Restless nights, resolute watch: The exemplary life of Catherine Moore

Story and Illustrations by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall

Illustration of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light from 1817 to 1871. “Our house was forty rods from the lighthouse, and to reach it I had to walk across two planks under which on stormy nights were four feet of water,” said Moore. “It was not easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me." U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Illustration of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light from 1817 to 1871. “Our house was forty rods from the lighthouse, and to reach it I had to walk across two planks under which on stormy nights were four feet of water,” said Moore. “It was not easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me.” U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

 

Black Rock Light sits atop a white tower, not particularly tall, on the shore of Fayerweather Island. This relatively small, low-lying piece of land reaches into Long Island Sound just south of Bridgeport, Connecticut, connected to the mainland today by a stone breakwater.

To reach the tower today, one must wind through a grid of homes and warehouses that bear the scars of decades of economic hardship. It’s a scene typical of seasoned New England neighborhoods, where the buildings themselves seem sheepish about their decline.

At the end of the neighborhood, across the breakwater, one can see Black Rock Light; a beacon now marking the sharp transition between urban blight and the sea.

Throughout the mid 1800s, under the care of lighthouse keeper Catherine “Kate” Moore, Fayerweather Island was a very different place. A small flock of sheep roamed the property. A garden thrived during the warmer months. Two New Foundland dogs chased each other through the brush.

Moore’s father, Stephen Tomlinson Moore, was named keeper of Black Rock Light in 1817. When his health declined, she assumed the duties of keeper.

“I was just twelve years old when I first began to assist my father in trimming the wicks,” said Moore in an 1889 interview with New York Sunday World. “A few years after that his health began to fail and from then on I was practically the keeper.”

It wasn’t until 1871, when Moore was 76 years old, that she officially became the keeper, although she had been acting keeper for decades.

Portrait of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light in Bridgeport, Conn., from 1817 to1871. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Portrait of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light in Bridgeport, Conn., from 1817 to1871. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Like the points on a pendulum, daily life at Black Rock Light seemed to swing back and forth from one extreme to another. Hours passed either peacefully, routinely, and painstakingly slow, or they ticked quickly at the hurried pace of a gale, a shipwreck, or a rescue.

Moore is officially credited with saving 21 lives while keeping the light on Fayerweather Island.

“I wish it had been double that number,” said Moore about her rescues.

The sea would routinely deliver the bodies of those lost in shipwrecks, unable to be saved, and their recovery was a difficult but required task for Moore.

When not tending to shipwreck victims, Moore’s duty was to prevent danger to other mariners by keeping the beacon lit. During inclement weather this required a 200-yard traverse of wooden planks that led from the keeper’s home to the lighthouse tower. During storms, sections of these planks hovered over four feet of turbulent water.

“It was not easy to stay on those slippery, wet boards with the wind whirling and the spray blinding me,” said Moore. “[The light] consisted of eight oil lamps which took four gallons of oil each night, and if they were not replenished at stated intervals all through the night, they went out.”

During the worst of storms, Moore would spend the night in the small light tower to ensure the beacon remained lit. During more peaceful nights, she was able to stay in the keeper’s house.

“I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boy’s clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything had happened,” said Moore.

Such restless nights spent standing a taut watch is something to which many men and women in the Coast Guard can relate. For Moore, however, there was no one coming to relieve her. She kept the beacon lit night after night, month after month, year after year, for 72 years.

As we take the month of March to reflect on the noble lives of women throughout Coast Guard history, let us not overlook Catherine Moore, and the countless female keepers who maintained lighthouses along every coast of the United States.

These women forwent conventional lives and social roles to display a heroic devotion to their duties, preventing innumerable maritime casualties and in many cases, saving the lives of those who met peril on the sea.

While advances in navigational technology no longer require a light nor a keeper on Fayerweather Island, the original 1823 tower still stands as a humble tribute to the dedicated, resolute, and weather-worn life of Catherine Moore.

Illustration of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light from 1817-1871. "On calm nights I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boy’s clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything had happened,” said Moore in an 1889 interview with New York Sunday World. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

Illustration of Catherine Moore, keeper of Black Rock Light from 1817-1871. “On calm nights I slept at home, dressed in a suit of boy’s clothes, my lighted lantern hanging at my headboard and my face turned so that I could see shining on the wall the light from the tower and know if anything had happened,” said Moore in an 1889 interview with New York Sunday World. U.S. Coast Guard illustration by Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory J. Mendenhall.

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