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Last Coast Guard Lighthouse Keeper Ends Historic Run

Sally Snowman retired as the keeper of Boston Light at the end of 2023. With all lighthouses now automated, she was the last Coast Guard lighthouse keeper in America.
Lighthouse keeper at a flag pole with the Boston skyline in the background.
Ron labrec web v
by Ron LaBrec
January 3, 2024

We are reprinting a 2016 Coast Guard article on Sally Snowman in honor of her historic tenure and the dauntless legacy of lighthouse keepers through the ages. Bravo Zulu for your service, Sally Snowman!

The lighthouse stood tall atop the small rocky island in Boston’s outer harbor. Its profile against the horizon could be seen from a distance and grew larger during the approach. The keeper’s house, walkways, and manicured lawns all came into focus, and then blurred as the eye was drawn to a white handkerchief waving against the blue sky.

Sally Snowman, keeper of Boston Light, welcomed the tour group the same way she always does. She waved her handkerchief – a gesture that has greeted generations of mariners returning from sea.

Light keepers have kept Boston Light illuminated for 300 years.

The tasks required to keep the light ablaze have evolved over time. Although, technology has made Boston Light burn brighter and reach farther, the unchanged component has been the individual who oversees the beacon.

The constant has been the keeper – whose hand is responsible for the light that guides seafarers to safe harbor.

Today, that keeper is Sally Snowman.

A lighthouse keeper and Coast Guard officer standing with a lighthouse in the background.
Former Boston Light lighthouse keeper Sally Snowman presents her book to Adm. Paul Zukunft, then commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, on Little Brewster Island, Mass., September 14, 2016. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd class LaNola Stone.

“I think of keeper Snowman as a one woman station,” said Capt. Claudia Gelzer, commander of Coast Guard Sector Boston.

“She truly embraces her job,” said Gelzer. “She grew up on Hull, she looked out across the water as a little girl. It’s an incredible story that she ultimately became the light keeper.”

Being a 21st century lighthouse keeper requires a unique set of skills. Snowman, who holds a PhD. and previously worked as a learning disabilities specialist, not only maintains the light, but also oversees all of the tours.

From the moment she greets her visitors, wearing period accurate dress, they are immersed in a full Boston Light experience. Her passion for the rich history of the lighthouse is evident to all who meet her.

During tours, visitors have the chance to see the inner workings of the light, and climb the spiral staircase to view the 1859 Fresnel lens up close.

The lens, which produces 12 beams of light that stretch for up to 27 miles, hasn’t always been a part of the lighthouse.

“Boston Light’s first light was a two tiered chandelier with seven candles on each one,” said Snowman. Today you wouldn’t be able to see that against the backdrop of the bright city lights, she added.

A child and her mother on Little Brewster Island with the lighthouse in the background.
JoAnn LaVigne Schroer as a child on Little Brewster Island, Mass., with Boston Light in the background, ca. 1950. Schroer’s father, Coast Guard Petty Officer Joseph LaVigne, was the keeper at Boston Light from 1948 through 1950. Photo Courtesy of JoAnn LaVigne Schroer.

People visit the island for various reasons, said Snowman. Some are interested in the maritime history aspect and others are simply drawn to it.

“A very unique thing occurs every night when the sun goes down,” said Snowman. “There are 12 separate rays that go out, and when there is any moisture in the air it really magnifies those beams, and they appear to drop down onto the horizon. It’s just an optical illusion. It feels so safe. Nothing is going to harm me. Those are the guardian lights.”

For Snowman, seafarers, and scores of visitors the light is a transcendent symbol.

“Think of everything that you’ve ever seen with a lighthouse,” said Snowman. “So many use that symbol for their business. And why? Because people trust it, it’s the hope, it’s the light.”

Original story by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi, printed Sept. 7, 2016, edited for length.

Title Image: Sally Snowman, the former keeper of Boston Lighthouse, lowers the American flag, Monday, Aug. 8, 2016, on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. Boston Light was the last permanently staffed Coast Guard lighthouse in the country, and 2016 marked its tricentennial. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Barresi)

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