As a boy spending summers at Old Nags Head, I had the opportunity to spend time with Grandma while she was still fit and spry. She would challenge me to a contest of who could fill a water bucket fastest from the porch hand pump well and she could dance a jig in the middle of the kitchen with the best of them. But what I remember best is sitting down with her while she told me stories about Great-granddad Peter and his days at Bodie Island Light. She said it was his life, he loved it dearly and took great pains to keep it shipshape at all times, regardless of the weather. He entered the Lighthouse Service in 1873 at the Roanoke Marshes Light and became the keeper at Bodie Island after five years, a big step up.
While Great-granddad Peter had an assistant to fill in on the days when he had time off to be with family and during part of his lengthy shift, much of the time was by himself. Many think that a lighthouse keeper's job was to light the wicks on the candle power light at dusk and put them out in the morning, but that was just a tip of the iceberg. He was the maintenance man who had to be proficient at all things from making repairs, troubleshooting issues in the quarters and lighthouse, keeping things clean and painted and heading to sea in support of ships at stress. He worked closely with the Lifesaving Service and the two organizations were tied at the hip.
At night, he was routinely to make numerous checks from the observation deck at the top at night. If it was stormy, he often spent the night up there looking for ships in danger. So, think about it, every trip up and down was two hundred and fourteen feet, or one hundred and fifty-six feet. That is the equivalent to walking up to the top of a ten story building. That was a lot of climbing over twenty eight years.
Lighthouse keepers were required to keep excellent records, including weather information, information on ship passage, any incidents and accounting for each action taken. Each evening the light was turned on by dusk an off at sunup. It was a manual exercise. In the evening, the shade over the lamp house window was opened, the fresnel lens was checked and the wick was lit after ascertaining that sufficient fuel was on hand to keep the lamp lit all nightly. During his tenure lamp fuel was changed from land oil to mineral oil, which burned brighter and was cheaper. The last step was to start the mechanical turning of the light. To do that, the weights were pulled up to the top and when the lever which started the turning mechanism was moved to on, the methodical slow turning of the light began. In the morning, the process was reversed.
Probably the most tedious difference in the morning was the cleaning of the delicate fresnel lens. It had to be free of dust or salt air residue and it had to be done every morning and recorded, making things ready for the coming nitht. . If the keeper thought he could get lazy, the regular inspection by his district supervisor, complete with white glove, would result in disciplinary action, if deemed serious enough that could include dismissal.
A word about the fresnel lens is in order. Created by Frenchman Augustin-Jean Fresnel, a physicist who designed it who designed it to be lightweight and it shined brighter and could be seen further out at sea then previous tools to monumentally increase candle power. It is because of the delicate nature of the lens that the window curtains were closed on the morning round. Otherwise, the lens might be discolored by the sunrise and redude their positive impact on candlepower.
Grandma told me about all those required actions, gut what really loved to talk about was going over to visit her father on a nice day, taking the mail boat on its run to Bodie Island. She and her sisters or friends would enjoy the beach, so pristine and pure, and except for the dock, the lighthouse and the sight of a ship passing offshore, it was unblemished by human presence as it had been previously for the ages. On a nice day with no worry about ships at sea, he would spend time with them, perhaps joining them for lunch