Most people familiar with the country’s coastline understand the significance and some of the history behind the lighthouses and towers that have helped keep seafarers safe for centuries. They line the water’s edge from the windy New England shores, down through the frequented Mid-Altantic beaches and around the tropics of Florida and the Gulf Coast. Very few people, however, can share the experience that one Delaware native has had with these magnificent structures.
Harry Spencer Jr. was brought up in the business of lighthouses, quite literally. On Jan. 27, 1920, he was born in the Liston Range Rear Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in the state, located just outside of Port Penn, at the mouth of the Delaware River. His father, Harry Spencer Sr., was the keeper of the fixture and dedicated 37 years to U.S. Lighthouse Service in Delaware and New Jersey.
“We were proud of him,” recalled Spencer. “He was honored with the [U.S. Lighthouse] Efficiency Star, and was recognized for keeping it in great condition. He had the best station in the district, and you could really tell he cared for it.”
For the first seven years of his life, Spencer — the youngest of four siblings and the only boy in the family — helped out around the home that stood at the base of the tower.
“Every one of us participated,” he said. “We all pitched in and cared for the unit. The family truly made it a privilege.”
Until 1936, when electricity was first introduced to lighthouses, Spencer’s father would climb the 120-foot, wrought-iron giant to the top, residing there every night, to ensure the kerosene lamp and cotton mantle covering (for increased brightness) were operating properly, from sunset to midnight. A relief watchman would then switch shifts, sitting in from midnight until sunrise. Coals were sometimes brought to the top to provide warmth in a small stove.
“Maintaining the tower took conscientious duty,” said Spencer.
After Spencer turned 7, the family moved to the Liston Range Front Lighthouse, a structure that worked in conjunction with the tower. He lived there for an additional 15 years, helping with chores around the home, and, again, assisting his father when needed.
The front lighthouse stood 45 feet tall, which was significantly shorter than the rear one — a function of the way range lights operate, which is based upon their positioning. The front lighthouse, built shorter than the one behind it, would align directly below the taller one, signaling to ships that they were on course in the channel. The Liston Range Lights are the longest navigational range in the United States, helping to keep ships on course for 20 visible miles.
“We did a lot of things growing up that other kids from here would do,” Spencer noted. “Swimming, boating, fishing, crabbing. Our lives were just a little more unique.”
The children would help tend the garden, chickens and turkeys, and even help catch muskrats that were brought in for dinner.
“It was a beautiful location,” he added. “We had obligations to maintain, but it made for an interesting life. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything else.”
The U.S. Lighthouse Service handed over the maintenance responsibility for the lights to the Coast Guard in 1939. Following the passing of his father in 1943, Spencer’s mother continued to keep watch on the property, providing the family with a place to live a while longer.
Spencer later joined the signal corps of the U.S. Army as a cryptographer and it relocated him in Australia. Since then, though, he has returned to his roots in Delaware, partly in an effort to help preserve the legacy of the life he and his family lived. Although he lives in Lewes now, he has had the chance to visit other lighthouses along the coasts, from New Jersey to North Carolina and Florida.
Spencer has related tales of his childhood as a volunteer through programs sponsored by the Delaware River and Bay Lighthouse Foundation (DRBLHF), a non-profit organization dedicated to educating the public and retaining the history of the state’s lighthouses.
“I try to help people understand what it as like to live in these conditions,” he said, “and explain why the lighthouses are so important. We need people to realize their significance. It’s only a matter of time before most of the towers will start to disintegrate.”
From classrooms to civic and senior centers, Spencer reflects on his childhood. The DRBLHF leads guided tours and educational lessons, most recently with structures such as the Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse and the Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouses in Lewes.
Now 88 years old, Spencer continues to inform others of his late family’s legacy.
Accompanied by enthusiast Jim Bazzoli, an expert on the state’s bay lights, Spencer will visit Bethany Beach for a free presentation at the town hall on Tuesday, April 22, at 7 p.m. The presentation, titled, “Growing up as a Lighthouse Kid,” is sponsored by the Bethany Beach Cultural and Historical Affairs Committee and free to the public.
“The more people know about the lighthouses,” Spencer stated, “the better we feel.”
For more information about the presentation, contact Bethany Beach Town Hall at (302) 539-8011.