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Working at the Top: Cape May’s Lighthouse Keepers

This article originally appeared in Cape May Magazine‘s Fall 2007 edition.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

Mayhugh Palmer Tees inside the lighthouse.

She prefers working at the top.

Saturday mornings at 8:15 a.m., this slender dark haired woman, moving with a dancer’s grace, ascends the 199 steps to the look-out at the Cape May Lighthouse. This is her ritual, no matter the sea-swept winds, rain and fog that sometimes shroud the red cap atop the cream tower that is Cape Island’s most visible landmark. On a clear day she can see 20 miles in all directions. This July morning the sun splashes millions of diamonds on the sapphire sea. The light salty breezes rustle her log book as she writes.

She pauses, touches the rail, and circles the observation deck, absorbing the 360-degree view from 136 feet high. She scans the horizon for oil tankers, fishing boats, sloops, schooners and ferries. “Flounder must be running,” she says to herself, observing a village of vessels.

Who is this solitary figure? An apparition, the lost spirit of Florence Arabelle “Belle” Palmer who assumed keeper duties when her husband Harry suffered a serious heart attack in 1933?

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

A surreal phantom she certainly is not. She has a striking resemblance to Cape May’s last lighthouse keeper, Harry Hall Palmer. She is his descendant, his granddaughter– Mayhugh Palmer Tees, who inherited his proclivity for life at the top. Like her grandfather, she is a lighthouse keeper, and has been for 11 years. She is one of several contemporary keepers of the Cape May Lighthouse, a museum since 1988, telling its 148-year history and lore to the 100,000 visitors each year.

“I come early for my watch at the top,” she says, “a half hour or so to meditate and enjoy the beauty, solitude and quiet my grandfather must have experienced at this high level. It is my peace to absorb the power of nature and stay connected to the Palmer family. They lived in that white house down there.”

This only surviving keeper’s house was built in 1860. (It is now the private home of the Cape May Point State Park superintendent.) Originally there were two identical white clapboard cottages, one and one-half stories, with red trim and green shutters. The grounds that ran toward the sea were surrounded with white-washed fences. The basement and walkways were red brick. The first floor featured three rooms, front and back porches, and a stairway to four second floor bedrooms. (One of the houses was later expanded to accommodate two keeper families. It was burned by vandals in 1968.)

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

LIghthouse Keeper Harry Palmer. Photograph courtesy of MAC.

Mayhugh’s grandfather and family—wife, three daughters and son– arrived at their new home at the Cape May Light – the official name- in 1924. Nature forced them to depart the 1767 Cape Henlopen Lighthouse, which was teetering and tottering seaward. They were sad to leave their beloved Delaware, but on crossing the hazardous shoals in Delaware Bay, a bad storm brewed with gale force winds. Daughter Ada later told her son Charles Givens, “We were so seasick and scared that we were all happy to land safely, and start our new life at Cape May Light.” (Two years later in 1926, stormy waters undermined Cape Henlopen Lighthouse and the 45-foot
tower collapsed into the sea.)

His first year at Cape May Light, Harry Palmer earned $960. Stamps were two cents. Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House, Paul Whiteman’s Orchestra introduced George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue and daughter Ada was pulling grass from lighthouse brick walkways, dreaming of a flapper’s dress and hairdo.

Harry Palmer (center) and family

Harry Palmer (center) and family

The post of lighthouse keeper entailed a unique lifestyle for the keeper and his family. The duties were often lonely and tedious and could be downright dangerous when storms buffeted the lantern. It was especially perilous if weather forced the keeper to climb from the watch room to the lantern landing and remove snow and ice from the 16 windows 12 stories up. Harry Palmer, like the long line of keepers before him, night after night, climbed the 217 steps from the Oil House with two and one-half gallons of fuel to fire the light just before dusk and make sure it was extinguished just after dawn. The four-hour vigil, or watch, was alternated with an assistant keeper or two. A watch included assisting with sea disasters, if necessary, and keeping a log of fuel, weather and passing ships. Lenses that reflected the light had to be kept sparkling, brass shined, windows cleaned, the tower and top ball painted. They were the air traffic controllers of their day, writes John Bailey, in his book Sentinel of the Jersey Cape.

Harry Palmer was made of the right stuff for the job. When it came time to paint the lantern roof, and the ventilator ball on top, his daughter Ada told her children, “Father put a ladder on the watch look-out, threw a rope around the ball, and pulled himself up to the roof, waved and painted. All the while, Mother below was protesting loudly.”

Inspection reports indicate Harry Palmer was a meticulous lighthouse keeper. He nurtured his gardens with the same precise energy. He won awards for his hydrangeas. His vegetable garden covered half an acre. Ada’s daughter Harriet says her grandfather was “a very caring caretaker.” He loved peaches, fresh and preserved. He took great pride in his pole beans, tomatoes and corn. His wife stored the canned summer vegetables and prepared pickles in the bottom of what had been the 1847 lighthouse.

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

Photograph by Thomas Michael Mann

“They were a close family,” says grandson Charles Givens, a commercial crab fisherman. At night, the Cape May Light falls on his house on nearby New England Road. It gives him a sense of comfort and family connection. “They had a good life at the Lighthouse. When we get together, all the conversations point eventually to life at the light. Grandfather was highly respected in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and at Cape May Point. The locals would come to the Lighthouse for water. It was a gathering place to exchange news, and trade the day’s catch for Grandfather’s produce.”

Though keeper Palmer and his wife never drove an automobile, and were quite isolated, they enjoyed a social life. “They entertained famous ornithologists for dinners from their garden,” says Charles. “Both Witmer Stone, author of the Bird Studies of Old Cape May, and [noted ornithologist] Charles Urner were guests. Grandfather described birds and migration activity he observed from the tower.”

