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There are lighthouses on shorelines all over the world, but here in North Carolina they have a particular pride of place.
Who can’t immediately picture the Cape Hatteras lighthouse with its distinctive swirling stripes? It may have been that casual exposure that made me pick up this book, but what I found inside was a fascinating and absorbing history. If you’re a lover of the coast or a fan of little slices of history, you, too, should pick up “Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse” by Eric Jay Dolan.
Dolin starts his book in pre-Revolutionary times, with lighthouses that were little more than regular buildings with a lantern on top, and traces their history up to the present day. He also follows the surprisingly interesting development of lighthouse construction and technology, particularly the groundbreaking Fresnel lens (and the surprising political struggle to implement its use) and engineering feats required to construct lighthouses in highly inhospitable locations.
While the general history is there, what makes this book come alive is the individual stories — stories of the struggle to maintain these beacons on the most desolate edges of civilization, of brave men (and women!) battling against the elements to keep the lighthouses lit.
There are stories of rescues, too, of those ships that the light’s warning could not save; these are some of the most thrilling portions of the book as they battle to save stranded passengers from the sea’s icy grip. You come away with a vast respect for the lighthouse keepers and their families and the incredible capacity for loneliness, strength and endurance that they had.
What was especially interesting was to learn all the other ways in which lighthouses have been twined into our nation’s history.
With their positioning and viewpoint, many lighthouses had strategic interest in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. There are appallingly fascinating descriptions of nighttime birdstrikes that left mounds of dead birds at the bases.
But there are also gentler stories, including the happy childhood reminisces of the lighthouse-keepers families.
And as a librarian, my heart was delighted by learning of the single-trunk libraries that traveled from lighthouse to lighthouse bringing the joy of reading to each lonely outpost.
As Dolin writes, lighthouses may have been largely superseded by modern satellites and other electronic equipment, but they have a rock-solid grip on our collective imagination and are not going anywhere. Some are still operational, and others are preserved as historic buildings. Still others have been re-purposed as vacation getaways. Hmm, I may have a new plan for my next summer’s holiday!
Genevieve Baillie is the extension services librarian at the Wilson County Public Library.