Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2016

Lamplighters in the Lighthouse Service

By Timothy Harrison


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There was a time in history when the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and later the U.S. Coast Guard, employed private individuals as lamplighters to light minor aids to navigation, especially those on rivers.

Shown here in this 1940 Coast Guard press release photograph is Miss Minnie Meissner of Bushberg House, Peverly, Missouri who posed by the kerosene navigational light she had tended for 25 years. The caption with the photo said, “The light is located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River about twenty-two miles south of St. Louis. It had to be cleaned and filled once every forty-eight hours. The care of the light had been in the Meissner family since the early 1890s, and the job was passed down through generations.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard, in the 1940s there were nearly 1,200 lamplighters in the United States, mostly holdovers from the old U.S. Lighthouse Service. According to government records, lamplighters were also called light attendants. In 1940 the maximum average pay for a lamplighter was $10.50 per month, per light.

Modern aids to navigation, such as battery powered lights and Coast Guard personnel working from tenders, caused the eventual demise of the lamplighters. However, as late as 2006, there were still three lamplighters left in the United States.

Minnie Meissner grew up in a house that had the distinction of having the first telephone installed in Jefferson County, Missouri. Records indicate that she never married.

Interestingly, in the 1850s, the first federally owned lighthouse tender to operate on the Great Lakes was appropriately named Lamplighter.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 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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