Chesapeake Bay lighthouses often were lonely outposts that demanded dedication
and perseverance from their keepers. Before lanterns were lit by electricity,
keepers had to lug heavy cans of oil—usually up steep, narrow steps—to
feed the lamp, which had to be kept burning day and night, in weather fair and
foul. Both lamp and lantern also needed constant maintenance, and a demanding
schedule of daily record keeping was required to document the facility’s
Lighthousekeeping also often meant saving lives—or risking one’s
own. In 1881, the keepers of the Sharps Island screw pile light spent 16 hours
drifting down the Bay after ice sheared the lighthouse from its foundations.
In 1909, the keepers of Thimble Shoal Light, a screw pile beacon in Virginia’s
James River, barely escaped with their lives when a schooner smashed through
a lighthouse wall, upending the coal stove and turning the keepers’ quarters
into a blazing inferno.
For the most part, duty as a lighthouse keeper was deemed too strenuous for
females, but throughout the United States a number of hardy women proved themselves
more than equal to the task. The Bay’s most famous female keeper was Fanny
Salter, who operated Turkey Point Lighthouse at the head of the Chesapeake Bay
for more than 20 years, from 1925 until she retired in 1947—the last woman
lighthouse keeper in the nation.
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