E-Bulletin June 2024

Dr. Sally Snowman Retires as the US Coast Guard’s Last Lighthouse Keeper

Matthew Stuck and Dr. Madeleine McNamara, First US Coast Guard District, Boston, MA

Sally dreamed of “Boston Light” after visiting the isolated Little Brewster Island along the Boston Harbor approach as a ten-year-old girl. In 2003, at the age of 52, Dr. Snowman accomplished those dreams becoming the 70th Keeper of Coast Guard Light Station Boston. After 20 years of remarkable service, she ended her watch in December 2023 retiring as the only female Keeper in the light station’s 300-year history and the Coast Guard’s last Lighthouse Keeper. While those milestones are impressive, her dedication to the light station went far beyond the routine maintenance of the light. She has been a guardian of history while preserving the light’s stories and legacies for future generations. Persistently pursuing her dreams, she illuminated an empowered path for others to follow.  

Dr. Snowman’s passion for the light station’s history was palpable, greeting visitors of Little Brewster Island in period uniform attire. She followed her father into volunteer service in 1976 joining the Coast Guard Auxiliary at age 25. Sally volunteered for many years at the light. After assuming her duties as Keeper, she spent 15 years living in the Light Station Keeper’s Quarters, an 1884 building. In February 2013, she rode out an intense blizzard while 50-60 knot winds and 20’ seas battered Little Brewster Island. Her family history intertwined with Boston Light as she married her husband and fellow auxiliarist, Jay Thomson, on Little Brewster Island in 1994. Sally pursued other passions during her career earning multiple science, education and neurolinguistics degrees. Sharing her enthusiasm for maritime heritage and human achievement, she authored Boston Light, and Rising to the Challenge.

Boston Light was initially completed in September 1716 as the first colonial lighthouse in the 13 North American British Colonies. Although it burned down during the war for American independence, it was re-built under President Washington as an 89 foot structure equipped with a rotating 2nd order “Bulls-Eye” Fresnel lens which incorporates 336 glass prisms in bronze frames. The Fresnel lens is one of only about 50 still operating in USCG lighthouses nationwide, flashing once every 10 seconds at an impressive 27 nautical mile range. 

For centuries, Lighthouse Keepers were instrumental to ensuring continuous operation and maintenance of the lighthouse. It was manually wound through a grandfather clock-style rotation mechanism every four hours until automation in 1989. Sally’s duties included daily inspections of the light and lens and she could often be found atop the 89 foot structure. While maintaining the buildings, grounds, and shoreline, she would eliminate potential hazards. In 2018, a large whale carcass washed up on shore.

Due to modern Global Positioning Systems and other technologies, many lighthouses no longer serve the same critical navigational role and may be determined as excess to service needs. Through the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, Boston Light was placed on a property divestiture list transfer program administered by the US General Services Administration. Through this program, a new owner will assume the duties of maintaining this important piece of maritime history. As Dr. Snowman was commended at her retirement ceremony, Captain Kailie Benson, USCG Sector Boston Commander, noted, “Taking on the responsibilities of tending to Boston Light, Sally not only embraced the challenges that came with the role but did so with a passion that mirrored the undying flame she kept alight. Her tenure as a lighthouse keeper added another chapter to the rich history of Boston Light.” Her commitment to the preservation of maritime heritage is a beacon of inspiration for maritime enthusiasts as they get a sense for the waters around Boston from a perspective of many years ago.

Rapporteur: Paul Ridgway

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