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New keeper for very old lighthouse

Schoolteacher and his family move into 1811 Scituate cottage

By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / March 19, 2009
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Old Scituate Light has a new lightkeeper.

This coveted position - and anachronistic job title - is now held by Bob Gallagher, a 48-year-old schoolteacher and lifelong Scituate resident. He and his wife and daughter recently moved into the 198-year-old cottage that's attached to the lighthouse.

"We've been as pleased as can be. It feels like home already," said Gallagher, who teaches US history, government, and economics at Marshfield High School, and is a member of the Scituate Alternative High School staff.

Gallagher is now responsible for making sure the beacon stays lit at night and taking care of the historic lighthouse property.

In return, he and his family get to live in the lightkeeper's cottage for a reasonable price (monthly rent: $900, not including utilities) and become a part of local maritime history, as caretak ers of one of the oldest working lighthouses in the United States. Gallagher is writing about this experience on his blog at oldscituatelight.blogspot.com.

Gallagher is one of a small number of people to have served as lightkeeper of Scituate Light since it was built in 1811. Historians have accounted for a dozen, but the list has some gaps.

The previous lightkeeper, Ruth Downton, had lived in the cottage for close to 23 years. When she announced her plans to retire last summer, the Scituate Historical Society immediately began searching for someone to replace her, and braced themselves for the response.

"We knew there would be a lot of interest," said historical society president David Ball. "People have this romantic notion about living in a lighthouse."

As soon as the society made the announcement, the e-mails began pouring in.

"They just kept coming and coming and coming," Ball said.

More than 100 people contacted the historical society and expressed interest in the opportunity. Many did not realize what being a lightkeeper at Scituate Light would entail, according to Ball.

"Some people thought it would be a vacation place, where they could come and go as they pleased," said Ball. "Other people had no idea what it's like living on the coast." Several others changed their mind when they learned it was an unpaid position, he said.

The historical society gave each candidate an application and a detailed list of requirements and expectations for the new lightkeeper. They wanted someone who was familiar with lighthouses and well-versed in the history of Scituate Light and other Massachusetts lighthouses. The lightkeeper also needed to be willing to open up the cottage to the public five times per year, provide tours of the lighthouse, and answer visitors' questions.

"There's a lot to it," said Ball. "It's the most visited site in Scituate."

With its original tower and keeper's cottage both intact, Scituate Light is the oldest complete lighthouse in the country, Ball said. Thousands of people tour inside the cottage and lighthouse, and many, many more visit to take photos of the tower or walk around it, Ball said.

The lighthouse and keeper's cottage are owned by the town, and the site is managed by the Scituate Historical Society. Operating the lighthouse doesn't cost taxpayers anything, according to Ball. The property is self-sustaining because the monthly rent paid by the lightkeeper is put into the lighthouse fund, he said.

Of the 30 applicants they interviewed for the position, Gallagher really stood out, according to Ball.

Gallagher is no stranger to the historical society; he'd been involved with the organization for years and was once a tenant at one of the society's other historic properties.

"He and his whole family expressed a strong interest," said Ball. "He's a teacher, and we're very interested in developing educational programs. He mentioned the blog, and we really liked that idea."

In August, the Gallaghers received the good news: They could be the next tenants of Scituate Light. Gallagher, his wife Julie, and their 9-year-old daughter Haley moved into the lightkeeper's cottage in mid-February.

Gallagher sees the lighthouse as a tremendous educational resource, and he's using it to develop new curriculum for students. Meanwhile, he and his family are also settling in, and getting acquainted with their new home, and the history that surrounds them.

"It's a lot bigger than we thought it would be," said Gallagher. It's also warmer and quieter than he anticipated. "I thought it would be louder," he said.

The keeper's cottage - a cozy, wood-shingled, 1 1/2-story Cape Cod-style house - is attached to the lighthouse by an enclosed walkway. The cottage has served as the lightkeeper's quarters since 1811. Back in the early 19th century, whale oil and wicks were used to illuminate lighthouses. Every evening, the lightkeeper made several trips up and down the stairs to make sure the lamp stayed lit until sunrise.

Today, Scituate Light is automated. The lantern room contains two lamps: the main beacon powered by electricity and run on a timer, and a backup lamp run on solar power.

So, unlike his early predecessors, Gallagher doesn't have to have to climb the wooden spiral staircase every night. He just has to keep an eye on the tower from below, to make sure it's working properly. "His responsibility is to let us know if there are any issues, or if it's gone out," said Ball.

Lighthouses were made to serve as geographical landmarks for mariners. Each lighthouse emits a distinct color and flash pattern so they can be distinguished from one another. Scituate Light has a white light that flashes every 15 seconds, and is visible for up to 4 miles at sea, Ball said.

Though Scituate Light is not operated by the US Coast Guard, it is on official nautical charts produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he said.

At Scituate Light, the modern-day lightkeeper's main role is to serve as an ambassador and caretaker. The job could be best described as part tour guide, part historian, and part custodian. As the keepers of Scituate Light, Gallagher and his family are responsible for maintaining the buildings and grounds, and keeping the property secure.

They act as stewards of the cottage's historical artifacts, which include a 1906 painting of the young women Abigail and Rebecca Bates, the fife the Rebecca used to scare off a British warship in 1814, the papers documenting the sale of the lighthouse to the town of Scituate in 1916, and the meticulous records kept by early lightkeepers, who used logbooks to jot down the weather conditions and the amount of oil and wicks they used.

Gallagher has begun keeping records of his own, on the Internet. He's posted photographs and written several entries on his blog, entitled "The Word From Old Scituate Light." (oldscituatelight.blogspot.com)

One recent post describes the interesting encounter he had on Feb. 16, his first day at the lighthouse. Gallagher wrote: "At the end of the day I needed to take down the flag in the Lighthouse Park lot. As I was unwinding the line and bringing the colors down, a young man in battle fatigues got out of his car and stood at attention, then saluted the flag. Noticing this over my shoulder I grew a coconut in my throat. I never anticipated that response in this new role. Finishing the job I thanked the young man who told me no thanks were necessary. Day one was quite a day to start and quite a day to finish."

Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com.

If you go

Scituate Light is open to the public on July 12, Aug. 8 and 9, Aug. 23, and Oct. 11. The grounds surrounding the lighthouse are open year-round. Call 781-545-1083 or visit www.scituatehistoricalsociety.org.

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