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Where Did All the Lighthouse Keepers Go?

The Crisp Point Lighthouse at sunset on Lake Superior, Upper Peninsula, Michigan
Doug Lemke/Shutterstock

Lighthouses remain tourist attractions all over the world, but since 1998 there is only one manned lighthouse (though some people still live in lighthouses). While the need for lighthouse keepers may have died, the history of the lighthouse lives on.

The First Lighthouses

Lighthouses date back to ancient Egypt, but the first lighthouse built in the US came in 1716 to Boston, Massachusetts. Before lighthouses, bonfires were likely used to help ships find a port or avoid crashing into rocks. With defined ports came buildings that offered lasting light in the dark of night and during storms.

There are a lot of possible earlier lighthouses in the history of this structure meant to keep ships from crashing into rocks, beaching themselves, or missing port. Way before our modern times, there was the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. In the 1500s and 1700s, watchtowers used in defense during wartime may have been alternately used as lighthouses.

Lighthouses are painted different colors and designs so that they are recognizable in the daylight, and at night their lights flashed at various intervals to let ships know where they were.

The Lighthouse Keepers

The keeper of the lighthouse had many jobs, aside from walking up all of those stairs. If you’ve ever visited a lighthouse that is now a museum, you may have trekked up that spiral staircase, or at least gotten a chance to look up at it. Lighthouses come in different heights, but most are over 100-feet tall. The tallest lighthouse in the US is the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, located in North Carolina, standing at 193 feet.

A few of the duties of the lighthouse keeper included:

  • Keeping wicks trimmed
  • Replenish fuel for the light
  • Perform maintenance
  • Operate fog signal

The lighthouse keeper was one of the first people to witness accidents in the water, so they could quickly contact the coast guard. They also noticed when bad weather was coming ashore.

The lighthouse keeper lived in the house connected to the tower, with their family. Many lighthouses stayed in the same family. As the old keeper got too old to climb those stairs, their children would take over.

All US Lighthouses are now automated, but there is one lighthouse that remains manned. The Boston Light, as the oldest, will always be staffed. The automated lighthouses still require some maintenance as well.

Lighthouses Today

Aside from the one manned lighthouse, all lighthouses in the US do their jobs without keepers, but that doesn’t mean they remain empty. Many lighthouses still offer homes to people. Most often, the people living in the homes attached to lighthouses are coast guard members and their families or caretakers for the property.

If you’ve ever dreamt of being a lighthouse keeper, there are still some ways to make your dream come true. Some lighthouses have been turned into bed & breakfast inns, opportunities to work as temporary lighthouse caretakers, and you might even be able to rent a lighthouse for your vacation destination.

Lighthouses still offer a signal of safety and refuge to ships on oceans and large lakes, even if the lighthouse keepers are gone.

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »