Townsend Elementary School Learns About Lighthouse Life and AtoN Technology, Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation

November 30, 2004
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Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
(L to R) DRBLHF “Keepers” Bob Trapani, Penny Czerwinski & Harry Spencer

Delaware lighthouse preservation has no future if our youth statewide are not provided the consistent opportunity to connect with the present day value of the First State’s lighthouse heritage. In the fast-paced world of the 21st century where yesterday’s achievements are frequently discarded in favor of the “next big thing” of today, a meaningful and fun-filled educational approach for people of all ages – especially our children, is the only way to ensure the lighthouses that we cherish today are preserved for the future.

On November 3, 2004, the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation presented a lighthouse program that delighted approximately 72 fourth grade students at Townsend Elementary School. Whether they were learning about lighthouse life in the early 20th century or having the hands-on opportunity to learn about technologies that removed the need to staff lighthouses, the students at Townsend Elementary School exhibited a refreshing intrigue and eagerness for learning by asking questions throughout the program.

Lighthouse Life at Port Mahon…

The Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation utilized three “lightkeeper” facilitators for the program, including Penny Czerwinski, the newest addition to the organization’s presentation team. Keeper Penny, who sported a navy blue dress of the early 20th century time period, fascinated the children with historical images of life at Port Mahon Lighthouse in the 1920s and 30s.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
“Keeper” Penny reads lighthouse stories from Port Mahon to 4th grade students.

The students listened intently as Keeper Penny described how her grandmother Dorothy Lynch grew up at this remote light station and the type of life she lead as a teenager at Port Mahon – a place that was “Home Sweet Home” to Dorothy’s parents Keeper Irvin Lynch, Sr., his wife Janie and a total of nine children.

Keeper Penny’s PowerPoint presentation, entitled “Through the Eyes of the Lightkeeper’s Daughter,” focused on Dorothy and family life at a lighthouse and how this isolated beacon standing sentinel in the marshes of Port Mahon was no different in many ways than the houses each student calls home today. Vintage images depicted a variety of aspects of lighthouse life at Port Mahon, including the presence of pets, the keeper’s children shown having fun dressing up in dad’s U.S. Lighthouse Service uniform and family members who enjoyed playing musical instruments on the porch of the rugged sentinel. As Dorothy Lynch fondly recalls, these were snapshots of “good times” at Port Mahon Lighthouse.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
“Keeper” Penny talks about her grandmother Dorothy growing up as a teenager at Port Mahon lighthouse

Penny Czerwinski, who truly values her family connection to Delaware lighthouse history, commented on the value of educational programming, saying, “It is important to me because sharing this history with others hopefully will inspire the students to join our efforts and help to preserve the state’s remaining lighthouses. Sometimes all it takes to attract someone’s interest is explaining that real people lived and worked at these places. Putting a human “face” to the lights helps make the mental connection that they weren’t just structures – but homes.” Penny went on to say, “the Townsend presentation was a wonderful experience. To see the students grasp the importance of our lighthouse history is very gratifying.”

Sending Out a Guiding Light…

DRBLHF “lightkeepers” Bob Trapani and Harry Spencer followed the presentation on Port Mahon with a PowerPoint program entitled, “Keepers of the Light.” Keepers Bob and Harry talked to the students about the kinds of men and women who tended the light – people of unparalleled dedication and courage. Using a combination of contemporary and vintage images, the students learned about the duties of the lighthouse keeper and the conditions they endured, especially during storms. One such storm discussed during the program was the great northeaster of March 1962. The students learned how seas pounded the offshore Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse and what Keeper Stephen Jones and his comrades were forced to endure throughout the duration of the tempest.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
Townsend Elementary students help “Keepers” Bob & Harry demonstrate the progression from electric to solar power lights.

During the “Keepers of the Light” segment, the students learned that Delaware once had 27 historic light stations, and how sadly, only nine remain today and what the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation is doing to save them. Keeper Bob also explained to the students how children played a role in keeping a light station “ship-shape,” including the renowned story of a 14 year-old heroine named Abbie Burgess. The story of a teenage girl tending to the lights at the offshore Matinicus Rock Lighthouse in Maine during a severe storm while her father was on the mainland captivated the students. In addition, keeper Bob talked about the role of women lightkeepers and how Keeper Harry’s mother Sophia Spencer was appointed as a lighthouse keeper at Liston Range Front Light when her husband Harry, Sr. passed away in 1943.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
A Townsend Elementary student uses a spotlight to represent the sun on a LED beacon to keep it from activating.

Keeper Harry lent his firsthand experience to the presentation, as he explained to the students that he was born at Liston Range Rear Light back in 1920 and lived in a lighthouse up until 1942. Talking about how his sisters and him helped their father maintain Liston Range Front Lighthouse, keeper Harry described polishing the brass, winding the clockwork mechanism for the light source and mowing the lawn as some of the chores they helped with at the light station. Keeper Harry also got some wide-eyed looks when he told the children the lighthouse had no indoor bathroom – recalling how cold it was to go the outhouse during wintertime.

Modern Technology Replaces the Lightkeeper…

The final segment of the DRBLHF’s three-part lighthouse presentation was a hands-on component where the students had the opportunity to learn how advancements in lighthouse technology made the lighthouse keeper obsolete. With the help of a student volunteer, keepers Bob, Harry and Penny started off by showing the children how a glass prism lens bends light into a “pencil beam” in order to show a brighter, more effective guiding light. Another student volunteer then helped keeper Bob demonstrate how a solar powered incandescent lantern works. The students were provided the opportunity to handle a modern Coast Guard lampchanger that holds six lamps – a new one automatically rotating in place when the previous lamp becomes extinguished.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
4th grade students enjoy a hands-on experience with a Coast Guard solar powered lampchanger.

The most fascinating aspect of the hands-on experience for the students was when they were introduced to the latest in aids to navigation technology – the light emitting diode (LED). Utilizing a Carmanah Model 601 LED optic, keeper Bob showed the children how this amazing advancement is comprised – the solar panel, batteries and light source housed in one self-contained unit.

Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation
“Keeper” Bob shows the children a modern Carmanah LED beacon during the hands-on lesson.

The students participated by taking a box with viewing holes on each side and covering the optic. After a moment to sense the simulated darkness, the optic automatically turned on and flashed its green light once every second – all to the astonishment of the children.

By touching on the human interest elements, discussing the threats of erosion and vandalism and enabling the children to better understand technology through hands-on opportunities, the DRBLHF was successful in raising awareness for preserving Delaware’s nine remaining historic lighthouses with students at Townsend Elementary School.

The article and all photos were reproduced with the permission of the author, Mr. Bob Trapani, Jr. of the Delaware River & Bay Lighthouse Foundation. All photos by Ann-Marie Trapani. Please visit for more information.