Lighthouse service was often a time-honored family profession. In many cases, children of lighthouse keepers went into lighthouse service when they became adults because it was a comfortable and familiar way of life for them. Some of them were born at the lighthouse, and because of their isolated locations, they oftentimes married the children of other keepers. It was not uncommon to find lighthouse keepers, lamplighters, lighthouse tender seamen, and other lighthouse service employees among many succeeding generations, especially if an extended family stayed in the same general area for decades. The English family of North Carolina was a fine example of this multi-generational lighthouse tradition.
Alonzo James English served for over 26 years in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Alonzo was born on November 14, 1850 in Carteret County, North Carolina to parents Samuel and Elizabeth English. He married Cora Newton in 1876 on Cedar Island and had at least six children. By 1891, he had entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service and was working as an assistant to keeper E.L. Keeler at Northwest Point Royal Shoal Lighthouse in Pamilco Sound, North Carolina. He remained there several years and then went to Brant Island Shoal Lighthouse on the south side of Pamilco Sound, North Carolina. By 1895 he was an assistant under keeper L.G. Hinnaut and later to Robert M. Jennett in 1899. By 1901, he had become head keeper at Brant Island Shoal Lighthouse and stayed there until 1911 when he was transferred to Harbor Island Bar Lighthouse, which stood in the waters between Pamilco Sound and Core Sound, North Carolina, where he served until he died from pneumonia in 1916 at age 66.
Alonzo received a commendation in 1913 for saving “government property” during a bad October storm, and he was mentioned again in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin in 1915 for using a power boat to tow the lumber-laden schooner Davis off a bar near the light station.
In 1914, Alonzo’s eldest son, James Emmett English, also entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service. Born on September 26, 1879 on Portsmouth Island, James moved to Pamlico County in 1895. There he met Alethea Lincoln at a church picnic in 1899, and they were married in 1901. Over the next 12 years, they had six children together.
In 1906, the family moved to Harbor Island where James became employed as a fisherman and oysterman until 1912 when he moved again to Morehead City and taught school at Camp Glenn. In 1914, while still teaching, James Emmett English began his lighthouse service as a lamplighter, tending beacon lights in Core Sound once a week. He must have decided he liked light tending more than teaching, as he then moved to Virginia to serve as a second assistant lighthouse keeper at Thimble Shoal Lighthouse the following year.
James Emmett English then returned to North Carolina following his father’s death in 1916, and he served as an assistant keeper at the Harbor Island Bar Lighthouse, the same lighthouse where his father had spent the last years of his life. His next assignment was in 1918 to the Cape Lookout Lighthouse near Beaufort, North Carolina where he was able to live in the keeper’s house with his family. They kept goats and chickens and the children had run of the island.
In winter, the children went to school on Harker’s Island, and James was an itinerant preacher there. He left the lighthouse every Sunday to take the family to church where he delivered his sermons.
The year 1921 brought another move for the family of James Emmett English, this time to Annapolis, Maryland where James served at Thomas Point Shoal Lighthouse. His third daughter, Ella Mae, later in life recounted that when she spent her summers there as a teenager, she had to help keep the lighthouse clean. “We had to keep things immaculate, because you never knew when the inspectors would come. We polished the brass, cleaned the lens. For fun, we’d go swimming or crabbing. You couldn’t be a restless person and you had to know how to entertain yourself.” For food, the family ate “a lot of cured beef, dried fruit and canned food. Life was different then. A lot of rural people lived exactly the same way we did.”
In 1924, James Emmett English moved yet again to serve a short stint at Cape Henry Lighthouse in Virginia. His fourth daughter, Evelyn later reported that in 1926 James Emmett English also served at Cape Charles Lighthouse on Smith Island at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay near Kiptopeke, Virginia. But he soon decided he wanted to return to his beloved Carteret County, so he asked for a final transfer to tend to the beacon lights of Bogue Sound from the Newport River to Swansboro. He again served as a lamplighter out of the Morehead/Fort Macon Coast Guard Station in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina until his official retirement in 1940.
James’ grandson, Bill Norwood, remembers going with his brother Earl to help service those beacons during the summers when they were young teenagers. Besides Bogue Sound, James also took care of buoys in a channel running into the Neuse River up to the fish house in Beaufort, North Carolina. The tanks were made of steel and were long and heavy. James taught the boys a lot about “navigation and snagging the buoys, running the boat, and getting the boat off sandbars. This knowledge was helpful to Earl in WW II when he piloted a Higgins boat on D-Day at Omaha Beach. He remembered his grandfather’s directions about running a boat up on sand and then reversing to get it out without getting stuck.” He fondly remembered that James was full of stories and was a “textbook granddaddy” who never said a mean word. He was well-known and well-liked throughout eastern North Carolina.
James Emmett English’s daughter Ella Mae eventually married William Keagle who also was in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He joined in 1914 as a scowman on a lighthouse tender out of Baltimore, Maryland. Apparently, at the time of their courtship, Ella Mae was living at a lighthouse with her father and the tender came by to make repairs. While William Keagle was assigned to paint the lighthouse fence, he painted their initials on it. They were married sometime shortly thereafter in the 1920s. William Keagle served in the Great War, and upon his discharge he rejoined the U.S. Lighthouse Service to resume his civilian lighthouse duties in 1919. During this period, he was a “Helper General, Pile Driver, and Assistant Keeper,” though the lighthouse is unknown. In 1929 he transferred to the position of watchman and patrolman with the Bureau of Navigation at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, after which he transferred to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, North Carolina until his retirement in 1954. The Secretary of the Navy at that time, C.S. Thomas, wrote a letter of commendation to William Keagle and expressed his “personal appreciation” for his “long and faithful service.”
Through three generations, the English family members offered continuous dedicated work, which totaled almost 100 years of service in three states, at least eight different lighthouses, and served under three branches of lighthouse and governmental organizations with many differing assignments, including tender, lighthouse, naval base, and lamplighting. Alonzo English, James English, and William Keagle offer a small glimpse and fine example of the kind of service given through a multi-generational lighthouse family tradition.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 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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