Wednesday, October 1, 2008

a review of "Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic Coast"

Lighthouses of the Mid-Atlantic Coast by Elinor DeWire

“Lead, kindly Light, amid the circling gloom...
The night is dark, and I am far from home.”

John Henry Newman wrote over two hundred years ago.

You might have noticed that I do have a particular interest in lighthouses and in my mind, if you have an interest, you need some books about that interest. There are a number of very good books out there about this fascinating and beautiful subject, but somehow in my wandering on the subject, I had never heard of the author of this book, Elinor DeWire. It was on the suggestion of a fellow book blogger, Bookish Ruth, that I found the books of Ms. DeWire and while this is not the one Ruth named as her favorite, I do have a particular fondness for the sentinels from my own mid-Atlantic area. This book calls itself “your guide to the lighthouses of New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Delaware, and Virginia” and it is that. But it is also a very good introduction to the history of lighthouses along the east coast and also tries to answer the question of why these structures continue to hold such an interest for so many.

The photographer of the book, the excellent photographer of the book, Paul Eric Johnson, tackles that question in his introduction.
“In the light of recent world events, lighthouses may seem trivial to some. For others, including me, America's lighthouses- and the hope they symbolize- have become even more significant. The world has definitely changed. But when surrounded by marsh grasses as far as I can see, with the ocean lapping at my feet, and a distant beacon alight against the sun's fading color, I can imagine the way it was before.”

Yes, the interest in lighthouses is very much about the 'way it was before' and this book gives a nice introduction to the interaction of American history along the east coast and these lights. From the first settlements and the rise of trade, the importance of safe navigation became of great importance. Throughout the wars, from the Revolution, up through the War of 1812, the Civil War, WWII, the lighthouse has played a part. And they are also a guide to our advancing technology, from the first most primitive lens, to the introduction of electricity and wireless radios, to the unmanned, fully automated, often solar powered lights of today. All this is covered in a very interesting fashion in this book.

But DeWire also gives us a view into the behind the scene, more personal aspects of the lights. We get to meet some of fascinating characters, good and bad, that have been the lights keepers throughout the centuries and learn something about what their lives were like.
Some were tour guides to thousands of visitors a year, like the keepers of the Absecon and Cape May, some lived with their wives and children, running a farm, raising livestock and fishing to supplement their incomes, while also maintaining the light and it's property. Often they had a lot of time on their hands and I found it very interesting that for many years the U.S Lighthouse Board maintained a circulating library, delivered by tenders every few months and even had special wooden bookcases made with doors and a handle, each holding 50 books, to make the delivery of books easier. On the more exciting end of the spectrum, some keepers found themselves isolated at sea for weeks at a time, through the worse weather you can imagine, hoping the structure would survive the ice of winter or the next Nor'easter or hurricane. And sometimes they didn't...

While the text is very interesting and DeWire has some excellent stories to share, also very important to this book are the very beautiful photographs of Mr. Johnson, as well as some of the historic photos they have included. I personally found it interesting to study his photographs of some of the lighthouse I know quite well, and see how lacking my photos are compared to his. Well, I can only get better!

The book ends with an epilogue, discussing the future of these historic lights. Many have already been lost. Those that are still navigation lights are all automated, some visited now only by their Coast Guard maintainers. But many have also been adoptered by a variety of volunteer groups that help, by raising money and labor, not only to maintain the physical buildings but also to try and preserve and pass on the memories and histories and the human stories of the lighthouses. As one volunteer, quoted by DeWire, writes about the lights, “They are beautiful, so very beautiful. But they are more than bricks and motor and glass and metal. People built the lighthouses, people tended them, people made them automatic. And now, only people can save them.”

DeWire and Johnson's lovely book could no doubt inspire many to do that. A nice read and beautiful pictures if you enjoy lighthouses.


  1. Caite, I'm so glad you enjoyed the book! I haven't read this one, but I'm looking forward to it even more after reading your review.

  2. It is a very nice book, lovely pictures, very nice text. And I do like my lighthouses.


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