Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink

So said Samuel Taylor Coleridge in his famous ballad, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.  I suspect that some of the former light keepers at Pottawatomie Lighthouse (Rock Island, WI) muttered the same phrase.

Pottawatomie Lighthouse, built in 1858.

My husband Scott and I have had the privilege of doing docent duty there four times. We are proud members of The Friends of Rock Island (FORI), the volunteer support group which (in collaboration with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources) has done an extraordinary job of preserving, protecting, and interpreting the lighthouse.

The lighthouse has many tales to tell, but one of the stories that I find particularly compelling is the relationship between the people who once tended this lighthouse and water.

Pottawatomie sit on a cliff on Rock Island, in Lake Michigan. In the 1830s, a group of Detroit merchants and shipowners petitioned Congress to establish a light station on the island, in order to guide captains safely through the channel and on into the growing port of Green Bay. The petition was successful, and in 1836, David Corbin took up residence as first keeper.

View from cliff-top.  Beautiful, but a long way down.

It was rugged duty.  There was no easy way down the cliff, so Corbin hauled his water from a more sheltered landing over a mile away. As time permitted, he cleared trees and hacked a lane down to that small bay.  He kept a pony, and likely used it to haul water back to the isolated station.

His stone cottage was so poorly constructed that water condensed on the inner walls. But every gallon needed for cooking, cleaning, watering his garden, tending his pony, and maintaining the light had to be lugged in from the landing or captured from rainfall.

In 1858 a new lighthouse was constructed, designed to house two families. It included a gutter system to capture rainwater from the roof, and store it in cellar cisterns. Residents could pump water into their kitchen—pretty fancy!

Part of the original gutter system.

Rainwater stored in cellar cisterns could be pumped directly into the kitchen.

But by the 1880s, the cisterns failed and were pronounced unrepairable. That period was marked by several seasons of drought. Keepers begged the Lighthouse Service to dig a well. The Service seemed to be unconcerned. Stairs were constructed down the cliff to the beach below.

Some of the original stone steps leading to cliff’s edge.

For decades, families once again hauled every drop of water needed at the station either from the harbor over a mile away, or up 154 steps from the beach below the lighthouse.

And the staircase leading down to the water. (A modern replacement, but you get the idea.)

Old photos show that families kept big gardens. Some raised chickens and cows at the station, and grew hay. They were responsible for keeping the entire station spotless and ready for inspection at any moment. One keeper, William Betts, vented his frustration in the official log:  If the men who pretend to keep up repairs at the light station do not provide for a water supply before long, I shall quit this business. (July 31, 1884)

William’s wife Emily, who served as assistant keeper, appears as a character in my third Chloe Ellefson mystery, The Light Keeper’s Legacy (coming in October).  I wove in mention of the Betts’ frustration with the water situation. My first obligation is to tell an entertaining mystery that keeps readers turning the pages…but I hope that the book also provides a glimpse into the challenges faced by the Betts family and other long-gone keepers.

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One Response to “Water, Water Everywhere, Nor Any Drop To Drink”

  1. mmjustus Says:

    I’ll have to keep an eye out for The Light Keeper’s Legacy. I have something of a passion for lighthouses, but I’ve never gotten to stay in one.

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