By Clark Fair
In November 1962, 54-year-old Raymond E. Burton, of Cohoe, received a polite Dear John letter concerning his job as a lamplighter for the U.S. Coast Guard.
According to the January 1963 Alaska Sportsman magazine, that letter, written by Capt. Albert E. Harned, chief of staff for the 17th Coast Guard District, informed Burton that, despite the fact that his “faithful service” had been “completely satisfactory in every respect” for seven and a half years, he was being dropped from the payroll.
Such a termination may seem a rude way to reward faithful, satisfactory performance — especially for the last lamplighter of his kind in the nation — but Burton was not being punished. He was simply a victim of progress.
Marine lamplighting — a navigational aid in America’s coastal waterways and obscure inlets — had changed before, and it was about to change again.
According to a brief article about Burton in the Nov. 12, 1962, Newsweek magazine, the first colonial lighthouse was erected on Great Brewster Island at the entrance to Boston Harbor in 1716. This lighthouse burned a wick in whale oil, which colonists considered progressive compared to the candle-powered lighthouses still being employed in some locations by the British.
Eventually, however, whale oil gave way to kerosene and, more than two centuries later, to electricity. In 1962, when his lamps were extinguished and replaced by battery-powered electric lights, Burton’s services were no longer required.
Of course, the proverbial handwriting had been on the wall for some time. The Coast Guard, which in 1939 had assumed the nation’s lamplighting duties, had been slowly, inexorably reducing staff. In Alaska, for instance, the number of lamplighters in 1950 was 32. Only eight years later, just 13 fuel-burning range lamps were still in service.
The progress toward full electrification — the Homer Electric Association brought power into the Cohoe area in 1957 — meant that eventually all range lamps would soon operate without continual refueling by lamplighters.
And on Nov. 15, 1962, Burton’s lamplighting contract flickered out — as the final such operation in the United States.
Since the mid-1950s, Burton had tended a pair of kerosene-powered range lights set in towers near the Kasilof River mouth. In summer, he usually drove in his Jeep down the beach the mile and a half from his spruce-ensconced Cohoe home, and in the winter he made the semiweekly trip via snowshoes.
It was the lamplighter’s job to keep such navigational lights burning, regardless of the weather, and Burton, a commercial fisherman and school bus driver, took his duty seriously.
Both of the Kasilof lights stood near the river mouth on the Cohoe side. The tower containing one of the lights stood 15 to 20 feet tall, while the second tower stood about two-thirds as tall and was located closer to the waters of Cook Inlet. Anyone entering the Kasilof River after dark could line up the two lights — one over the top of the other — and safely navigate the entrance, assuming that the tide was appropriately high.
“The Kasilof range lights have aided many fishing fleets and tenders to find their way to a safe mooring, and have been used as guide markers for hunters in the Tustumena area,” said the Cheechako News in a Nov. 30, 1962, article.
Burton, who died at age 65 in December 1975, was married to Florence, the sister of Elfrida “Freda” Lewis, who in 1950 opened the first Cohoe post office in her home and served as its postmistress there for a quarter century.
Freda, her husband, Charlie, and their son and daughter traveled in 1948 with Ray and Florence and their three sons up the Alaska Highway from Berkeley, Calif., in trucks containing camping equipment and many of their belongings. The two families combined their financial resources to purchase the Victor Holm homestead, and after settling in, Ray and Charlie went to work for the Alaska Road Commission building the Sterling Highway between Soldotna and Homer.
Although Charlie continued working for the ARC, Ray moved on to commercial fishing, and then in 1955 he
employed a two-tone Volkswagen van as the first school bus serving the fledgling Tustumena School. Burton transported students for free until a few years later when he was awarded a busing contract with the school district.
By the early 1960s, he was using four larger buses to haul students to Tustumena and to Kenai High School. Later, he sold his bus business to Burton Carver, who already owned buses serving Kenai and Soldotna.
Burton also served as president of the Soldotna Square Dance Club, was involved with the Cohoe Characters acting group, and for a time presided as president of the local Parent Teachers Association. In 1970, three years after Florence had passed away, he donated 10 acres of his land to the Tustumena School.
The Burtons’ youngest son, Greg, who is 64 and lives in Colorado, was about seven years old when his father began working as a lamplighter for the Coast Guard. He remembers the lamplighting routine:
“There was a ladder permanently affixed to each lighthouse,” Greg said. “Dad would climb up to retrieve the lanterns, extinguish them, fill them on the ground and take the lanterns back up and relight. They were easy to light. They were like any of the old chimney kerosene lanterns with a wick, only bigger.
“A couple of times of year, the government would deliver kerosene in 5-gallon cans that Dad would store and use to fuel the two lighthouses. I can’t remember precisely how often Dad had to refuel the lights (but) the lights were never extinguished or went out, to my knowledge.”
Upon ending his lamplighting career, according to the Newsweek article, Ray, “unlike a lot of men left behind in the march of progress (would) not be jobless after this technological advance.”
A former Berkeley fireman, Burton said that he hoped to dedicate more time to the clearing of his 30-acre homestead. After 14 years of “spare-time stump-pulling,” he reported, he had thus far cleared only 3 acres.
In recognition of the long history and important service Burton represented, his old-fashioned oil-burning lamps were shipped to Washington, D.C., to be placed in the permanent Coast Guard display in the Smithsonian Institution.
Other lamplighters had preceded Burton in his oil-toting and lamp-refueling duties on the Kasilof River, so he was not the first, but he was clearly the last.