Keepers of the light

Edgartown Lighthouse is a beacon of hope and inspiration for its keeper.

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Wade Johnson is the Edgartown Light keeper. —Gabrielle Mannino

When is a lighthouse more than just a beacon of flashing light? The Edgartown Lighthouse is a solid structure some 54 feet high with a lantern whose light can be seen 14 miles away, helping ships safely navigate into Edgartown Harbor. But the building and its location are a great deal more than a mariner’s traffic light.

It is a beacon of light for the love of the couples who choose to get married at the picturesque location looking out onto the water, or back at the historic homes that line the waterfront, and the harbor dotted with an informal flotilla of boats. Standing outside around the tower, you can also see the play of fractured light on the waves, reminiscent of an Impressionist painting.

Historically, Edgartown’s lighthouse keepers lived in unenviable conditions. The first keeper, Jeremiah Pease, starting in 1828 inhabited the original structure, which was a two-story cottage with a beacon tower protruding from the roof. For supplies and social interaction, he had to row ashore. The lighthouse’s website explains from a document some years later, “The keeper’s house was drafty and leaky, and vulnerable to the sea and weather due to its exposed location. [Eventually], this resulted in a greater than average turnover of keepers, and some keepers refused to live in the official quarters, preferring to seek lodging on the nearby shore.”

In 1842, keeper Sylvanus provides an even more dismal report: “The frame of the house was light and weak, and the building always leaky … The plastering is off the walls in several places, and one room, together, with the upper entry, never was plastered at all by the builder … The lantern leaks all about the door … During the gale of October last, it shook so that I had great difficulty in keeping my light burning … It is my opinion, the whole establishment was very badly built in the first place.”

The Coast Guard assumed control in 1939 after a fierce storm the year before irrevocably damaged the dilapidated structure, and replaced it with the 45-foot cast-iron Essex Lighthouse from Ipswich. It remains an active aid to navigation today, showing an automated flashing red light every six seconds.

This then is where you can find Wade Johnson, today’s keeper of the light. Unlike the early lighthouse keepers, he doesn’t have to haul whale oil up the tower to keep the lantern lit, row to shore, or even live there. So what does a lighthouse keeper do if the beacon no longer needs tending?

First and foremost, Johnson is the structure’s human soul and, as he says, is the “light keeper” in the most metaphoric sense. He has held the position since 2009, just one year after the lighthouse opened to the public. He sees himself as “a welcomer, a conduit, a communicator.” With a sly smile, Johnson shares his favorite explanation of his job: “To meet and greet, tell people what’s neat, where to eat, and give directions to a toilet seat.”

—Gabrielle Mannino

Johnson has a philosophical approach to his job, believing a “lighthouse keeper is a humanist. I have to intersect with people of all sorts without preconceived notions of who they are or what they want to do or know.” He continues, “Everyone comes with preconceived expectations. It might be pirates, ‘Jaws,’ or Chappaquiddick and its Kennedy legacy.” What is vital to him is that visitors feel comfortable, and he typically greets them by asking where they’re from. Johnson keeps abreast of the world at large, and always tries to make some kind of personal connection, whether it’s two young men visiting from Israel, or parents with their kids who have wandered inside from fishing on the causeway just outside the door. One couple came in specifically to introduce themselves and thank Johnson for giving their grandchildren such a great experience when they had visited previously with their mother. The grandchildren told them that they particularly liked that he had convinced their mother to buy them ice cream later on.

Although there is a sign on the desk as you come in that states admission for adults is $5, Johnson deliberately sends folks up first to explore instead of “selling” the experience. He tells them to “touch, feel, smell, and see” the lighthouse before paying. Johnson adds another personal touch: As soon as you step inside the door, music resonates from his CD player. He changes discs to create an ambience according to who is in the lighthouse. Johnson didn’t have Brazilian music, so he played an Italian singer-songwriter Andrea Bocelli CD while a group speaking Portuguese clambered up to the tower. When they descended, two of the men conversed at length with Johnson about how much they admired Bocelli’s music. Johnson has a stack of CDs for different visitors, moods, and occasions.

“People come with a perception that the lighthouse is not huge, it’s humble, but people feel inspired by it,” Johnson said, which in part comes from one’s physical experience of the space. Climbing up the spiraling narrow staircase creates, besides possibly a sense of vertigo, a feeling of anticipation when ascending. At the top level you bend down and squeeze carefully through a metal opening in the bottom part of the metal circular wall and step outside to a breathtaking view, no matter what the weather. Johnson said he wants visitors to feel “a sense of how magnificent the world is — or should be.”

Johnson firmly believes that “lighthouses are beacons of hope and inspiration.” When people peek in the door and look up at the 47 spiraling steps and ask, “What’s up there?” he responds, “A higher perspective of yourself,” which I urge you to experience yourself.

Johnson also sees himself as the keeper of the Children’s Memorial, which is a signature aspect of the Edgartown Lighthouse. It was initiated by Rick Harrington after the death of his son in 1995, just three weeks after his 16th birthday. The deteriorated base of the lighthouse was rebuilt using 3,500 cobblestones, which are laid parallel to the shoreline in a pattern echoing the rhythm of the waves. They are enclosed by a polished granite border, divided into quadrants by spokes mirroring the beams of light produced by the lighthouse. Roughly 2,000 of the cobblestones are large enough to be inscribed with a child’s name, and a fair number of them have already been purchased. This year the annual Children’s Memorial Ceremony of Remembrance will be held on Saturday, Sept, 22, at 1 pm to honor all the children whose names are a part of the memorial. The rain date is Sept. 29.

 

The lighthouse is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 4 pm through Oct. 7, and Columbus Day, 10 am to 4 pm. The causeway that connects North Water Street to the lighthouse is just before the Harbor View Hotel. Look for the sign that says, “No bikes or mopeds.”

Read more about the history of the lighthouse at lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=624.