If she had been born in another era, Jean Potter might have been perfectly happy living in an isolated coastal lighthouse as a light keeper or, perhaps, the wife of the keeper.
“Whenever I see a lighthouse, I feel compelled to climb it and look out to sea,” the Elizabethton resident said.
That compulsion has also prompted her to travel up and down the East Coast in search of new lighthouses to climb.
“I have had an interest in lighthouses for many years,” Jean said. “They were important aids to the navigation of our nation’s shores since before the Revolutionary War.”
Jean will share her extensive knowledge of lighthouses in a program Feb. 1 for the Julius Dugger Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
She has amassed quite a collection of lighthouse figurines from Harbor Lights, a manufacturer specializing in replicas of historic lighthouses around the world. The 75 lighthouses in her collection are gifts from her children, other family members and friends.
A few years ago, she attended a convention held in Baltimore for members of the Harbors Lights Collectors Society. She won a replica of the ancient Lighthouse of Alexandria, sometimes called the Pharos of Alexandria.
Collecting lighthouses, however, is an outgrowth of her interest in them. Visiting and photographing lighthouses has become an even bigger passion for Jean, who is typically accompanied on her trips by her husband, Brookie.
“The more lighthouses I see, the more fascinated I become,” Jean said. “They all have different histories and tales of great rescues. Some lighthouse keepers have recorded stories of tragic deaths, some have reported hauntings and some have raised their families in lonely, isolated areas.”
The Potters have been visiting lighthouses, mostly along the Atlantic Coast, for the past 25 years. To date, they have visited about 60 lighthouses, most of them located along the East Coast.
“The St. Simons Island Lighthouse is the first one I ever collected, and it is one of the first ones we saw,” Jean said. She and Brookie visited the historic Georgia lighthouse while staying at nearby Jekyll Island, Ga.
The original St. Simons Island lighthouse was built in 1810. During the Civil War, retreating Confederate troops destroyed the lighthouse to prevent it from falling into the hands of the Union forces. After the war, the federal government constructed a new lighthouse that was completed in 1872 . It was outfitted with a third-order, biconvex Fresnel lens, one of 70 such lenses that remain operational in the United States.
The Carter County couple have even been able to combine some of their interests when traveling to coastal areas. Accomplished birders in the region, the couple have often been able to combine birding opportunities when visiting coastal areas to visit lighthouses.
Jean’s favorite lighthouse is Cape Lookout on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
“It’s inaccessible except by boat,” she said. “A ferry transports visitors to the lighthouse from Harper’s Island for $10 a person.”
Harper’s Island is a fishing village, which attracts fish-eating birds such as pelicans and gulls.
“There are also wild horses roaming the island,” Jean added. “The trip to Cape Lookout provided some good memories.”
Located off the coast of Charleston, S.C., the Morris Island Lighthouse is the one she has visited most often through the years. It was the first lighthouse built in the southern United States. The original lighthouse dates back to 1767 when South Carolina was still a British colony. The current Morris Island Lighthouse was built in 1876.
“Some I climbed, some I photographed and some were seen from a distance with a spotting scope,” Jean said.
Jean said the Cape Neddick Lighthouse in Maine is the most picturesque one she has visited. It’s also her husband’s favorite. The Cape Neddick Lighthouse is also affectionately known as the “Nubble” Lighthouse.
During their visit to Cape Neddick Lighthouse, the couple also saw some highly sought-after birds, including a male Harlequin Duck in breeding plumage and a Common Eider accompanied by its ducklings.
Jean said that the Statue of Liberty, which many people don’t realize was once a functional lighthouse, is among the most distinct of America’s lighthouses.
“We all know the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of our freedom, but most people do not realize that is was officially a lighthouse used as a navigational aid for ships entering the New York Harbor,” Jean said.
She noted that the Statue of Liberty was also the first lighthouse to use electricity.
During her visit to the Statue of Liberty, she climbed the 354 steps necessary to reach the statue’s crown.
