Everyday Heroes, The True Story of a Lighthouse Family, by Seamond Ponsart Roberts, with Jeremy D’Entremont. Coastlore Media, Portsmouth, N.H. 248 pages. Paperback. Photographs. $16.99.
The Vineyard community will always have a strong love affair with its four lighthouses. Nearly all of the local ones are still standing, though some have been moved. All but one of the lighthouse keeper houses, though, are no longer with us.
Automation ended the era of climbing the stairs to the top of the tower each afternoon to light the beacon. In many coastal communities lighthouses were replaced by automated LED beacons, while others disappeared completely.
Seamond Ponsart Roberts is the daughter of lighthouse keeper Octave Ponsart. She grew up under the light of the Cuttyhunk and West Chop lighthouses, among others. She was born in 1940 and her youth was part of the bigger nautical story when American shipping was in its heyday. Lighthouse keepers were essential before reliable electricity and light bulbs came along, and before automation and technological advances such as radar, GPS, satellite imagery and mapping that we now take for granted were invented. It is hard to imagine now the critical importance one person, together with his family, played in making these waters safer.
Mrs. Roberts’s book reveals how her family weathered many storms and hardships living at the water’s edge. She writes of living in isolation, fetching drinking water from a pond and watching her father and mother make due on a limited income. During World War II, she writes of seeing spies coming ashore. As a family they made the most out of a challenging life, sometimes as rough and tumble as the seas pounding the shore.
“The light had to go on, no matter what,” Mrs. Roberts writes. “Devotion to this duty was foremost, but it was also a lonely life.”
Her father retired as the lighthouse keeper at West Chop Lighthouse in 1957, after more than 20 years of service. In his day, often more than 100 vessels traversed the waters of Vineyard and Nantucket Sound in the span of one day. In a much earlier era, before the Cape Cod Canal was completed in 1916, these waters were the second busiest channel in the world, second only to the English Channel.
Mrs. Roberts’s family experienced the Great New England Hurricane in 1938 and were nearly killed during that storm at a lighthouse in Dartmouth called Dumpling Rock. Today that lighthouse is gone.
During the Sept. 14, 1944 hurricane, one of the region’s worst storms, Mrs. Roberts and her father were the last to see the Vineyard Lightship from the Cuttyhunk lighthouse. The large ship sank in the storm. All hands aboard were lost.
Mrs. Roberts writes that she saw the light of the lightship, turned away, and when she turned back to look again the light had disappeared. But it wasn’t all storms and hard times.
Mrs. Roberts remembers spending many fine days and nights in residence at the Cuttyhunk light. “The island for me was an endless playground. I had the pond to play in with my little boats and floating toys. I had my chickens, which were my dear friends and providers of eggs and chicken dinners. I loved gathering eggs and that was my morning chore.”
Today the Cuttyhunk lighthouse is long gone, torn down along with the lighthouse keeper house in 1947. The lighthouse stood in close proximity to the Bartholomew Gosnold monument and was later replaced by a metal tower with a beacon. Today, even the beacon is no longer in operation. The only aid to navigation on the west end of the small island is a lighted red buoy marking the still treacherous Sow and Pigs Reef.
“Cuttyhunk island was just a wonderful place for children. It was magic for sure. And it still is, I am glad to report. But the best magic was that my Daddy was a lighthouse keeper. He was just the best man and most patient father anyone could ever have, and he had this neat occupation that provided me with a lighthouse tower to play in and help care for,” she wrote.
When her father was assigned to the West Chop lighthouse, and the family moved to the Vineyard, Mrs. Roberts attended the Tisbury School for 11 years. Back then the Tisbury School included both the elementary and high school.
“When I think of school at Tisbury, I think of how it was my school. I went there for 11 years. I ended up in California for my senior year in high school, but I always think of my class as from the Tisbury School.”
Mrs. Roberts gave tours in the lighthouse when her father couldn’t. She reports the number of steps to the top of the West Chop Light at 57, a memory she will never forget. On the Vineyard the Ponsart family met and grew to know the Hollywood actors James Cagney and Katharine Cornell and many other Islanders as well.
“Among our friends that lived between the lighthouse and the grocery store was one of the most fascinating and celebrated people on the island, Zebulon Tilton,” she wrote. “He was a schooner captain in his younger days, one hundred per cent seafaring, and just a walking, living legend.”
Jeremy D’Entremont, a noted lighthouse historian with over 20 years of research and author of 10 books, worked with Mrs. Roberts on the book. The long journey to complete this book took 12 years.
“There are no more living lighthouse keepers. They are all gone,” said Mr. D’Entremont. “The way of life is gone. Whatever we can put in print will help future generations learn about a bygone way of life.”