Thursday, December 17, 2015

A Lighthouse Tale

Twin Lights, Highlands, N.J., birthplace of Ruth Davies Smyth

The unshakable Ruth Smyth, born in a lighthouse in 1905, taught math to junior high school students in Mount Vernon, New York. She got the job in 1945 through the woman who had been her own math teacher years before in Bridgeport, Connecticut. 

Technically, Ruth grew up near Bridgeport because her father, as the keeper of the Black Rock Lighthouse, had a home on the property where the family lived. The lighthouse was located on Fayerweather Island overlooking Black Rock Harbor, which leads into Long Island Sound.

John D. Davies immigrated to the United States in 1894, having trained with the Irish Lighthouse Commissioners. His father had been keeper of the Rosses Point Light in County Sligo, Ireland. If any nation knows about lighthouses, that would be Ireland. Six years after he came to the U.S., John joined the Lighthouse Service. Sometime during those years, he married Rebecca.

I understand why John Davies felt the pull of America, but Rosses Point looks like one of the most beautiful places on earth.

In 1902, after serving as first assistant keeper for lighthouses at Plum Beach, R.I. and Stratford Shoal, CT, John became second assistant to the keeper at Twin Lights, also known as the Navesink Lighthouse, in Highlands, N.J. Built of brown stone during the Civil War, it looks like a fortress perched up in the hills overlooking the entrance to New York Bay.

Therein Ruth was born.

Twin Lights had a few other claims to fame. In 1893, the first public reading of the Pledge of Allegiance occurred at the lighthouse’s new 135-foot “Liberty Pole.” In 1898, it became the first coastal lighthouse to use electricity with a bivalve lens and arc lamp whose flash could be seen more than 22 miles out to sea. And in 1899, the inventor Guglielmo Marconi conducted his first experiments with the wireless telegraph after installing an antenna and receiving station at the lighthouse. 

The importance of lighthouses declined with the rise of modern navigation tools. But John Davies remained the keeper of Black Rock until 1932 when it closed and then became keeper at Dutch Island Light in Jamestown, R.I. By that time his three daughters and one son had grown up. Ruth and her older sister became teachers but an aunt persuaded their mother that two teachers in the family was enough; the youngest girl became a secretary.

“My parents were not college-educated but extremely literate and cultured, and especially well-versed in poetry and the Bible,” Ruth told me when I interviewed her in 1997.

While she enjoyed her career, Ruth Smyth rolled her eyes recalling the school principal who largely focused on housekeeping, warning teachers that the window shades in their classrooms always must be raised to an even height. She remarked:

“I never worried when he came to observe my class, for I knew that he did not know what I was talking about.”

For more about the principal, see 11/2/15 post.

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