Hakai Magazine

Sally Snowman at Boston lighthouse
After 20 years tending to the Boston Light in Massachusetts, lighthouse keeper Sally Snowman is preparing to pass the torch.

A Lighthouse Keeper Hangs Up Her Bonnet

Celebrating the experiences of Sally Snowman, who will soon retire as the only female lighthouse keeper in the Boston Light’s 307-year history.

Authored by

by Diana Cervantes

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On one of her final days on Massachusetts’s Little Brewster Island, Sally Snowman, the only remaining official lighthouse keeper in the United States, went ambling over the rocky terrain to caw into the wind with the gulls and say a blessing. She called, “the spirits from the beyond, the beyond, the beyond, to watch out for [the lighthouse] to ensure everything will remain safe up there.”

For 20 years, Snowman has served as the keeper and historian of the 307-year-old Boston Light. Dressed either in a coast guard uniform or a costume inspired by what a lighthouse keeper’s wife wore in the 18th century, she’ll ascend the 76 spiraling stairs up the lighthouse to clean the windows and polish the lenses of the light that keeps mariners from smashing into rocks; mow the grass that, in the summer, can reach her knees; check for anything needing maintenance; and clean. “Because we have six buildings and only one is heated, they get pretty grungy quickly with spiderwebs and bugs, things that accumulate,” she says.

For most of her tenure, she lived on the island, giving tours to visitors on Fridays through Sundays. The lighthouse once saw thousands of visitors annually. She was one of them, once: Snowman accompanied her coast guard–auxiliarist father to the island when she was 10 years old. As she stepped on shore, she declared she wanted to be married there someday. In 1994, she and her husband, Jay Thomson, held their wedding ceremony on Little Brewster Island near the base of the light.

Nine years after that, Snowman, a college professor in education and coast guard volunteer, successfully applied for the keeper job. The work has been “just the dream of dreams,” she says.

When a lack of potable water and various other problems with the aging buildings forced the coast guard to close the island to the public in 2018, Snowman switched to commuting by boat twice a week from nearby North Weymouth, a crossing that can take up to an hour and a half in her six-meter skiff. She is typically joined by two auxiliary coast guard members who help with her rounds. Their time on the island is always limited by the weather and tidal cycle, as high tides and tumultuous seas make docking and scrambling to or from the boat precarious. In winter, Snowman typically has less than an hour to complete her work. When the weather is particularly bad, she’s unable to visit at all; in May 2023, storms kept her away all but four days.

Aside from the two volunteers, Snowman’s main companions now are the gulls who use the island as a nesting ground. Their eggs lie nestled and unhatched beneath the stairs of the lightkeeper’s home; their spent bodies decay in puddles on the rocky cliffs.

“Birds either come to the island to give birth or die,” Snowman says. When she stopped living on-site, birds—especially gulls—took over, she says. With more birds living and nesting on the island, more are dying there, too. Nearly every time she visits, she conducts a burial at sea for a gull, cormorant, or oystercatcher.

Set to retire at the end of this month, Snowman has longevity on her mind. “I think one of the reasons why I am a healthy 71-year-old [now 72] is because of the spirit of the lighthouse. And I wonder, when I’m not with it anymore, if the aging process will kick in.”

Knowing that weather might prevent her from making more trips, she has already said her goodbyes to the Boston Light and Little Brewster Island. Once she hangs up her bonnet, she will be giving presentations about her time as lightkeeper, combing through thousands of historical lighthouse documents on her living room floor to hand over to the coast guard, and working on other endeavors that bring her joy, such as teaching yoga and sound healing.

The coast guard will continue the upkeep of the Boston Light until a new steward is found; timeline unknown.

Sally Snowman at Boston Light

Sally Snowman, lighthouse keeper and historian of the Boston Light, looks out at waves crashing on Little Brewster Island off the Massachusetts coast as she ties her signature bonnet. Snowman has been caring for the lighthouse since 2003. She is the first female keeper in the light’s history and will retire after 20 years on December 31, 2023.

Exterior of Boston Light and staircaseFirst photo: The Boston Light glows on a rainy day. Patriots burned and then blew up the original lighthouse in the 1770s during the American Revolution. Massachusetts rebuilt the tower in 1783. Second photo: A staircase in what used to be the keeper’s home. Snowman stopped living on the island in 2018 because of problems with the aging site.

Snowman clears items in the mudroom of the keeper’s homeSnowman clears items in the mudroom of the keeper’s home, which she uses as an office.

display at Boston Light

Snowman keeps a collection of items from around the island—heart-shaped rocks, a whale bone, a bell, and a ceramic angel—in the keeper’s living room, along with a light she brought from home that symbolizes “bringing light to those [who] are in despair.” The keeper’s home overlooks the town of Hull, Massachusetts.

Snowman walks toward the Boston Light on a gloomy afternoon

Snowman walks toward the Boston Light on a gloomy afternoon in September 2022. Snowman’s self-made outfit pays homage to what a lighthouse keeper’s wife would have worn in 1783. She wears it to preserve historical authenticity, and so that her colleagues in the coast guard can easily recognize her from a distance.

Snowman climbs 76 stairs to reach the gear room of the Boston Light

Snowman climbs 76 stairs to reach the gear room of the Boston Light. The light was automated in 1998.

gears of Boston Light

Gears beneath the light help rotate 1,800 kilograms of glass and brass.

Snowman next to Boston Light lens

Snowman stands next to what’s known as a second-order Fresnel lens, named after the French physicist and engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel. The lens was installed in 1859, replacing a chandelier of oil lamps and reflectors.

view from Boston Light

The top of the Boston Light affords a 360-degree view of Boston Harbor and the other buildings of Little Brewster Island, including a fuel storage shed (left), boathouse (middle), and keeper’s house (right).

Bittersweet nightshade

Bittersweet nightshade grows on the side of the keeper’s house in June 2023.

Snowman clears out items from the keeper’s house

Snowman clears out items from the keeper’s house, built circa 1884.

A lighthouse pin marks the Boston Light’s location on the map

A lighthouse pin marks the Boston Light’s location on the map in the keeper’s house. Little Brewster Island is about the size of a football field.

Gulls favor Little Brewster Island as a nesting site. First photo: Eggs in a nest beside the fuel storage shed. Second photo: Chicks napping beneath the keeper’s house.

grass blowing in the wind on Little Brewster Island

Grass blows in the wind on a sunny afternoon in June 2023.

Snowman rests against the bell stand

Snowman rests against the bell stand in June 2023. The bell hanging there today is a replica of a 623-kilogram bell that the keeper used as a fog signal from 1851 until 1871. It, in turn, replaced a cannon. Snowman says what she’ll miss most when she retires is seeing daily permutations of the coastal landscape. “Every sunrise, every sunset was different. Every day was different,” she says. “The color of the ocean changed throughout the day. … And I just loved being in [the keeper’s house where] every window had a view.”

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Cite this Article:

Cite this Article: Diana Cervantes “A Lighthouse Keeper Hangs Up Her Bonnet,” Hakai Magazine, Dec 19, 2023, accessed June 15th, 2024, https://hakaimagazine.com/videos-visuals/a-lighthouse-keeper-hangs-up-her-bonnet/.

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