Not all the work on the Burrows Island Light Station happens on the island. Some of us also do research, trying to find out more about the history of the lighthouse and the people who lived there. Over the next few months, I will be writing a series of posts on the search for information about the lighthouse keepers of Burrows Island. These posts will reveal some new aspects of the lighthouse’s history.
This kind of project can be started in the library or even sipping tea on your couch, now that so many resources have been digitized and put online. To get a complete picture, you usually have to do a combination of digging in the archives and searching electronic databases. A few weeks ago, I started my search by looking up the earliest employment and salary records for Burrows Island Light Station. These, like all early lighthouse employment records, can be found on microfilm at the Seattle branch of the National Archives (NARA). During the period we are interested in, these records were kept by the Light-House Board and were pretty bare bones, although they do give us the names of all keepers and assistant keepers from the opening of the lighthouse in 1906 on through the end of 1912. In some cases, we learned the whole name of the keeper, but in others, only the last name and first initials or a shortened form of the first name.
Once we have a name, we search for likely matches in the census records, birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, naturalization records, and international ship manifests. For male lighthouse keepers, WWI draft registration cards can be another excellent source of information, listing such interesting tidbits as the man’s nearest relative, occupation, and even a physical description. Practically speaking, AncestryLibrary, which is available for free at the library, or the paid consumer edition, Ancestry.com, can be a good place to begin, as it centralizes a lot of the records databases in one search.
To kick off the series, I will describe my search for Chas G. Becker, a temporary assistant keeper who filled in for a short time during the first year that the lighthouse was in operation.