by AMY FRANK, Executive Director, Door County Historical Society
Before lighthouses were automated, lightkeepers were responsible for maintaining a guiding light along treacherous shores. Their role was crucial in guiding ships, saving sailors’ lives and sustaining economies.
But their position came with a price. It was a solitary existence for many lightkeepers and their families, who were often nestled, secluded, on remote pieces of land. Recognizing the significance of their duty, the federal government provided essential supplies and equipment to ensure both their physical and emotional well-being.
In August 1789, Congress enacted a law to support lighthouses, creating what was known as the Lighthouse Establishment. This evolved into the Lighthouse Board in 1852 and then the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910. These institutions oversaw lighthouse construction, the appointment of lighthouse keepers and the upkeep of light-station equipment and vessels.
The Lighthouse Establishment upheld its duty of delivering crucial supplies, which included food, water and other essentials to these steadfast beacons. However, the lighthouse inspectors were keenly aware of the isolation and loneliness that many lighthouse keepers and their families experienced.
Seeing that lighthouse keepers “seized on any reading matter that came in their way,” they began informally passing around books and magazines. Then in 1876, the Lighthouse Board introduced a portable wooden library box into its roster of supplies.
These first lighthouse library bookcases, supported financially by the Lighthouse Board, were generously stocked with an eclectic array of reading materials, including novels, magazines and books about theology, science and mathematics.
A library box could hold 50-60 books, and each book bore the esteemed Lighthouse Establishment bookplate. Lightkeepers were charged with ensuring the careful loan and return of books by their fellow lighthouse residents.
Arnold B. Johnson described that process in the February 1885 issue of The Library Journal: “Among the smaller books is a little blank book. In this, when a library reaches a station, the name of each reader is entered at the top of a page, and under his name is entered the title of each book he takes out, and the date it is taken and returned. The case is examined by the Lighthouse Inspector on his quarterly round, and its condition is reported. Any reader who loses or injures a book is required to replace it, if possible, in kind, and it is one of the rules that the books shall not be lent from the stations, so that none but actual residents of lighthouses and lightships, the keepers and their families, shall have the use of them.”
Approximately every three months, the Lighthouse Board would make an exchange: The old box was collected, and a fresh one was delivered. The number stamped on each box – part of a numbering system to track the boxes – ensured that lighthouses would not receive the same box twice to prevent monotony.
The arrival of a new lighthouse library bookcase was a veritable celebration: a testament to the tenacity and creativity of the human spirit.
This stalwart box, in addition to delivering a much-needed respite to light keepers and their families, was both a shipping container and a bookshelf. Johnson aptly described the design: “The case is so arranged that it ‘has a double debt to pay.’ Let it be shut, locked, and laid on its back, and it is a brassbound packing-case; stand it on a table and open its doors, and it becomes a neat little bookcase, two shelves high.”
For more than a century, this method of passing books from lighthouse to lighthouse, and from ship to ship, helped keep men and women who were living in remote areas, buffeted by the elements, to feel some semblance of connection with the rest of the world.
As time marched on, the advent of radio and telephones in the late 1920s cast a shadow on the role of these lighthouse libraries. The ever-advancing tide of technology rendered their purpose obsolete as the keepers’ sense of isolation waned.
Today, visitors who tour the Eagle Bluff Lighthouse Museum in Peninsula State Park will see a proudly displayed replica of a lighthouse library. The box was meticulously crafted in adherence to historical specifications by former Eagle Bluff staff member Chris Weidenbacher and filled with period-specific books and magazines.
The Milwaukee County Historical Society owns one of the original lighthouse libraries. Designated as Box No. 739, it passed through Eagle Bluff Lighthouse in 1898. The labels inside the box remain, bearing silent witness to its journey and tracing its path to and from the many lighthouse families it nurtured, educated and entertained.
Like echoes of a bygone era, these bookcases and their lighthouse counterparts serve as poignant reminders of a way of life that has all but disappeared. They stand as silent sentinels, guarding a heritage of courage, solitude and the unquenchable thirst for knowledge.
Peninsula Arts and Humanities Alliance, which contributes Culture Club, is a coalition of nonprofit organizations whose purpose is to enhance, promote and advocate the arts, humanities and natural sciences in Door County.