Shining Light in a Political Storm

By Jamie Stiehm

July 22, 2016 5 min read

For a scene change and a breather from brewing political storms, I went up to New England for a few days, staying on an island off the coast of Cape Cod.

You take an old-fashioned ferry over, then walk in a town of gingerbread houses and the oldest carousel in America. The saltwater-scented air makes your skin tingle. The island, Martha's Vineyard, is named for the daughter of the English sea captain who charted it.

A handful of lighthouses stand on the island's shores, silhouetted at dusk, adding to a sweet sense of apartness from America — as the mainland used to be called. Perched on the red cliffs of remote Aquinnah (formerly Gay Head) was a lighthouse built with red bricks from the cliffs — which are slowly falling into the sea.

Moving the original lighthouse was a major undertaking, but they did it. I saw its new venue, not far from the old. This part of the island was inhabited by the Wampanoag American Indian tribe, who still have a presence and government recognition. The English sea captain, with no lighthouse, might have had a few words with them.

So happens a friend, Eric Jay Dolin, is the author of a new elegant history of lighthouses. His book gave me a way to see the national horizon beyond what just happened in Cleveland at the Republican National Convention. A perfect gift.

The incurable Donald Trump, party standard-bearer, can be seen as the opposite of a lighthouse. He brings out the darkness in people, leads the establishment to recklessly crash on the rocks and speaks to followers in the spirit of a mutiny. The way they talk could make a sailor blush.

Lighthouses outlined and defined America when it was a new nation, Dolin tells us in "Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse."

This was especially true in seafaring New England and the busy Southern port, Charleston, South Carolina, partly because of the slave trade. The most treacherous waters off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, demanded "a first rate lighthouse," said Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

Hamilton probably knew firsthand. He took the boat here as a teenager, an immigrant from St. Croix, a storm-tossed speck in the Caribbean Sea. An islander. As a leading Federalist, he was in complete accord with President George Washington in bringing all lighthouses under federal control.

As Dolin writes, Congress established America's first public works program. In 1789, states on the rugged coastline surrendered their precious dozen lighthouses to the United States of America. Now there are nearly 700.

In wartime, lighthouses, which give mariners a gleam in night to sail safely toward land, were military targets. I never fully appreciated their practical worth, these stark structures made for American artist Edward Hopper's canvases.

I knew the great Transcendentalist feminist writer Margaret Fuller lost her life in a shipwreck off Fire Island, New York, in 1850, but didn't know the lighthouse in the story.

And I read "To the Lighthouse," Virginia Woolf's 1927 masterpiece. "Up with the lark," is the line etched; the English mother tells her son to be up early to sail to the lighthouse on a summer's day. No men that I know have ever finished this novel, though some tried.

Woolf is why I've been swept up in lighthouses as symbols, not as navigation beacons.

To this day, one major city's lighthouse still stands and shines since colonial days. The beloved Boston Lighthouse is soon to mark its 300th birthday — older than the republic. The storied beacon came under British siege in the American Revolution. Dolin knows New England; his hometown of Marblehead, Massachusetts, has a lighthouse.

Dolin catches the various styles, nuances and language of lighthouses. "Tending the light" is what keepers do — and he frankly states it is not as romantic as it's made out to be. It is a lonely calling, especially on holidays.

Politics enters Dolin's narrative as he tells of fierce bureaucratic resistance in antebellum America to the brilliant Fresnel lens invented in France. For years, the technology of lighthouses was in a sorry state, he says.

Keeping the light on Lime Rock in Newport, Rhode Island, Ida Lewis is a heroine in a book full of characters. She made several daring rescues, including saving four drowning schoolboys. Harper's Weekly pictured her in 1869.

If only Woolf had known about her.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit creators.com.

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