The lighthouse keeper was once deemed an inseparable component of a light station - his or her constant care and vigilance were as much a part of a lighthouse as the structure itself. But the irresistible forces of change eventually banished the lightkeepers from their towers, and the daily happenings that comprised our lighthouse heritage quickly passed from the present into the annals of history - usually without notice or fanfare.
Time will continue to change the landscape of our lighthouse heritage, but it can’t fully erase a few recognizable constants from the bygone era of American lightkeeping. In January 1990, BM1 Dennis E. Dever left the time-honored post of lightkeeper at Boston Light Station, Massachusetts. The days of standing watch as a keeper seemingly fell farther behind him with each step he took down the spiral staircase of Boston Lighthouse during his final trip from the lantern room. But old habits die hard, so it comes as no surprise that Senior Chief Dever is still keeping a “watch” in the world of aids to navigation at the dawn of the 21st century.
Senior Chief Dever’s evolution from lighthouse keeper to “keeper of the lights” was made complete when he was made officer-in-charge of USCG Aids to Navigation Team (ANT) Miami, Florida, in 1996. Today, Senior Chief Dever is the officer-in-charge of the USCG Aids to Navigation Team Cape May, New Jersey. His time spent as a lightkeeper at Boston Light Station has enhanced his experience in the field of modern aids to navigation and prompted him to comment, “As a lightkeeper, then eventually going to ANT Miami, I respected the lighthouses — even though automated — more than most people. I was able to explain how the old stuff worked, or the purpose of odd pieces of hardware lying around. Having ‘hands-on’ lighthouse experience was a definite advantage when dealing with civilian contractors. Lighthouse workmanship traditionally follows a high standard, uncommon in modern times, and knowing that standard was an advantage in obtaining the best work possible.”
For Senior Chief Dever, there were no aspirations of being a lighthouse keeper during his budding Coast Guard career, prior to his appointment as the 60th lightkeeper of Boston Light Station. Thinking he would obtain a desirable position aboard a Coast Guard patrol boat in Maine, the word “surprise” might be appropriate to describe Dever’s reaction when he found out he “fit the bill” for a sudden opening at Boston Light Station.
Despite the surprise of being assigned to Boston Light Station, it didn’t take long for Dever to appreciate the natural wonder and beauty sparkling brightly about Little Brewster Island. Stepping foot for the first time onto this grand stage of an island inspired many emotions for Dever. He recalls, “Coming down from Maine in April of 1988, the island lawn looked fascinating - extravagantly green, dotted with brilliant yellow dandelions, framed by dark blue ocean. I immediately started to think about planting stunted evergreens and rose bushes in the rocks.”
Yet the sheer beauty of this new “island world” was not the only thing that made a lasting impact upon the philosophical young Coast Guardsman. With each passing day at the lighthouse, Dever acquired a deeper sense of appreciation for the splendid history and irresistible lore exuding from Boston Light Station and its encompassing 600-foot rocky reach leading from the outer edges of the bay to the beckoning sea. The historical significance associated with his tenure at the lighthouse is captured by a reflective Dever when he states, “There is a parallel between the present lighthouse crew, myself, and the constant chain of Boston lightkeepers since 1716 - even before that when they lit fires on rock piles on the Brewster Islands back into the 1600s. The history is simply profound. While there are many stories of success out there, tales of disaster proliferate. Things happened there that surpass Edgar Allen Poe’s most macabre creations. You can’t appreciate the nitty gritty of hardship and history until you spend time at a place like Boston Light Station.”
Lighthouse history has had a tendency to slight Coast Guard lightkeepers when comparing them with the keepers of the fabled U.S. Lighthouse Service. But despite the benefits derived from technological advancements in lighting and sound signal equipment, the spirit of a lightkeeper is quite similar. Looking back, Senior Chief Dever sees many similarities. He says, “There is a definite parallel between the modern crews and past keepers, and much of the job and entertainment remains the same - albeit with some modern twists. Nature dictated your routine. Consequently, you were much more in touch with it. We planned outside work during the summer, inside work for the winter. Listen closely to the summer weather forecast before launching the boat - you didn’t want to get caught in a squall out there in a 16-foot open boat.”
