Digest>Archives> September 2010

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Rare Lighthouse Keeper’s Uniform Found

By Jim Claflin


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As I mentioned last month, I just picked up this rare lighthouse keeper’s uniform from the 1920’s - 1930’s worn by Keeper William J. Anderson. The uniform consists of the original wool double-breasted sack coat in navy blue, with a double row of gilt buttons (8) of the Lighthouse Service Minot’s Ledge Lighthouse design. On each sleeve are two smaller gilt buttons of the earlier “U.S.L.H.E.” design. In addition, there are two embroidered gilt service stripes on one sleeve indicating 10 years of service. Of unusual interest is his collar insignia - within the embroidered loop on each collar are the letters “A/K” indicating “Additional Keeper”. This is the first time that we have seen this insignia, a variation from the typical “K” or “1”, “2”, “3”, etc.

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Included in this lot too is his hat with adjustable chin strap, gilt buttons on each side, and gold embroidered wreath inclosing a silver embroidered lighthouse. In addition, we are fortunate that a number of payroll and appointment documents, Annual Property Return from Desdemona Sands LH, and other items were also included, which gives us some good information about his career and a hint at the meaning of the “A/K” insignia.

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From an obituary that we found in upstate New York, we learned that Mr. Anderson joined the Lighthouse Service in about 1913. He lived at this time in Jamestown, New York with his wife. We do not know where he served until the 1930’s, when we learn from the documents that in February of 1933 Anderson was serving as Assistant Keeper at Desdemona Sands Light Station on the Columbia River in Oregon.

Almost forgotten, the Desdemona Sands Lighthouse was built circa 1901-1902 and stood on pilings in 12 feet of water at the western end of a shoal inside the mouth of the Columbia River. The lighthouse was a white, octagonal frame dwelling rising from a rectangular platform on piling. From a bronze-colored, pyramidal roof, rose a cylindrical lantern housing a 4th order fixed Fresnel lens which displayed a white light. The light stood 46 feet above the water and could be seen for 12 miles. Keeper Anderson worked at the lighthouse until the final year before it was electrified in 1934, which soon eliminated the need for an active keeper.

In October of 1933, Anderson received a recommendation from District Superintendent R.R. Tinkham for appointment to Tillamook Rock Light Station and we believe that he served there for a short period. It is from these documents that we learn a bit about the “A/K” designation. Superintendent Tinkham advises Anderson that to have part of his salary paid to his wife, remaining in New York, it was necessary for her to have power of attorney to cash his checks. Fortunately this Power of Attorney form was included with the lot, which lists Anderson as providing “services as Assistant Keeper or as Additional Keeper.” Although we can find this designation in no Lighthouse Service regulations, we suspect that an “Additional Keeper” held the same rank as a Principal Keeper, and may have been used to replace a keeper who was to be absent for some time, or to add a second keeper of the same rank (rather than assistants) at a large facility.

From here, lighthouse historians Tom Tag and Terry Pepper note that “William J. Anderson showed up in the Great Lakes as Second Assistant at Outer Island on Lake Superior from April 18. 1935 through March 26, 1942, after which he shows as “resigned.” Thus he ended a total of 29 years of service.

His obituary, found in an upstate New York newspaper, provided a bit more about his family life: “William J. Anderson, 84, of Cottage Park, Lakewood, died this morning (July 7, 1976) in Erie Veterans Hospital, Erie, Pa. He was born May 9, 1892, in Sarnia, Canada, a son of James Edward and Sarah Hager Anderson. Mr. Anderson was formerly employed by the Lighthouse Service and then the U.S. Coast Guard, from which he retired in 1939 (there remains some question on his year of retirement), after 26 years of service. Surviving are his wife, the former Mary Hanson whom he married in 1931, in Jamestown; a daughter, two sons, seven grandchildren, and one great-granddaughter. He was buried in the Sunset Hill Cemetery in Celoron, New York.

This is the first keeper’s uniform set that has been on the market in more than 20 years and, with the accompanying documentation, provides an unprecedented look into the life of a lighthouse keeper. A most fortunate find.

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the September 2010 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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