sent out orders to the LSS Keepers in his District directing them to emphasize bird protection at their stations.

In the 1903 nesting season in Maine, Keeper H. T. Ball of Eagle Island Light was added as a warden as was Capt. Fred T. Small now the Keeper at Cross Island LSS. Capt. Small was the late Connie Small, the lady of light’s, father-in-law. Even when not employed as actual wardens, lighthouse keepers provided support to wardens. In October 1904, Keeper T. Hansen of the Chandeleur Light, Louisiana was instructed by W. W. Kimball, Cdr. USN, Inspector 8th L.H. District:

"You will render Captain Sprinkle, the Warden of the Breton Island Bird Preserve, such aid in his duties as does not interfere with your own as Keeper of the Light,…"

The Breton Island Bird Preserve was the second such Federal preserve created in the U.S. The first was the Pelican Island Preserve in Florida. At this time however, there were no Federal funds to pay wardens so they were paid by the AOU or local Audubon Societies. In 1904, a major change that would impact the future warden program began when industrialist Albert Wilcox approached various leaders of state and regional Audubon Societies with the suggestion that they incorporate into a national organization. As an inducement, he offered a legacy of $100,000 to the new organization. In January 1905, the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals was incorporated in New York State. William Dutcher, who led the AOU Committee on the Protection of Birds and began the AOU warden program, was the organization’s first president. As a result, the direction of the warden program shifted to the new organization and the wardens were now known as Audubon Wardens.

In April 1909, The Auk published an article titled "Ornithological Miscellany from Audubon Wardens". This was based on extracts from warden’s letters and reports for the 1907 and 1908 nesting seasons. The article ran some 13 pages and included 59 notes from Audubon Wardens. Of these, at least 32 were from Wardens, which can be identified as lighthouse or life-saving station keepers. The Great Lakes were now represented by three keepers; from Michigan; Frank F Witte, Keeper, Huron Island Light, John H. Malone, Keeper, Isle Royal Light, and John A McDonald, Keeper, Passage Island Light. Based on the number of participants and the extensive information included in the reports, the lighthouse and life-saving station keepers were a major part of the Audubon Warden program. Reports from Matinicus Rock Light by Keeper Frank O. Hilt supplied by Project Puffin show the number of sea birds on the light station during the nesting season. Included are 14 Sea Parrots (Puffins) in 1926, 1927 and 1928; 30 in 1929 and 70 in 1930. One could conclude that the increase in number of Puffins was due in part to the efforts of the lighthouse keeper wardens.

Bird-Lore, which became the journal of the National Association of Audubon Societies, began to report on the Audubon Warden program. For example, in 1916, the National organization provided support for 47 Wardens. Of these, nine were Government employees and the Audubon organization either supplemented their salary or provided material support such as power boats. Of the remaining 38, at least seven were lighthouse or life-saving station keepers. It must be assumed as Federal and State wildlife organizations came on line with staffs of paid Wardens to enforce bird protection laws such as the Federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act passed in 1918, that the Warden role of lighthouse and life-saving station keepers diminished. However, based on reports from Matinicus Rock Light, in Maine, the Keeper there was an active Audubon Warden as late as 1930.

Today the roles have been reversed at some lighthouses, specifically at several along the Maine coast. In 1998, the Maine Lights Program transferred seven Maine light stations to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. Among them, the National Audubon’s Seabird Restoration Program manages Matinicus Rock and Pond Island Lights. Also known as Project Puffin, this organization is known for restoring puffin colonies to two historic islands in Maine. All seven light stations; Matinicus Rock Light, Petit Manan Light, Pond Island Light, Libby Island Light, Egg Rock Light, Two Bush Light and Franklin Island Light are now part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. In most cases, the still active lighthouse towers are the only structures that remain at these light stations. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is responsible for maintaining these lighthouses except at Franklin Island where the lighthouse tower is leased to a non-profit organization. On Matinicus Rock and Petit Manan light stations however, some of the original keeper’s quarters remain and are used by biologists each summer during the seabird nesting season. Staff personnel participate in the maintenance of the light station in addition to their wildlife duties.

Life has indeed come full circle, previously lighthouse keepers served as Wardens to protect the birds; now the bird "Wardens" serve as "lighthouse keepers" and care for the lighthouses as well as protecting the birds.

The author wishes to acknowledge and thank the Maine Lighthouse Museum for the support for the exhibit and Ms. Susan Schubel, the Audubon Outreach Educator for Project Puffin, for her assistance and contributions to the exhibit and this article.

This story appeared in the July 2008 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History