Pointe Aux Barques Light, MI

Pointe Aux Barques Light, MI, photo courtesy lighthousefriends.com

Sunday was a designated day of rest for lighthouse keepers, as they were not required to do any work besides lighting the beacons at dusk and extinguishing them at dawn. Most keepers relaxed by spending time with their families – reading, listening to music from the piano or playing games.

However, often keepers had to take on another role on Sunday – that of tour guide. Although the Lighthouse Service didn’t want lighthouses to be tourist attractions, the agency allowed the public to visit the facilities that one day of the week. Light keepers were expected to maintain public relations by giving tours.

According to the 1902 Instructions to Light-Keepers& Masters of Lighthouse Vessels, “Keepers must be courteous and polite to all visitors and show them everything of interest about the station at such times as will not interfere with lighthouse duties.” Light keepers were not allowed to charge for the tours and were discouraged from accepting gifts.

Some lighthouses were more popular tourist destinations than others. In the years after the Civil War, Sankaty Head Lighthouse on Nantucket had so many visitors, the keeper widened the opening leading from the watch room to the lantern room to accommodate ladies in hoop skirts.

At Point Aux Barques Lighthouse in the 1890s, many tourists had another problem. The height of the lighthouse often frightened visitors so much that Keeper Peter Richards had to carry the tourists back down the stairs on his back.

Sankaty Head Lighthouse, MA, vintage postcard courtesy Lighthouse Digest

Sankaty Head Lighthouse, MA, vintage postcard courtesy Lighthouse Digest

In addition to being tour guides, the keepers “must not allow visitors to handle the apparatus or deface the lighthouse property.” Preventing visitors from touching the delicate lens required tact and creativity on the part of the keepers.

And although keepers were required to be courteous and polite to visitors, visitors weren’t confined to the same rules, expecting these landmarks to be public domain. Once at Portland Head Light, a woman walked into the keeper’s house and sat down at the kitchen table, insisting that as government employees the Coast Guard keeper and his wife were obliged to serve her.

No doubt many lighthouse keepers tolerated the tourists as best they could, even if being a tour guide wasn’t their top priority. And since the tourist season was shortened by winter’s weather in most of the northern US lighthouses, the visitors were a welcome change from months of isolation.

Perhaps the keepers remembered this verse from Hebrews 13:2 in the Bible when dealing with the tourists. “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”