Thursday, June 23, 2016

Painting the Lighthouse

In addition to a principal "keeper," lighthouses often required first and second assistants. One might wonder why a lighthouse needed so many attendants, but maintaining a lighthouse was a major job.

The keeper was responsible for lighting the lamp at sunset, ensuring that it remained lit throughout the night, and extinguishing it at sunrise. The lamp needed to be filled with fuel daily, and the wick trimmed regularly. The Fresnel lens and lantern room windows had to be cleaned and polished every morning. Keepers were required to shine and polish all of the brass, sweep the floors and stairs, and clean tower windows and sills as needed. They also cleaned, painted, and repaired all of the buildings, including the keeper's dwelling, chimneys, privies, outbuildings, and the tower itself. In addition, keepers were required to maintain all mechanical equipment, weed walkways, paint and maintain the fence, and see that the grounds were presentable. They kept a log book, recorded weather readings, and kept an inventory of all equipment. Keepers were forbidden to leave the light station without permission, and were considered to be on duty 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They even provided visitors with tours of the lighthouse as needed.

And, as Cheryl Shelton-Roberts & Bruce Roberts point out in their book, Lighthouse Families, "One of the biggest jobs in maintaining a lighthouse [was] painting the tower...." In the book John Gaskill (1916-2013), son of Vernon Gaskill (1889-1984), principal keeper of the 170' tall Bodie Island Lighthouse (by comparison, the Ocracoke Lighthouse is 75' tall), relates climbing into a "paintbox" attached to the lighthouse's catwalk by hooks and ropes. The painters worked their way down, scraping and painting (white and black paint mixed with zinc, lead, linseed oil, and turpentine). It "took as much courage as they could muster."

It was not a job for the faint of heart!

Photo by Jarek Tuszynski*

*Jarek Tuszynski / CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GDFL [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Common.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is an article about one of the early July 4th Parades written by Alice Rondthaler in 1953. It is accompanied by vintage photos.You can read the Newsletter here:  


  1. Anonymous7:51 AM

    It would be interesting if someone has seen/knows of an early photograph of a lighthouse undergoing a paint job. Is it not true, that at one time, a lighthouse keeper position was a political appointment. We forget politicians are human resource officers and they fill .gov jobs (i.e. supreme court justices ) and if their party is in congress the candidate is a "shoe in" if that is the "system" we can not just vote and assume they are picking the right people. it is like a fantasy football team only John Q Public pays Far too much attention to that than what their representative in Congress is doing er their aides, their assistants that tell Sen. who=ever what to do as the Hon. .gov have time to take to Sail on the good ship Monkey Business.

  2. Anonymous8:24 AM

    After reading so much about maintaining a lighthouse; the sweeping, polishing, painting, wick trimming, stair climbing. window cleaning so light housekeeping really means lighthouse keeping actual labor hard work involved.

  3. Anonymous9:33 AM

    Have you heard Rany Jenette's story about painting the Hatteras lighthouse? It is in the middle of page 5 here -'s%20oral%20history%20edited%2011202008.pdf

    "A complete painting required a different arrangement. A paint box about twenty feet long by six feet wide,
    with a four-foot rail, would be used. This box was built to conform to the contour of the circular lighthouse,
    and would accommodate four people. My father would raise and lower this box by tying the lead line to
    the bumper of his car. If the painters needed to be raised, he would move forward, and if they needed to
    be lowered, he would go in reverse.

    I remember on one occasion four local young fellows were hired to paint the lighthouse. In a short while
    they were carrying on in a playful manner and not paying much attention to the job at hand. There was
    white paint in the black areas and black on white in other places. Since these young men were acting up
    and out of the norm, my father suspected they must have brought some spirits with them or maybe even
    have tapped the alcohol at the top of the lighthouse, used to clean the lens. Being a man of even
    temperament and never verbally abusive, he let his actions speak to the problem at hand. Without saying a
    word, he entered the car, started the engine, and shifted into reverse, at a fast clip for about forty feet. Of
    course, this dropped the box and its occupants about fifty feet, with a sudden shocking halt to the whole
    operation. They started screaming and hollering, wanting to know, “Captain, what in the hell is going on?”
    Then he started lowering the box to the ground, and as they staggered out one by one, he said, “Go to the
    beach, take a swim, come back sober, and then go back to work.” This they did, and their performance
    was quality. No hard feelings or bitterness, and no one was fired or quit his job."

    I remember years ago when Rany was volunteering at the lighthouse and he told this story, along with many others. I am glad to have had the opportunity to meet him.

    1. Thanks for a great story! I hadn't heard it before.

  4. Anonymous9:34 AM

    Who lives in the OI lighthouse residence today?

    1. Although the light is maintained by the US Coast Guard, the lighthouse, keeper's quarters, and property now belong to the National Park Service. Park personnel live in the keeper's house.

    2. Anonymous7:57 PM

      Thanks for satisfying my curiosity.
      NIce digs.....DC