Like she does for the birds she observes during her travels, she keeps a life list of all the lighthouses she has visited. Whenever she and Brookie plan a trip to a new coastal area, Jean does her research in advance.
“I look for a new lighthouse I may not have on my life list,” she said. “I like to learn about different lighthouses and explore them when possible.”
One of her most valued resources for her research is a book titled “America’s Atlantic Coast Lighthouses: A Traveler’s Guide” by Kenneth G. Kochel.
Jean and Brookie visited their most recent lighthouse — the Fenwick Island Lighthouse — this past fall during a trip to Delaware.
They have seen lighthouses in 15 states, including Delaware, Maryland, Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York, New Hampshire, Maine and Texas.
With only a few exceptions, most of their lighthouse tours have taken place along the Atlantic Coast. A visit to the Lone Star State in 2012 allowed them to see Point Isabel Lighthouse, which dates back to 1852.
They also visited the Lake Pontchartrain Lighthouse in Louisiana, which was constructed in 1837. This lighthouse served as a Coast Guard Station on the west estuary of the Tchefuncte River at Lake Pontchartrain until it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In 2013, the lighthouse was rebuilt as a museum.
She has visited all the lighthouses on Florida’s East Coast except for one located on the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.
“The tours had been canceled the day we tried to visit,” she said.
She hopes to try again to visit the Cape Canaveral Lighthouse on an upcoming trip to the Sunshine State. The couple will also be looking for some target birds, including Limpkin and Florida Scrub-Jay.
“Most of our lighthouses are still functional but have been modernized through the years,” Jean said. “But we have reached the end of the lighthouse era. Automation and new navigation technology have made the need for lighthouses almost obsolete.”
Jean lamented that many lighthouses have been neglected and are in need of protection.
“Part of the charm of lighthouses is the atmosphere around them,” Jean said.
Others agree with that assement, and she said that there is greater public awareness about the value of saving and restoring these historic structures.
The Cape Romaine Lighthouses located in McClellanville, S.C., provide a prime example of the neglect some of these structures have endured. Although they survived Hurricane Hugo in 1989, they have fallen into a state of disrepair over the years, and the lens was vandalized and broken.
These lighthouses were built in 1827 and 1857. The one built in 1857 was outfitted with a first-order Fresnel lens. Jean even has a piece of glass from the broken lens on display in one of the curio cabinets displaying her miniature replicas. She said the Fresnel lens represented a major technological leap for lighthouses. Such a lens can capture more oblique light from a light source, thus allowing the light from a lighthouse equipped with one to be visible over greater distances.
Jean noted that some residents of McLellanville, S.C., are working to restore the historic lighthouse.
Jean hopes to visit the Pacific Coast in the future, to both seek out western birds and visit some new lighthouses.
The Great Lakes also beckon. “There are hundreds of lighthouses located on the Great Lakes,” she said.
Her bucket list also has some specific lighthouses on it, including the Ida Lewis Lighthouse in Rhode Island. This lighthouse is named for Ida Lewis, an American lighthouse keeper noted for her heroism.
“She is my favorite heroine of the keepers of the light,” she said.
Lewis is credited with saving 18 lives, but unofficially the number might be as high as 36.
“During her lifetime, she was called the bravest woman in America,” Jean said, adding that Lewis remained lighthouse keeper until her death in 1911. Part of her 54-year career included assisting her parents with the duties of lighthouse keeper, but she served as keeper in her own right from 1879 to 1911.
Jean’s program for the DAR will share more information about Lewis, as well as another female lighthouse keeper named Abby Burgess.
Jean, who serves as regent of the Julius Dugger Chapter of the DAR, will present a PowerPoint program on lighthouses at the next meeting of the DAR.
“As a member of the DAR researching my family, I have found much of my family’s early history is tied to the sea and the ships carrying my ancestors to coastal destinations on the East Coast in the early days of our nation,” she said. “Lighthouses were critically important aids to navigation as the ships brought our ancestors to settle new lands.”
Her program, “The Importance of Lighthouses in America,” will be presented at 10 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 1, at the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library. The public is welcome.