Temporary Assistant Keeper Chas. G. Becker

In a previous post, I wrote a little about the Northwest Schooner Society’s research on the early lighthouse keepers at Burrows Island. We would like to create biographies for all the early keepers and their families; today I will share the beginning of our search for Chas G. Becker, a temporary assistant keeper in the early years.

There were quite a few men named “Chas” or “Charles Becker” in the US around 1900, including a beekeeper in Yakima, WA, two Pennsylvania coal miners, and an infamous New York police officer, who would later be sent to the electric chair for murder. Given the commonness of the name, I am still working on a solid identification of the Chas Becker, who ‘temped’ out at Burrows Island; however, Chas Becker of Port Townsend stands out as a likely candidate.

Chas Becker Headstone

Becker was a longtime resident of the Northwest, living at different times in Seattle and Valdez, Alaska, although he spent at least two decades in Port Townsend. Aside from geography, one factor that suggests this might be our man is that he was a healthcare provider, which could have been an attractive feature for a temporary keeper. If anyone were to need saving at the lighthouse, one can imagine that Becker would have been able to offer at least some help. The census of 1900 lists Becker as a “hospital worker” at Providence Hospital in Seattle. His 1918 draft registration card and the 1920 census list him as a nurse at St. John’s Hospital in Port Townsend, which was also run by the Sisters of Providence. In later years, Becker took on the less physically taxing position of chauffeur for St. John’s. Although we don’t have any pictures yet, WWI draft registration cards did include a physical description. Becker had blue eyes and dark hair. Unlike many of the permanent keepers, he was on the small side at 5’7.” Still, Becker was not scrawny. He is described as a man of “medium build,” which one might expect from a man who made his living lifting and maneuvering patients.

Like many of the early keepers, Becker was not born in the US, but in Europe. Becker emigrated at around 21 from the border region between France and Germany, then known as Alsace-Lorraine. At that time, the area was a territory of Germany, although it had long been home to both French and German speakers. Today, it is part of France (now that’s a long story in itself!).

A native speaker of French, one can imagine that Becker felt a special connection to the Sisters of Providence, an order founded in French-speaking Montreal, Canada. Like the Sisters themselves, Becker appears to have chosen a monastic life; in all the records I have found, his residence is listed as the hospitals were he worked. Becker also never married, listing his sister in Alsace-Lorraine as his nearest relative. Upon his death in 1935, Becker was buried at the local Catholic cemetery, St. Mary’s.

On a whim, I put in a photo request for his headstone on Findagrave.com and the community responded immediately. Two volunteers went to the site in Port Townsend and sent me photographs (thank you!). As you can see above, the headstone reads ” Chas Becker / 1873-1935 / died at St. John’s Hospital / faithful unto death.” As we know, Becker spent many years living and working alongside the Sisters of Providence;  the inscription underscores his devotion to the hospital and to the religious community he chose to join.

All these records paint a picture of a man with an unusual combination of adventurousness, religious faith, industry, and a twin desire for solitude and community. A French-speaking immigrant, this Chas Becker found his life’s work caring for others in his chosen homeland. Is he the Chas Becker, who served at Burrows Island Light Station? That remains to be seen. The next step in my research will be to contact the Providence Archives in Seattle and ask if they have any materials related to Chas Becker. Ideally, we would love to see his employment records and a portrait.

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Finding the Lighthouse Keepers

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.