Sally Snowman, the last remaining official lighthouse keeper in the US, retires this weekend from her post looking after the first lighthouse built in North America, on a tiny island in Boston harbour, in what would later become the United States.
Snowman, 72, has been looking after Boston Light Beacon on Little Brewster Island for two decades and it’s now being sold to a private owner. The arrangement – the new owner will be required to preserve it – comes almost 60 years after it was designated a national landmark and government funding secured to keep it staffed, making it the last staffed lighthouse in the country.
The lighthouse keeper, known to wear history-appropriate 18th-century clothing to greet visitors to her island outpost, told US public radio this week that she had been taken to see the lighthouse at age 10 and began to fantasise about being a lighthouse keeper herself.
“It’s sort of a metaphysical type of thing that – I felt something so deeply in my heart and in my cells and the space between the cells that it came into fruition. It’s a fairy tale come true,” she told NPR.
The lighthouse was built in 1716, almost a century after colonial settlers arrived from Europe. It had to be rebuilt after British forces blew it up in 1776, three years after a demonstration against British rule – the Boston Tea Party – kicked off a revolution.
When Snowman was hired in 2003 to be Boston Light’s 70th caretaker, she was also the first women to hold the post and now the last person to do so. The beacon is still in service as a navigational aid, along with a foghorn, though both have been fully automated since the 90s.
Snowman had worked at the lighthouse for a decade before being taken on as its keeper and has written three books about it. Her favourite place to contemplate, she told the radio outlet, was on a deck that rings the top of the tower.
“Seeing the far expanse of the universe, the sunrises, the sunsets – they are phenomenal,” she said. “To me, they were never the same twice. The sea was never the same twice. The cloud cover was never the same. It was like dying and go[ing] to heaven.
Even during heavy storms and blizzards, the experience was exhilarating, “with snow and the sea just pounding on the back of the house and every window”, she said, adding philosophically: “If the house got washed off the island during the storm when I was asleep, what a way to go.”
In a separate conversation with Boston’s WBUR, Snowman said there had been other female lighthouse keepers over the years but they had rarely been recorded or recognised. Mostly, women had worked uncelebrated on supporting duties pertaining to the maintenence of lighthouses but not the main event of beacons and foghorns.
She predicted that the new owners and their staff would do a good job of maintaining traditions of the lighthouse keeper, as she had been doing, even as the demands of the job itself retreats further back into history.
“Many of them will dress up in costume to tell that story. So what we’re doing is just turning a new page,” Snowman told the station. “What I see now is how do we preserve the history? And the way to do this is to do what we’re doing right now, talking about keeping these places alive.”