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Lighthouses and Some Brave Keepers..

Updated on November 28, 2010

Lost 600 years ago but never forgotten

Artist's idea of mighty Pharos as it once might have been.
Artist's idea of mighty Pharos as it once might have been.

The days of Keepers was much better.

Lighthouses: Greatest Structure: Outstanding Courage.

Due to the amount of interest in my article on lighthouses this week, I have decided to add this hub for anyone’s enjoyment and interest.

These is no doubt at all that the greatest lighthouse in the long and turbulent history of these singular structures was also the first, tallest and grandest - so much so that the 450-foot Pharos by Alexandria became one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Ancient Egypt was no novice at building colossal landmarks, the Pyramids still bear witness to this.

Pharos stood proudly on an island near the harbor entrance of this Greco-Egyptian port, located on the Nile Delta. There was no electricity harnessed by man back then, of course, so the light was provided by a pyre on the top of the tower which could be seen for probably more than 30 miles. No one is precisely sure of its height - it was destroyed by a great earthquake in the fourteenth century after 1500 years of guarding the great Nile Delta and the comings and goings of the worlds great early wooden vessels. But if the estimate is accurate, it was the world’s tallest building, apart from the pyramids, right up until modern times. Huge sandstone and marble blocks from its construction can still be found in the waters around its island base.

The towering building was thought to have been designed by Sostratus, who carved his name on the stones at the sides and again at the top (I am not sure if any of the blocks so carved has been found or whether the information is from early records). Most of the blocks were used to build a fort on the island where the lighthouse stood and the name is not a plural of Pharoes, but the name of this island.

There was said to be a huge cauldron on top of the tower kept burning by slaves, overseen by soldiers. It would have used wood at first and oil as history progressed.

Interestingly, ships arriving at Alexandria were not charged money as a docking fee, but two books! This ensured that the Great Library in Alexandria became the largest book repository and library in the world back then, possessing copies of every book available on the planet.

Pharos turned Alexandria into the greatest port on the Mediterranean Sea. The influence this astonishing building has had over maritime safety and lighthouse construction is beyond measure. All the thousands of lighthouses built in the centuries to follow have been designed for the same purpose: to keep sailors and their ships safe around the hazards of navigating rocks and shoals in coastal waters, and to provide a warm welcome to mariners arriving after long sea voyages. What a shame Pharos couldn’t have survived into modern times as the great lesson it was to all that followed.

Two examples of outstanding courage_

Among a long list of luminaries responsible for manning lighthouses before automation ended this great calling, the name of Ida Lewis stands out, if I may, like a beacon. Ida completed more than 50 years constant service at Rhode Island’s Lime Rock Light House, rescuing many boaters who got into trouble in turbulent waves near the tower.

Ida took over the job when her father, also a keeper, became too ill to fulfill his duties. As a teenager, Ida not only took over the onerous duties of manning the lighthouse; maintaining the light and responding to emergency distress signals, she kept up her school studies and also cared for her two younger siblings. Her rescues often came to the attention of the public, but none more than when in 1869 she took her tiny boat out to the rescue of two drunken soldiers. The story had journalist’s flocking and Ida found herself, no doubt to some consternation, on the cover of Harper’s Magazine!

Three years later, her father died and Ada was made the official keeper of the Light. For the next 39 years she carried on her often lonely duties. When she died in 1911, the bells in Newport harbor tolled all day and night in her honor.

Another story of self-sacrifice and heroism centers around Matinicus Rock Light, located on a stormy and gale swept islet off the coast of Maine in the North eastern US coast.

The keeper, Samuel Burgess, had to take a boat ashore for supplies, leaving his seventeen-year-old daughter, Abbie, to care for her invalid mum and two younger sisters. While he was ashore, a huge storm hit the area making it impossible for him to return to the lighthouse for nearly a month. So ferocious was the storm and the combers, the water overwhelmed the island, carrying away the keeper’s house and all other building except the two granite towers to which the family retreated. Abbie wrote that they had despaired of surviving, believing at one point the towers would also be washed away by the great seas breaking over them. During the awful trauma of this experience, not once did this slip of a girl let the light fail or her family go without care…she even dashed outside during the lull between two breakers arriving and saved 5 of the 6 family hens! Doesn’t that make your eyes film? It did mine. With all she had to do, amid the fear and bombardment from the Atlantic, this brave girl still had the presence of mind and practical humanity to rescue the poor chickens.

Abbie kept an emotive diary of her terrifying ordeal which was published in the papers of the day making her a national heroine; she went on to marry a lighthouse keeper (the work was badly paid but well respected in these times) and they manned Whitehead Light, Maine, for more than thirty years.

No doubt thousands of stories exist, often unrecorded and not celebrated, of the heroism and selfless adherence to duty by these stoic and often lonely keepers.

Youngsters seem to have been made of sterner stuff in the middle of the Nineteenth Century (1850’s). Sorry, but I just can’t imagine kids today having this sense of duty and responsibility…of course, Health and Safety would have been round sticking in its bureaucratic nose in seconds! And maybe I am doing today’s kids a disservice: they just don’t get opportunities to shine any more.

Ironically, turning the lighthouses over to automation world-wide during the last century seems to have done nobody much good. Lighthouse keeping was a career for several hundred years that was well respected and often associated with outstanding military service previously, etc. It gave someone - and often their whole families - a job and cost very little as the real benefits of the appointment - often for life - was the rent-free accommodation and outstanding locations; the salaries were always of the peppercorn variety. In return, the administration of the nation got the buildings maintained and all sorts of extra duties, such as the bravery shown in the above stories. Today, the buildings are deteriorating, or costing a small fortune in maintenance, so much so that many are being closed and will end up being demolished or passed into private hands. Meanwhile, those who could have become keepers are out of work, housed by local councils, the whole sad affair costing far more than allowing the excellent situation continue as it had for years. Of course, what you don’t hear often said is that the powers that be are so often desperately cost-cutting in order to find money to fund their latest fad program or quango; rescue their buds in the banks - plus seeking a way to raise there own remuneration each year with the golden hand-shakes, etc., etc…Well, when they make me king…!



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    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 4 years ago from UK and Mexico

      You lost, Buddy??


    • diogenes profile image

      diogenes 7 years ago from UK and Mexico

      Hi, HH, earnesthub and saddlerider1. Sorry for not adding commet earlier, when you write quiet a few hubs, you don't get informed about comments. Thanks so much for your interest...Bob

    • saddlerider1 profile image

      saddlerider1 8 years ago

      Lighthouses are fascinating. My partner and best friend was a lighthouse keeper off the west coast of B.C. Canada. She has told me stories of how scary at times it could become when the sea would become turbulent and smash against the lighthouse, she could hear and see it all from the little house she lived in close by. I can just imagine back in time how awful and frightful it was to the people of that period.

    • earnestshub profile image

      earnestshub 8 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      I love the romance of these times, just glad I did not have to live then!

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      A very true word written and it is disgusting. Those so-called jobless cost unemployment, housing cost,etc. and yet if they were emplyed I am sure it wouldn't cost half as much. Mind you these legless and brainless youngsters wouldn't do it.