Digest>Archives> September 2002

The Vanishing Legacy of Keeper Aaron Kimmey

By Bob Trapani, Jr.


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Egg Island Lighthouse, NJ (Photo courtesy of the ...

The duty was simple on the surface - keep the light burning bright without fail. What was not so plainly evident were the different demands each light station presented to the individuals we called “Keepers.” The light station’s environmental surroundings, shortcomings and the fickle tendencies of Mother Nature were just a few of the challenges that beset the lightkeeper.

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Reedy Island Range Rear Light, DE (Photo courtesy ...

Keeper Aaron Kimmey was one such individual who successfully handled the nuances of lightkeeping at a variety of assignments throughout his twenty-year tenure as a lighthouse keeper on the Delaware River and Bay. Whether demonstrating his resolve amidst the marshes of the river or coping with the isolation of the unforgiving bay, Keeper Kimmey never wavered in his diligence and effectiveness of maintaining a good light.

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Keeper Aaron Kimmey (Photo courtesy of Ernie ...

In mid-1907, Keeper Kimmey was appointed as acting keeper of the Egg Island Lighthouse, located on Egg Island Point, Delaware Bay. First established in 1838, the Egg Island Light Station was situated amid the harsh environment of salt marshes and was constantly subject to the unrelenting encroachment of tidal waters. Complete isolation made this station assignment very undesirable - even the nearest post office was some 8.5 miles away.

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Keeper Aaron Kimmey and his wife Annie at Reedy ...

In between his two assignments at Egg Island Light, Keeper Kimmey spent time upon the historic screwpile light at Brandywine Shoal as 2nd assistant keeper from February 1908 to November 1909. Leaving the insect-infested marshes in favor of the ravaging ice floes and bitter winters of the open bay was hardly considered an improvement. To make matters worse, the cramped quarters of the original Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse tried the notion of camaraderie to its fullest, as three keepers were expected to co-exist within a sparse and confining atmosphere. However, as fate would have it, Keeper Kimmey found himself leaving Brandywine for an old “friend” - the dreaded Egg Island Light.

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Original screwpile Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse ...

Despite the hardships associated with this station, Keeper Kimmey completed his second tour of duty at Egg Island Lighthouse in 1911, and was subsequently awarded a coveted transfer that most certainly pleased his family. Keeper Kimmey’s daughters would comment years later on how they hated living at Egg Island Light due to its unnerving isolation. The willingness to leave this forsaken light station was nothing new for the Lighthouse Service, as more then 24 different keepers served at Egg Island from 1838 to 1911.

After a two-month stint as keeper of the Reedy Island Range Front Light on the banks of the Delaware River (February to April 1911), Keeper Kimmey landed his final assignment at the Reedy Island Range Rear Light, located near Taylor’s Bridge, Delaware. From April 1911 to January 1927, Keeper Kimmey tended the Reedy Island Range Rear Light in surroundings that would confound even the most ardent lighthouse enthusiast.

The 1910 U.S. Lighthouse Service Annual Report describes the Reedy Island Range Rear Light, stating, “The tower is a cast-iron cylindrical structure surmounted by a watch room and octagonal lantern, accessible from below by a spiral stairway enclosed in a cast-iron cylinder. It rests on nine concrete foundation piers and has concrete steps at the entrance door. The total height of the tower is about 125 feet. It is to have a fifth-order range lens lighted by a fourth-order incandescent oil-vapor lamp.” What the report doesn’t describe is the light’s environmental surroundings. The Reedy Island Range Rear Light stands on the edge of Delaware Route 9, some 2.5 miles behind the range front light. The light’s location, which is encompassed by farmland, coupled with its black skeletal construction, effectively mask the fact that the structure is a lighthouse at all to many people regularly passing by its locale.

Keeper Kimmey took advantage of the available farmland by working at his prior trade of farming to help supplement his annual salary of $516.00 from the Lighthouse Service. The Kimmey family cultivated a large garden and fruit trees on the light station site as well. Their efforts yielded a variety of homegrown food items such as corn, lima beans, apples and pears. However, as idyllic as daily life at the light station may have seemed to people, the lighthouse was not lacking challenges. The legendary storms that buffeted many coastal lights were not a factor at Reedy Island Range Rear Light. Rather, Keeper Kimmey was forced to cope with maintaining his standard of excellence in keeping a good light within an inland and redundant setting devoid of the drama found at many light stations along coastal waters.

Another issue confronted daily during the summer months by Keeper Kimmey was the build-up of suffocating heat within the cylindrical tube of the lighthouse. The light was constructed in such a manner that the cast-iron steps spiral around a central column with heavy metal plates bolted together through weld-on interior flanges. The structure subsequently holds the summer heat and possesses very few windows in its confining and extremely narrow staircase for effectively dissipating the build-up of rising temperatures. The incredible heat within the tower made climbing the light a very taxing endeavor on keepers and ultimately took its toll on Keeper Kimmey as well.

The morning of January 12, 1927 proved to be Keeper Kimmey’s last watch. Ernie Mabrey, the great-grandson of Keeper Kimmey, states that his mother passed down an account of what occurred that morning of the 12th. At about 5:30 a.m., Keeper Kimmey’s wife Annie awoke and went downstairs to prepare breakfast. It was then said that Annie called up the stairs of the keeper’s house saying, “Breakfast is ready.” Keeper Kimmey responded by stating, “Be right there,” but then suddenly died before he rose from his bed.

Lighthouse enthusiasts often contemplate the romance associated with keeping a light station, but the life of a keeper, especially in advancing years, was anything but romantic. Health and physical limitations were formidable adversaries for keepers who were required to climb countless stairs with supplies and equipment. In the case of Keeper Kimmey, he had actually been diagnosed by his family doctor with “hyperstrophe” of the heart 10 months prior to his passing. On his death certificate, Dr. James Bradshaw indicated that a contributing factor was “occupation, going up and down long flights of steps at the lighthouse.”

Sadly, the legacy of Aaron Kimmey’s time as a lightkeeper is vanishing. The original screwpile light at Brandywine Shoal was removed from its location shortly after the completion of the newly constructed concrete caisson light in 1914. Egg Island Lighthouse suffered a tragic fire that claimed the structure on August 20, 1950. Reedy Island Range Front Light was razed in the late 1950s and finally, the keeper’s dwelling at Reedy Island Range Rear Light was destroyed by fire at the hands of vandals on April 6, 2002. Only the towering Reedy Island Range Rear Light itself remains standing as a tribute to the career and excellence of keeper Aaron Kimmey.

This story appeared in the September 2002 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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