Lighthouses are woven into the fabric of our country. They stand as visual reminders of the spirit of exploration that has marked the history of our nation. The ships they have guided have been integral to the commerce that has propelled our national fortune. Whether for New England whalers, Gloucester fishermen, Great Lakes ore freighter captains or recreational boaters, there has been no more welcome sight than the lighthouse guiding safe passage. Lighthouses sounded warnings on starless,foggy nights of treacherous reefs and shoals that could swallow up such ships if not navigated with care. From the windswept beaches of the outer banks of North Carolina to the sheer rock cliffs of Lake Superior, the lighthouses standing watch along our thousands of miles of navigable coastline have always held a strong fascination for me.
I suppose this fascination began at my first hearing, courtesy of Bob Keeshan’s Captain Kangaroo, of Hildegarde Swift and Lynd Ward’s childrens book, The Little Red Lighthouse and the Great Gray Bridge – the story of the building of the George Washington Bridge over the little red Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse on the Hudson River in New York City.
Since first hearing that story in the early 60’s, I have slowly but surely been visiting
many of the remaining lighthouses standing watch along our shores. Some of the first lighthouses I remember visiting were on Cape Cod. These sturdy structures had to withstand not only the harsh elements of wind, waves, salt and sand they also have been witness to some of the most cruel winter storms that battered New England. Twice I vacationed under the glow of the Chatham light being lulled to sleep by both its rotating flashes and the low moan of its foghorn.
Nantucket Island is one of those places you need to see. It oozes New England charm and it does not take much imagination to place yourself back into the days when its ports hosted whaling ships. Brant Point Light is the first glimpse you have of the island as you approach on the Ferry and it is easy to imagine wives and mothers on the rooftop widows porches straining to see if the approaching ship is that of their loved one returning from the sea. Our Christmas tree has many ornaments commemorating our travels. An ornament of Brant Point Light purchased in 1983 hangs every year evoking memories of a 4-month pregnant Kyle bicycling over the cobblestones as we left the port for town.
Kyle and I took our first vacation together to the Carolinas. I had never been to the Outer Banks and there were two “must sees” on my list. First was Kitty Hawk where the Wright Brothers took flight, but the second was the famous lighthouse at Cape Hatteras with it’s well known spirals of black and white- probably the most well known and recognizable of east coast lighthouses. From there we continued south to Ocracoke Island, one of the hideouts of Blackbeard the Pirate,
where another light warned of the shifting sandy shallows so typical of the outer banks.
Later vacations with the boys added two other iconic lighthouses in the south. By this time fishing had become an important element of most vacations. Along the barrier islands of Assateague and Chincoteague, on the advice of a salty old surf fisherman I had encountered, I used belly strips from croaker I caught to successfully beach a large number of sea trout. I also added the distinctive red and white Assateague
Light to my growing list of lighthouses.
The outer banks just farinto the Atlantic. Its shifting sands and treacherous shoals have sunk Spanish galleons leaving horses and their wild decendents on its shores. They have given safe harbor to pirates in the 18th Century. Commercial shipping targets were shelled by Nazi U-boats. The furthest north of the NC lights is the stately red brick Currituck Lighthouse. We saw this tall guardian while vacationing in Corolla where I caught croaker, summer flounder and a number of big eyed needle fish in the surf.
Built to withstand hurricane force winds and waves, Florida’s lighthouses stretch from St. Augustine in northeast FL, down to the Dry Tortuga Island’s Garden Key Light, and up again to the Pensacola Lighthouse on the “Redneck Riviera”. The Key West Lighthouse casts its shadow on the home of one of the more famous offshore anglers, Ernest Hemingway. Fishing in the Keys is a real treat for any angler. Redfish, Snook, Pompano, Tarpon and Bonefish on the flats, the acrobatic Mahi Mahi, Wahoo and Billfish offshore, to the many species inhabiting the wrecks, there are no shortage of challenges for the Keys angler. I have fished with a number of guides out of Islamorada with good success. Walking down to the lighthouse after immersing yourself in tales and memorabilia of one of America’s great authors and sportsmen will inspire you to get a copy of The Old Man and the Sea and read it cover to cover in a single sitting on the beach.
Family fun has not been limited to the Atlantic or Gulf beaches. The inland passages stretching from The 1000 Islands of the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Minnesota north shore of Lake Superior have also offered lighthouse adventures. Standing in the channel just east of the Boldt Castle that gave us both Thousand Island salad dressing and a tragic love story, lies the Sunken Rock Lighthouse. I did not fully appreciate the name of this light until I fished the shallow rock reefs on the New York side of the channel for smallmouth bass. These rock reefs rise up from the depths of the shipping channel to barely 2-3 feet.
Further inland, marking where the St. Lawrence widens into Lake Ontario, is Tibbetts Point Lighthouse in Cape Vincent, NY. This region saw heated action during the War of 1812 as the fledgling American Navy fought the British over who would control access to the inland lakes that cut far into the undeveloped territory
.Vacations have always been determined somewhat democratically in my family. Steven chose Rome. Christopher Alaska, Peter chose Scotland. But long before those more elaborate trips, an elementary school- aged Christopher asked if we could go to Niagara Falls. I had not been since I was in my early teens so I quickly agreed. It was on this trip that we camped at Somerset, NY directly on Lake Ontario 30 miles from the mouth of the Niagara River. As night fell our second night we ate a fantastic salmon dinner courtesy of Christopher’s family record King that stood almost 20 years until Steven caught a massive Kingfish in Mozambique. While Steven, Christopher and I fished Lake Ontario, Kyle and Peter explored the 30-Mile Lighthouse adjacent to our camping site. Perhaps one of the more unique lighthouses I had seen to that point, the yellow gray limestone structure advised Great Lake captains of their position relative to the mouth of the Niagara River.
Lake On Frontier forts from the 18th and early 19th century were also points of interest for family vacations. Adjacent to Fort Niagara, another site of War of 1812 action, was the Fort Niagara Lighthouse marking the entrance to the Niagara River.One of the most dramatic settings for a Great Lakes light has to be the Split Rock Lighthouse north of Duluth MN on the shores of Lake Superior. Standing on the top of this lighthouse looking over the cliff to the rocky shoal below one can imagine that stormy November night that took the Edmund Fitzgerald to the bottom without a survivor.
Lake SuperiorI wrote in an earlier post that for much of my life, a river has run through it. The Neshaminy, the Delaware, the Susquehanna, the Chicago, the Mississippi, The St. Croix, and now the Detroit and St. Clair. But it seems, lighthouses have also permeatted a lot of our family fun starting from the time I was a boy. these Sentinels are much more exposed to the environment than most historic structures, The Morris Island Light in Charleston SC, for example, was once on terra firma and now is surrounded- even at low tide- by water causing rapid deterioration of its condition. We must preserve these treasures, so I encourage you to give extra generously when you visit and thank the countless volunteers that have replaced the corps of lighthouse keepers that used to feed oil to the fresnel lensed lamps.
Although I have just started to scratch the surface of the Michigan lighthouses with Pointe aux Barques, Fort Gratiot, Port Sanilac, White River, Grand Haven and the Holland “Big Red” (see my google profile for pictures). there is one light that sort of puts an exclamation point on this obsession with lighthouses. It is, some might say, at the end of the world- the lighthouse at the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa. So I will close with a picture of this light south of Cape Town. Next stop, Antarctica.