The Hippo


May 28, 2020








Eric Jay Dolin. Courtesy photo.

Meet Eric Jay Dolin

Tory Hill Author Series: Saturday, July 9, at 7 p.m., at Warner Town Hall, 5 E. Main St., Warner, includes presentation, $10,
Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouses: Sunday, July 10, from 1 to 5 p.m., at Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, 25 Wentworth Road, New Castle, book signing and fundraiser for the Friends; admission to climb $4,

Lighthouse lore
The characters and stories of American lighthouses

By Kelly Sennott

 The lighthouse is an iconic symbol — for centuries, artists have interpreted them in paintings, photos, sculptures and wall calendars, and in New Hampshire, they’re even willing to fork over $4 to walk the 44 steps and climb the seven-rung ladder to the top of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse.

Eric Jay Dolin, author of Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse, gave a little insight to the lure of the American lighthouse during a phone interview last week — and he’ll do so again as part of the Tory Hill Authors Series at the Warner Town Hall Saturday, July 9, and at the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse Saturday, July 10.
“Often, they’re gorgeous towers in the most wonderful, beautiful, dramatic, awe-inspiring locations,” Dolin said. “But I also think there’s something really romantic about them; people really idolize the history of them. The real life of a historic lighthouse keeper was often downright boring and monotonous, but there were a lot of beautiful, exciting things about working in a lighthouse.”
Dolin, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, is the author of 12 books on a variety of American history topics like trade, whaling and wildlife, but his schooling was in environmental policy and management. He got his undergraduate degree at Brown, his master’s at Yale, and his Ph.D. at MIT, where his dissertation focused on the role of the courts in the Boston Harbor cleanup. But he writes because he’s curious.
“I’m writing these books for me. I’m sort of an average reader,” he said. “Every single book is about a topic I don’t know much about before I start working.”
It was his editor who pitched the topic, but before pursuing the subject seriously, he did some reading. He’d never written about lighthouses before and knew almost nothing about them but found great personalities and dramatic events in American lighthouse history. 
“I was surprised to learn how important of a role lighthouses played in the American Revolution and the Civil War, when lighthouses became pawns in a battle fought over on either side,” Dolin said.
Dolin liked reading and writing about the lighthouse keepers who risked their lives to save others, pointing to Ida Lewis as an example. Lewis, the appointed keeper of Lime Rock Light in Newport during the 19th and early 20th century, got the job after the previous keeper, her father, became ill. She saved 18 lives throughout her career. 
She was one of many early female lighthouse keepers. Usually, they became keepers because, like Lewis, they fell into the situation: They were married to or daughters of a keeper who died or became ill. It was a respectable position, and Dolin said women who took it on were almost always paid the same men were.
“In one sense, it wasn’t the lighthouse establishment that was so well ahead of its time in women’s equality. It was understood the best person to step into the job was the wife or daughter who may have been helping the husband or father for years running and maintaining the lighthouse,” he said.
Just the same, it was important to the suffragette movement later on — people like Elizabeth Cady Stanton looked to some of the female keepers as examples of women who could do the job just as well as men.
Dolin said he also liked writing about the technological changes and the political battles over modernizing America’s lighthouse system, and about the dramatic stories surrounding the hurricane of 1938. At one time, there were more than 1,000 lighthouses in the United States. Today there are about 700, and Dolin mentions about 160 in his book. Around half are still open to the public.
For research, Dolin devoured all the texts he could find, some original from the 1800s and 1900s. By the time he turned in the manuscript a year ago, he’d collected 20 binders with 100 pages each of material from the internet or the Massachusetts Historical Society and Harvard University Library. His personal library at home contains 80 used lighthouse books. Since the book’s spring release, he’s received a lot of demand for speaking events.
“I think people innately know they’re important structures in the history of our country,” Dolin said.  

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