Sally Snowman wears a bonnet when she mows the lawn. You know, the staple headpiece for women in the Colonial era. “I don’t know why it ever went out of vogue,” Snowman says with a laugh, in a way that makes clear she is only partially joking. She’s the lightkeeper of the Boston Light, the oldest lighthouse in the U.S. and the only one that remains manned—womanned, technically—today.
The Light, which was originally built on Little Brewster Island in 1716, survived an attack by the British in 1776. The first 10 feet or so of the 89-foot tower is original, and these days the only threat to the iconic landmark is the seemingly endless list of maintenance chores. Unlike the other roughly 200 lighthouses owned by the Coast Guard, which are being divested and automated regularly as a casualty of high operating costs, the Boston Light is protected by a 1989 law mandating that it remain manned indefinitely.
Snowman is a jack of all trades. She’s head lightkeeper, site supervisor, safety officer, head of historical tours. She and her husband met in the Coast Guard Auxiliary and began volunteering at the Boston Light in 1994. They spent five years conducting research for a book about the lighthouse, which was published in 1999. After 9/11, when the Coast Guard transferred management of the island from active duty to auxiliary (civilian) personnel, Snowman, who is a teacher by training, became the lightkeeper. “I feel so honored to have this job,” she says. “It’s the only one that exists in the United States.”
Her day begins well before dawn. Her yoga mat is rolled up and put away by 6:45 a.m., when she and one of her 36 assistant lightkeepers gather to record the weather. Then it’s time to get to work. “Every day is a maintenance day,” she says. A structure so old and exposed to the unrelenting elements of the sea requires substantial upkeep. Most days, the lightkeepers repair crumbling mortar, replace rotting steps and maintain the island’s pristine landscaping. “Light housekeeping,” Snowman calls it.
Audrey Tessier, a senior assistant keeper, has known Snowman for 20 years. She admires Snowman’s attention to detail and her ability to bring out the best in people, both staff and visitors. She says Snowman is tireless, always missing the island when she’s absent. On weekends, she and her colleagues facilitate tours organized through the Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area. She dresses in period costume (hence the bonnet).
The Light is a classic Fresnel lens from France, 9 feet tall and comprised of 336 individual prisms. It flashes 24/7 and rotates on wheels powered by a small motor. “I have the privilege of cleaning those prisms,” Snowman says with more reverence than I have ever heard anyone talk about glass. “It gives me great joy.” She douses dustless cloths with a water-vinegar solution and carefully attends to each piece of glass.
Her favorite part of the job is being close to the water, especially at high tide when she can hear the roar of the sea right outside the window. She relishes the sunrises and sunsets, and the predictable way that the island shrinks from 3.5 acres at low tide to 1.5 acres at high tide. “I only go to the mainland when I have to,” she says. “My soul is part of that island.”
Snowman could have retired three years ago. But at 68, she has no plans to leave behind the island and the physically demanding maintenance work that comes with it. Last year she put in 2,000 hours of paid time and nearly 3,000 hours of volunteer time at the lighthouse. “I want this job until my body can’t do it,” she says, with the quiet stubbornness of a New Englander who doesn’t know any kind of life except one by the sea.