Dever goes on to say, “We were a watchful eye for boaters, salvaged and returned lobster traps washed ashore, and made sure the aids to navigation around us were ‘watching’ properly. Looking seaward, the view from the tower was exactly the same as it always had been - what a timeless place Boston Light Station is. If I had happened to see the Mayflower wallowing past, it might have taken me a few minutes to realize something wasn’t quite right at the moment. Even polishing the brassware in the tower and keeping the lens assembly looking good were labors of love and work that mirrored a bygone era. However, above all as keepers, we kept the main light operating no matter what, and gave the light station a personality as it had since 1716. An automated lighthouse, even with caretakers, doesn’t possess the spirit, hospitality, upkeep and persona of Boston Light - which lives and breathes. Like the keepers before us, we welcomed visitors and friends to not only a preserved piece of Americana, but our progressive home, workplace and lifestyle as well.”
The elegant and fascinating second order Fresnel lens that adorns the lantern room of Boston Light was a source of endless inspiration for keeper Dever, who says, “The skill required to make one of those lenses is staggering, even by today’s standards. The lens is from a time when functional things were made to last indefinitely, and were often artistic as well. To see the lens standing still, seven foot high, in the daytime, casting rainbow patterns on the woodwork below, is breathtaking. Seeing it sparkle with clear, white light as it slowly rotates at night - casting 12 beams through the darkness to the horizon, truly defies description. ‘Surreal’ is a start.”
Once keeper Dever finished his tour at Boston Light Station in early 1990, he eventually found himself on the threshold of a modern world of aids to navigation (AtoN) at USCG ANT Miami. He left ANT Miami with the satisfaction and pride of having cleaned up, painted or set in motion a process to renovate all the lights in his area of responsibility that included some 650 aids. However, BMC Dever’s lasting impact at ANT Miami wasn’t simply relegated to light structures. During his tenure in Miami, Dever proved instrumental in the successful reactivation of two rotating second order classical lenses, while overseeing countless tours and participating in public speaking engagements at the very high profile and stately Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse. However, Senior Chief Dever is quick to point out that ANT Miami’s success in the AtoN field was a team effort, as he states, “I was also extremely fortunate to have the best people in the business at my side. CWO Joe Cocking is an internationally acclaimed expert at Fresnel lens restoration. He supervised the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse renovation, and was an invaluable historical and technical advisor on lighthouses and minor aids to navigation. We also put together a top-notch team of Coast Guard Auxiliarists - among them an electrical engineer, commercial airline pilot, doctor, clocksmith and captains. Led by lightkeeper/master mechanical engineer Art Makenian, they reactivated the giant bivalve classical lens at Hillsboro Inlet Light, overcoming tremendous challenges such as disassembling the century-old rotation mechanism and installing a six-foot diameter bearing in the mercury tub.”
Today, Senior Chief Dever guides the efforts of the USCG Aids to Navigation Team Cape May, New Jersey, in maintaining over 720 aids. Their work in the Delaware Bay and along the coastlines of New Jersey and Delaware is quite intense and cumbersome. Senior Chief Dever describes his latest challenge by saying, “Maintenance with ANT Cape May’s lighthouses is much more heavy duty than ANT Miami. Fortunately, we have a 12-person team of effective, self-efficient reservists, led by Master Chief Jeffrey Miller, that handle most of the lighthouse structural work. We also have at least 280 buoys, many being seasonal, that are swapped out or removed twice a year and 215 fixed light structures that are disassembled in the fall and replaced in the spring due to moving ice floes. Just 21 full-time personnel at ANT Cape May handle all of this work, including some 2.2 miles of mooring chain resting on the seabed of an area covering two states. Proud of ourselves? Yes we are!”
In retrospect, Senior Chief Dever still views the lighthouse as a strong icon for watchfulness. He sums up his days as a lightkeeper at Boston Light Station to his current duty as “keeper of the lights,” when he says, “The dedication and advances made by today’s Aids to Navigation Teams are the current phase of lighthouse and AtoN systems evolution, and a parallel to the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Technological advances will continue to provide more efficient, reliable systems and we’ll preserve a great deal of our lighthouses for education and enjoyment into the distant future. Because, as the Lighthouse Board stated in 1868, ‘Nothing indicates the liberality, prosperity, or intelligence of a nation more clearly than the facilities which it affords for the safe approach of the mariner to its shores.’ That continues to hold true.”
This story appeared in the
January 2003 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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