Madeline Clements Rodgers’ life started a long way from Washington State where she would one day be a lamplighter for the United States Lighthouse Service. She was born as Madeline G. Clements on September 18, 1899 in Romulus, Michigan, the daughter of David and Emily Clements. When and how she met her future husband is unclear, but in January of 1916 she married George E. Rodgers in Lone Pine, Montana, a long way from her birth place in Michigan. For a while the couple homesteaded in Hot Springs, Montana, but, with other members of the Rodgers family, they soon immigrated further west in search of a better life. They eventually settled in Washington State where they had two children: Edwin G. and Alice.
Madeline’s brother, Edwin G. Clements, and his wife Bessie also settled in Washington State. In fact, Madeline named her son after her brother, who later in life joined the Lighthouse Service and served as a lighthouse keeper at Patos Island Lighthouse and later at Smith Island Lighthouse, where he lost his life in 1939.
Somehow or another, Madeline and her husband George, who owned his own tug boat, became very good friends with Richard “Dick” P. Cain who lived on Ben Ure Island where he was a lamplighter for the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Ben Ure Island is a 10-acre island located off the Washington State coast between Deception Pass and Cornet Bay. Today, most of the small quiet island is just a tiny part of the popular Deception Pass State Park, where only a few visitors make the kayak journey where they rent a small rustic cabin to spend the night. But it wasn’t always that way. The island was named after a man named Ben Ure, who used the island as a base to smuggle in illegal Chinese immigrants for manual labor. Starting in the 1800s and into the early 1900s, the island was known for its dance hall, saloon, and brothel that were frequented by the crews of the tugboats and loggers in the area.
All reports indicate that Dick Cain was a kindly old gentleman who had never married, and, in spite of the “goings on” on Ben Ure Island, he led a peaceful life and was a man who loved animals; he had a horse, a dog, and a cat with him at his little homestead. When Dick Cain became ill, he was brought to Madeline and George Rodgers’ home for care. Realizing the seriousness of his illness, they took him to the Marine Hospital in Port Townsend where it was assumed that he would get free medical care because of his years of duty with the U.S. Lighthouse Service. But such was not the case, so George Rodgers paid his medical bills. However, Dick Cain knew that the end was near, and on May 1, 1928, he hand-wrote his last will and testament, giving all his personal belongings and property to George Rodgers. To somehow make it official, he mailed his will to the Superintendent of the 17th District of the U. S. Lighthouse Service in Portland, Oregon where it was officially entered on May 31, 1928. Why it took so long to be officially entered is unknown, but Dick Cain’s premonition that he was about to die was correct - he died at the age of 65 on May 2, 1928, the day after he had made out his will.
Cain’s last request to George Rodgers was that, upon his death, his three animals were to be shot, and he gave Rodgers three bullets to use to perform the deed. George Rodgers’ son Edwin recalled, “Dad asked him if we could possibly keep the dog. However, Dick Cain said that because the dog was a vicious watchdog and that he really didn’t want us to have the dog. He was afraid that the dog would bite one of us kids, especially because Alice and I were small at that time. But anyway, Dad did not shoot the dog and we kept him. I tell you he was a good watchdog over us kids. Nobody wanted to lay a hand on us or they were in trouble! He turned out to be a real nice part of our family. I’m glad it turned out that way.” But the cat was another problem. It took numerous tries to catch the cat, but eventually it was also brought to the mainland. No memories were recalled as to what happened to the horse.
Then there was some discussion about who would take over the lamplighter job on Ben Ure Island. One of the neighbors of George Rodgers wanted the job. But George Rodgers, who was in the Coast Guard at the time, must have used his connections in recommending his wife Madeline, telling officials that they would also get him and his son in the bargain to help out should the need arise. The Lighthouse Service agreed and Madeline Rodgers got the job.
During Prohibition, Madeline’s husband George was assigned as the skipper of one of the two small Coast Guard patrol boats that were stationed at the old ferry docks. There were a lot of small boats smuggling alcohol from Canada, and they would come through Deception Pass. In those days there were so many people earning extra money as rum runners that some of them were bound to be friends of George Rodgers. So Rodgers would notify his friends of the nights that he was on duty, telling them that he didn’t want to have to be the one who had to arrest or possibly open fire on them, so they better stay home. Apparently it worked as he was never forced to take any of his friends into custody.
One night when George Rodgers was on duty, some rum-runner’s boat broke down near the Rodgers’ home in Oak Harbor on Cornet Bay Road. They walked in on Madeline and her daughter Alice and demanded at gunpoint that Madeline cook a meal for them, which she did. Madeline must have charmed them, because on their way out the door they left money on the table.
By the time Madeline Rodgers started her job as the lamplighter at Ben Ure Island, the brothel was no longer standing. It had been torn down by Bill Lang, who hauled the lumber off the island to build a shop on the mainland that is still standing to this day.
Lighting the lamp on Ben Ure Island could often be a difficult task. After Madeline Rodgers would row out to where the dock was, she had to walk around to the Deception Pass side, often times in very bad weather. Generally Madeline only had to row out once a week to trim the wick and refill the reservoir of the kerosene lamp. The kerosene lamp was of the same kind that was once used in many homes, except that it was housed in a glass enclosure that wasn’t wind proof. On windy days, several trips might be required to make sure the lamp was still burning.
Madeline’s son recalled that during the days of the Great Depression, Madeline was paid $12.00 a month by the U.S. Lighthouse Service and that money was just about the only income the family had, which was used to purchase all their staples, such as sugar and flour. Although the family had an ample supply of clams, fish, and venison, the income from the lamplighter job made a major impact in improving their way of life. Her son Edwin recalled, “We didn’t go hungry like many of the people in the city did.”
Being a resourceful person, Madeline also earned a small amount of money from a seed company which gave her seeds to plant a show garden so that people could come by to see if they wanted to order those seeds. Madeline’s photo was even published in the seed company’s catalog.
In 1939 when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service, they continued to employ civilian lamplighters; however, they slowly started the process to phase them out, as small aids to navigation began to be serviced by crews of Coast Guard vessels.
George Rodgers passed away in 1954. In 1959 Madeline got remarried to a man named Lionel Zigler, and the couple moved to Anacortes, Washington where she became very active in the Skagit Rock and Gem Club, which was the group that chose the State Rock of Washington - petrified wood. She even got her photo taken with the Governor of Washington on the day that it was approved.
After living a long and interesting life, Madeline Clements Rodgers Zigler, one of the last of the lamplighters from the days of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, passed away at the age of 94 on September 20, 1994. She was buried in the Fern Hill Cemetery in Anacortes, Washington.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2016 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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