The record kept by a young New Jersey sea captain for the year 1878 was written in a leather diary measuring a little less than three by four inches. In this tiny document is the story of one full year in the life of the vessel Golden Light and of her captain, Thomas Rose Lake, the year before his death from tuberculosis at age twenty-two.
Miraculously, the diary survived one hundred years and fell into the hands of James B. Kirk, II an English teacher and historian. It was he who, by careful study and annotation, turned the laconic entries of the barely literate Thomas Lake into a fascinating picture of a vanished time, place and way of life. Mr. Kirk died before the work was completed and his son James B. Kirk III finished the task so lovingly begun.
Golden Light: The 1878 Diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake is the remarkable result of that work. In a foreword, New Jersey's eminent historian John T. Cunningham who offered early encouragement to the author calls this a transformation "into a volume that is a treasure trove." Thomas D. Carroll, folklorist and writer, who has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, and worked for the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution, calls the work "a Rosetta stone of sorts" for the mid-late 19th century coast.
From plainspoken entries in the captains diary (laboriously written in the quiet of home and in the pitching aftercabin of a sloop) was born an exquisitely detailed, fascinating picture of a vanished America and a way of life. Expanded into its current form with enlightening essay footnotes by author James Kirk the book is a wondrous vehicle for travelling back to 1878.
In what John T. Cunningham calls a treasure trove of New Jersey Shore happenings just after the Civil War, we set sail in the coasting trade from home port near Atlantic City to New York City and Virginia.
At the center of Lakes life is the Golden Light, the coasting sloop that provided much of the familys living. The ship one of the trailer trucks of their age carried oysters to New York, but also New Jersey clams, fish oil, or potatoes and Virginia oysters.
We are given accounts of Lakes days: working on the ship, planting, harvesting, working on the oyster platforms, or helping in the family store. And his social life: names of girl friends, oyster suppers, pick nicks, beach parties, trips by train to Philadelpfia, or his time in New York, where he attended the theatre or went up town to see the Fashens. This was the closing of the age of sail and the agrarian era in America, and in many ways the end of a national innocence. In its pages is the final cry of a way of life which, for better or worse, would return no more. As such, the diary is a poignant vignette an ambrotype faded at the edges but with the central portrait clear of a young mans happiness, simplicity, and struggle, writes Kirk. It must give us pause.
"In this simple story of a simple sailor there is a certain grace and tragic elegance that will speak to any sailor with a sense of history and a longing to better understand the age-old rhythm of life under sail, thanks in large part to the work of editor James B. Kirk and his extensive footnotes, which help put Capt. Lakes words in their proper historical context..."
"If you get the opportunity, read Golden Light, The 1878 Diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake while sitting on the beach or near the bay, and periodically stare out to the seas horizon and imagine it filled with sails..."
"Initially, my interest was simply that of an antiquarian, but as I became engrossed in the young captain's account, it became apparent that this tiny journal was unique. It was most uncommon for any active youth, relatively uneducated and exceedingly unsophisticated, to set down his daily activities so dutifully and thoroughly at sea and on shore. That it was written at all was a simple stroke of good fortune..."