In the late 1800’s almost every branch of government had an official flag. One exception was the U. S. Light House Establishment. Although in use earlier, the flag of the U.S. Lighthouse Service was officially adopted on Sept. 3rd of 1888. It was to be pennant-shaped with an official size of 5’ 6” by 8’ 6” with a red border and a blue ornate lighthouse silhouette on a white background. It was to be flown only on manned vessels, i.e. lightships and lighthouse tenders, under control of the Light House Board.
Around this same time, a future lighthouse keeper was honing his skills as an athlete and a competitor. A youthful Frank Cotton had few equals when it came to sports. He was considered “one of the cleverest baseball players” in the State of Maine. He prized the medals he won as a baseball player, as a gymnast, as a runner, and as a member of the Dirigo Rowing Association and the Turnerein Bicycle Club.
In 1912, the Light House Service adopted a system of “friendly rivalry among the lighthouse keepers. An efficiency flag and pin was to be awarded to the best-kept station in each of the districts. This was more than just polishing brass, shining glass, and squared-away appearance of the structures. The Light House Service’s real intention was thrift. How many days could you make a ton of coal last? How many hours could you get from a gallon of oil? These amounts were always logged in daily by the keeper and checked over by the inspector. A new system of inspection was initiated at this same time, making it uniform and applying to each station equally.
By this time Frank Cotton’s competitive days as an athlete were a distant memory. He was now Capt. Frank Cotton, the Head Keeper at the Cape Elizabeth Light Station. With this new program, Capt. Cotton’s competitive nature was sparked once again. He desired his station to be the best. This would not be easy for Two Lights had “two” of everything plus a large fog signal building to maintain. Capt. Cotton realized his dream. Later that year lighthouse history was made as Capt. Frank Cotton was honored by the U.S. Government and awarded the very first pennant flag & efficiency silver star pin in recognition of being the most efficient keeper and having the finest-kept station among 64 other light stations in the First District. The pennant flag of red, white, and blue would float in the breeze from the military mast at the Cape Elizabeth Light Station, marking the first time the official flag of the Light House Service was flown at a lighthouse. All this was front-page news in the local newspapers by those who would read it.
Now consider what’s really in a flag, not just cloth and thread, but what a flag may symbolize, as in our own Star Spangled Banner. Our flag has its own day, June 14th. This year let it not pass unnoticed, but rather pause to reflect on what the flag symbolizes, the principles it represents, the freedoms it embodies, the indomitable spirit it typifies, the philosophy it voices, for the flag stands for what we are.
Photoss courtesy of the Cape Elizabeth Historical Society, Mr. Wayne Brooking, Mrs. Elizabeth Peterson (photo), and Mrs. Marion Shepard (granddaughter of Capt. Frank Cotton).
This story appeared in the
June 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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