There have been more than 30 personalities involved in three lighthouses at Cape May Point. The first, built in 1823, was 68- feet tall, and is now lost to the sea, the casualty of erosion. The second, built in 1847, had a 78-foot tower and was replaced because it was poorly constructed. This third existing structure was first lighted on Halloween, 1859.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

Keeper Caleb Woolson and family. Click for full image.

The second to last keeper of the Cape May Light was Caleb Swain Woolson, who, like keeper Palmer, has many descendants living within a few miles of the still flashing beacon.

Woolson tended the light for 41 years, from assistant in 1883 to retirement in 1924. He fell off a ladder and broke his wrist and hurt his hip as an assistant, but the next year -1903-was promoted to keeper at a salary of $760 a year. Theodore Roosevelt occupied the White House. Ford Motors incorporated and sold its first Model A. Gas was a nickel a gallon.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

The Woolson family. Click for full image.

A Woolson descendant, Furman Lee, of nearby Erma, says his great-grandfather stabled cows in the cut-off base of the 1847 lighthouse. “They were self sufficient,” he says. “They produced their own milk and grew vegetables in two big fields.  His daughter, my grandmother, Bertha, bought a house at 402 Holly Avenue, at Cape May Point, for $7.47 at a tax sale in 1901. I was born in that house, just a few steps from Lake Lily, in 1932. The house is still there. My mother sold it for $6,300 in 1963. We were always Pointers. We swam Lake Lily in the summer, ice skated in winter. We walked dirt paths to the beach and school. It was very rural, very quiet. At night, the only light, the beacon and its consistent flash.”

The beacon has been the rhythm to lighthouse life, through historic times and weather, good and bad.

Now, in high season, almost 1,000 visitors a day are drawn to the lighthouse to experience history, the daily steps of the keepers, the weather and the most spectacular views at the tip of New Jersey. Keeper David Yeager, whose granddaughter Jennifer Keeler recently became engaged to Keith Snyder at the top, has been telling visitors stories and answering questions since 1989.

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

Caleb Swain Woolson. Click for full image

The Cape May Light would not be preserved as it is today if it were not for one of its angels, Tom Carroll, a retired Coast Guard captain. He stayed on in Cape May with his wife Sue in the 1980s to throw all their energies into restoring the old Mainstay Inn on Columbia Avenue into one of the best B&Bs in America. Tom says today he would not have wanted to be a lighthouse keeper. “Too boring and lonely for me,” he says.

But a keeper he is. It was Tom who approached the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts (MAC) and with persistence and patience cajoled the non-profit organization into a complicated lease agreement that in 1986 saw the deteriorating lighthouse open to the public, but just the bottom. The top was in a sad state of decline. It was rusted, leaking and unsafe, even though it just had been named a National Historic Landmark.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The present lighthouse appears from behind the remains of the 1847 lighthouse. Photograph taken during the mid-70s by Vincent T. Marchese. Click for full image.

The rallying cry was “Save the Lighthouse.” Thousands of lighthouse fans bought T-shirts, bricks for $2 each, steps for $100, windows for $500. In just two years the hard work of MAC officers and volunteers climaxed with a ribbon cutting on May 18, 1988. The tower was open to the public for tours, MAC charging admission and hosting a gift shop in the Oil Room to raise more money for continued restoration.

The miracle of the Cape May Lighthouse restoration is that other communities followed the formula so painstakingly worked out here, and have saved many other sentinels of the shore as public places to learn of a beacon’s safety and assurance.

Perhaps the best time to visit the Cape May Lighthouse is at night when precisely one-half hour before sunset, the light is lit. Standing beneath, head craned upward, the cream tower glowing at the red top, that steady beacon against the star-studded sky is comforting as a heartbeat. “The lights are the heart and soul of maritime history and the shore,” says Tom Carroll. “They are steady, friendly, welcoming open arms of light.”

Mayhew Palmer Tees, in navy blue uniform, much simpler than the dress blues with shiny brass buttons that her grandfather keeper Harry Palmer wore, once again climbs the 199 steps to the top. She opens the doors where her grandfather stood watch for nine years, and as he did more than 70 years ago, she lifts the cover of the log book.

She faithfully writes in the book every watch.

5/15/04 “A wedding at the Pavilion. The bride, groom and photographer made the climb to the top. She climbed in sleeveless white gown with a flowered headband, and a single white rose.  A beautiful bride.”

9/11/04 “Three years ago today I will never forget. New York was in chaos. By the time I arrived at the Lighthouse a plane had hit the Pentagon and then Flight 93 destined for its day in history. We must always remember and never forget 9/11/01. I still turn my eyes north and look to the air.”

9/10/05 “The Hill family from Michigan climbed up, walked outside, and got a cell phone call from their Army Sgt. son stationed in Baghdad. The parents described the view.  How extraordinary.”

And so do other descendants:

7/07/04 “We are related to Caleb Woolson who worked at the Lighthouse 1918 to 1924. My family came to this area in 1678, and worked as whalers in the bay and ocean.” Donald F. Woolson, Chicago.

8/15/04 “Family was one of the original Cape May families, came over on The Mayflower. Family ran the stage coach between Philadelphia and Cape May. After many years, we have all finally left Cape May, unfortunately.” Geoffrey S. Hughes.

8/16/04 “It is a shame I missed Mr. Hughes when he was here. I have Hughes in my family tree which also includes the names of Corson (of Hereford Light, in North Wildwood), Hand, Pierce, Swain, Schellenger and Leaming.” Mayhugh Palmer Tees.

The Cape May beacon, that steady, friendly, welcoming arm of light still shines bright.