Recently, in doing research for the articles we have published on the Statue of Liberty Lighthouse keepers, I picked up two books on the Statue’s history that are currently being sold at Liberty Island in the museum store. One publication, produced in 2004, has had national distribution since then, and is available in translations of French, Spanish, and German. The other, published in 2017, is an updated continuation of the first book, giving even more information and photos. Between the two books, there were close to 400 images from postcards, documents, portraits, and paintings that documented the Statue’s conception, construction, and 132-year history since being erected in 1886. The accompanying captions provided dates, names, context, and descriptions of the photos in great detail.
Yet, in all the material researched and used in these books, there was not one image nor even a single reference to any of the lighthouse keepers who had been responsible for keeping the Statue lit for the first 16 years of its operational life. The books mentioned several politicians, presidents, artists, architects, engineers, industrialists, fundraisers, or suppliers that had had anything to do with the Statue. There were even photos of the construction era nighttime watchman and the souvenir stand owners. But not one photo of a keeper.
In fact, the books only had one page each that even mentioned the Statue being a lighthouse at all! And that was only to say that it was overseen by the Lighthouse Board initially but was “not cut out for that role,” so it was discontinued as a harbor beacon in 1902.
How is it that an “expert on the topic” who had written these and several more definitive books on the subject, and even worked in the Museum Services Division there on Liberty Island, either had no knowledge or didn’t consider the lighthouse keepers who spent many years of their lives dedicated to keeping the Statue of Liberty lit important enough to include in these books?
The really sad thing is that he doesn’t stand alone. In doing the keeper research that we work on daily, many times we find the same result in all our searches – books written by lighthouse historians, materials published by lighthouse groups, presentations given by lighthouse organizations and historical societies, and histories written on hundreds of lighthouses across the nation that include every last detail about the construction, design, maintenance, and preservation of the building, but totally ignore or make no serious efforts to uncover the stories, photos, and histories of the keepers who served at them.
This is truly an ongoing national travesty that we must all work toward remedying. Time is against us in finding and archiving keeper information as generations pass away who know the stories and keep the family photos. Oftentimes we find that “just a few months ago we threw all that out” when we contact a descendant of a grandparent or great aunt who had just passed away and who had these things saved and knew the history.
At Lighthouse Digest, we are on a grand quest. We actively seek out sources for lighthouse keeper stories and photos. We spend hours of every day, digging through documents and genealogy to find descendants who might have photos. We write emails and letters, make phone calls, and ask for referrals. We contact museums, lighthouse groups, historical societies, and archives. We scan auction websites and dealer sites to pick up keeper images that have been discarded by others and are being sold, usually at exorbitant prices, to be stashed away in private collections before the history is even archived or the keepers identified.
In all of this, we desperately need your help. We encourage lighthouse organizations and historians to spend time and effort to research keepers of their lighthouses locally. We appeal to those with keeper heritage to contact other members of your extended family to see if anyone has photos or records that we can publish and archive. We urge families, communities, and lighthouse groups to come together to hold grave marker ceremonies where these histories can be brought forward and shared for future generations.
Most of all, we appeal to any who can, to offer support in our efforts financially by donating to our Lighthouse History Research Institute fund. It is by these donations that we have the means to accomplish our mission of keeper research and the creation of an archive that will be passed on to future lighthouse historians to continue to add to and preserve this historical legacy.
If we work together in this, we can truly remedy the national travesty once and for all and eradicate the apathy and ignorance of lighthouse keeper history for the future!
To make a donation, please go to www.LighthouseDigest.com/Donation.
You can also mail a donation check today to: Lighthouse Digest Research & Publication Fund, P.O. Box 250, East Machias, ME 04630
Debra Baldwin, Historian, Lighthouse Digest
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2019 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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