Coast Guard’s last lightkeeper looks to 300-year milestone

LITTLE BREWSTER ISLAND, Mass. (AP) — The nation’s first and oldest lighthouse station and its unique keeper are celebrating a milestone.

Boston Light turns 300 on Sept. 14. The U.S. Coast Guard’s last resident lightkeeper, Sally Snowman, is helping with celebrations.

Events are planned for downtown Boston’s waterfront and other parts of the state. The lighthouse’s beam, visible for 27 miles, will be powered down and then ceremonially relighted at sunset.

“How many things established 300 years ago are still functioning as they were intended to be?” Snowman said recently. “It was a major aid to navigation in 1716, and that’s exactly what it’s doing today.”

Snowman, a 65-year-old former college instructor, has been lightkeeper for 13 years and is the light’s first female keeper.

The Coast Guard has phased out resident keepers at all light stations save for Boston Light because Congress in 1989 mandated the Guard staff and keep the light public in perpetuity.

Snowman, in the Colonial dress and bonnet she wears on lighthouse tours, said she loves the solitude her job affords.

“I’m an introvert by nature, and I’ve always been able to entertain myself,” she said. “It’s no problem to just leave me here. Just airdrop my food, and I can stay here forever.”

Snowman and her husband, James Thomson, a volunteer assistant keeper, live on Little Brewster Island from April to October with a rotating cast of volunteers, some of whom also spend nights on the island, about 9 miles from downtown Boston.

Boston Light has been a central part of Snowman’s life. The Weymouth resident, who holds two doctorate degrees and taught at Curry College in Milton, started volunteering there more than 20 years ago and became a paid civilian employee in 2004.

Snowman and Thomson married on the island in 1994 and have written three books about the lighthouse.

Snowman, a spiritual person who drums, chants and meditates on the island, said she often senses spirits and other ghostlike presences. It’s unsurprising, she said, since Boston Light’s first two keepers drowned and many more perished in nearby shipwrecks over the years.

She said she also believes she was a keeper in a past life. She said the first time she went up the lighthouse tower she felt as though she “had done it a thousand times before.”

The lighthouse tower, which was built by the British, was destroyed by them during the Revolutionary War and was rebuilt by the new American nation in 1783.

Snowman’s primary job is training and managing the volunteer staff members who give tours and maintain the grounds. The light’s 13-foot-tall Fresnel lens from the 1800s and its modern LED backup are automated and serviced by technicians.

Time on the island is divided between busy tour days and quieter weekdays.

Friday through Sunday, guided tours swell the 3-acre island’s population. More than 200 people visit or work there on a given summer weekend.

Monday to Thursday, Snowman and a pair of volunteers do routine cleaning and maintenance in the 89-foot-tall lighthouse tower and the keeper’s residence, fog signal building, cistern building and boathouse.

But even with the routine, Snowman admitted, it’s easy to slip into island time.

“Everything is done just a little bit slower,” she said. “If it’s really hot in the middle of the day, we take a siesta. We work earlier in the day or work later into the evening. We don’t have the hum of the mainland, the cars and the noise level of humanity. What we have is the wind and the sea and seagulls.”


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