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The nation's last official lighthouse keeper retires this week


It's the end of an era for U.S. Coast Guard lighthouses and their keepers. The last remaining official lighthouse caretaker retires this week from Boston Light. That is the first lighthouse built in what would become the United States. NPR's Tovia Smith has more.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Even as a kid, Sally Snowman was totally into nature - as she puts it, talking to the trees and the rocks. When she was 10, her Coast Guard dad took her to visit Boston Light on a tiny island in Boston Harbor. Snowman says she immediately fell in love and began fantasizing about growing up to be a lighthouse keeper herself.

SALLY SNOWMAN: And amazingly, you know, that happens. So it's sort of a metaphysical type of thing that - I felt something so deeply in my heart and in my cells and the space between the cells that it came into fruition. It's a fairy tale come true.

SMITH: Boston Light was built in 1716 and then rebuilt after the Brits blew it up in 1776 on their way out of Boston. It's still used as a navigational aid. The Coast Guard maintains the light, which is now automated, and the foghorn. But looking after the rest, from cleaning cobwebs and bugs from the tower and the boathouse to mowing the grass, became Snowman's job when she was hired in 2003 to be Boston Light's 70th caretaker. She's also the first woman on the job and known for dressing in period costume.

SNOWMAN: When people say, well, what do you do - I do light housekeeping (laughter).

SMITH: That undersells her just a bit. Snowman has written three books about the lighthouse, and she worked there as a volunteer for nearly a decade before officially going on the payroll for two more. It all left her plenty of time to sit in her favorite spot on the circular deck around the top of the tower, her feet dangling over the edge, mesmerized by the 360-degree panorama.

SNOWMAN: Seeing the far expanse of the universe, the sunrises, the sunsets - they are phenomenal. To me, they were never the same twice. The sea was never the same twice. The cloud cover was never the same. It was like dying and go to heaven.

SMITH: There were a couple of times she thought she might have died for real, like in 2013, when she stayed in the lighthouse keeper's house for what she thought was going to be a regular old nor'easter but turned out to be a full-blown blizzard.

SNOWMAN: It was just a hurricane with snow and the sea just pounding on the back of the house and every window.

SMITH: But Snowman was more exhilarated than afraid.

SNOWMAN: You know, if the house got washed off the island during the storm when I was asleep, what a way to go.

SMITH: Rough seas and storms have continued to erode the tiny island, coming precariously close to the lighthouse. In 2018, Boston Light failed an inspection, so Snowman could no longer live there and was limited to making day trips. Now, at 72, she's retiring just as the Coast Guard is preparing to sell the lighthouse as it's done with others around the nation. In most cases, they've been taken over by the National Park Service. Snowman gets wistful thinking about the change. She seems to be reassuring herself as much as anyone else when she says leaving now is the right thing to do.

SNOWMAN: My husband Jay and I - we didn't have any kids. We had a lighthouse. And it's like the child going off to college - that you're letting it go to have another experience and to find out who they truly are. Well, here it is. I'm letting loose Boston Light to see what its next journey is.

SMITH: Snowman hopes to keep working at Boston Light as a volunteer tour guide. For now, she leaves decades full of memories and mementos, like the wood plaque that hangs in the keeper's house where she used to live.

SNOWMAN: It was the shape of a lighthouse that said, we'll leave the light on for you.

SMITH: A promise that the nation's last official lighthouse keeper has kept. Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIKI SONG, "BEFORE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.