Book Notes: ‘Brilliant Beacons’ a readable history of lighthouses
“Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse” By Eric Jay Dolin. Liveright Publishing/W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2016. 560 pages. $29.95.
Stolid and steadfast in the face of Indian attacks, massive storms and thunderous waves, wars and, even, the suicidal barrage of thousands of birds, the American lighthouse is every bit the “Brilliant Beacon” best-selling author Eric Jay Dolin portrays in his entertaining, wonderfully informative and readable history. Enduring, breathtaking against blue seas and crystal skies, and remarkable for its engineering and the feats of heroics it inspires … and requires, the American lighthouse has long served as metaphor for some of our highest aspirations, undertakings and ideals.
Dolin is an award-winning author of histories that bring to life the essence of America’s spirit. He merges the bounty of his research with his wry and discerning point of view to yield the kind of histories we wish we had growing up. In “Brilliant Beacons” we meet Cotton Mather as Dolin would have us see him — “A prodigious writer who rarely missed an opportunity to turn a remarkable tragedy into a vehicle for declaring God’s sovereignty.” And we encounter heroic daughters and wives of lighthouse keepers who risk their lives to save half-dead sailors in frigid seas, family members and, even, chickens. As any good historian knows, the real story lives in the hearts and minds of its characters.
Dolin, this time around, takes on the inanimate lighthouse and comes up with 560 pages of fascinating history brought to life by his detail and his writing. His voice oversees all with great spirit and insight on this, the 300th anniversary of American lighthouses.
The first 10 colonial lighthouses were funded by Britain. Boston Light was the first to be built, followed by Nantucket, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Philadelphia, Charleston, Plymouth and Portsmouth, New Hampshire. The 10th installation was on Cape Ann. Then came the Revolutionary War and the formation of a new country. The ninth act of our fledgling Congress asserted that the United States would take charge of the country’s lighthouses. According to Dolin, this historic act was also our first public works project. Congress understood that America’s ports were her “engines of growth.” Trade could not thrive if ships, American and foreign, continued to wreck along the perilous coastlines — coastlines that stretched and multiplied as America expanded north, south and west.
“As the country grew, so too did the number of lighthouses,” writes Dolin, “creating a necklace of beacons and literally lighting the way for the settlement of new territories and states.”
“Brilliant Beacons” begins with an event off Boston’s North Shore. The Union, a three-masted ship from Salem, was heading home from Sumatra with 500,000 pounds of pepper and 100,000 pounds of tin when the crew became confused by the configuration of lighthouses. One of the lights on Baker’s Island had been extinguished, unbeknownst to them, causing the captain to misjudge his location. They crashed into Baker’s and lost everything, though no lives were lost. Lives were often lost, though more likely to storms as lighthouses proliferated and information about them was widely disbursed. The wrecks are horrendous, though we see all of them through the eyes of the lighthouse keepers — sworn to persevere throughout storm, Indian attack and whatever odd calamity may befall them.
Lighthouses inspire not just poetry but myth. We have long idealized the life of the keeper. Thousands of people flock to lighthouses to visit and to long for the imagined life of a keeper — at peace on the edge of the sea with the sound of birds, waves and the soft notes of the foghorn to keep him or her company. Lighthouse keepers were, instead, among the hardest workers. They were routinely inspected for cleanliness and performance. They kept the lights burning all night, back when the light came from candles, whale oil, kerosene or lard. They cleaned and polished the lenses and windows every day. They hauled supplies up and down. They rowed to shore for provisions. They went hungry, they got sick and they were cold. When necessary, they performed near miraculous rescues. And they literally went down with their lights. They were commanded to stay put, regardless of the danger. The light had to shine, especially in bad weather. Their bond to the light came before their matrimonial bonds. And this commitment played out again and again, to the detriment of families.
Dolin covers the changes in technology, from candlelight to modern lighting systems. Readers learn about the stunningly beautiful Fresnel lenses that were eventually adopted here, as well as the years of frugal control over lighthouses that rendered American lighthouses inferior. We learn how lighthouses could be built on cliffs and in the sea itself — so many “marvels of engineering.” We find out that the first lighthouse ever, built by the Greeks between 297 and 283 B.C. on the island of Pharos, rivaled the pyramids in height and grandeur. And we find out that the Boston Light was the first built and, now, thanks to legislation by Sen. Ted Kennedy, the only one that still hosts a keeper.
Yes, “Brilliant Beacons” is thorough. Readers will turn that last page with many of their questions answered. And they may well grab a camera and journey to Thacher Island, Baker’s Island or Boston Light — or even one the lighthouses that are now run as B&Bs — to behold that magnificent structure and feel the might of man, woman and nature.
— Rae Padilla Francoeur’s memoir, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” is available online or in some bookstores. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or follow her @RaeAF.