“The diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake is a significant contribution to American maritime history.”

— Dr. Brooks Miles Barnes, co-editor of Seashore Chronicles: Three Centuries of the Virginia Barrier Islands.

Golden Light

The 1878 Diary of Captain Thomas Rose Lake

By James B. Kirk II

It's a book that resuscitates a life — Captain Thomas Rose Lake’s — and a time and place seen through his eyes. History needs its passionate pursuers. Golden Light is alive with such attentiveness”

— Stephen Dunn, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, and Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing, Richard Stockton College of New Jersey


ISBN 0-945582-85-4
5" x 7" Hardcover,
324 pages, illustrated

Wind Around the Compass:

by Pat Johnson

This review is reprinted in its entirety, with permission, from The Beachcomber, 8/22/03. Copyright ©2003, Jersey Shore Newsmagazines.
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 sea’s horizon and imagine it filled with sails.

Golden Light is the diary of a plucky young man, Thomas Rose Lake, who was captain of his family’s sailing sloop in 1878; homeport – Lakes Bay in Pleasantville, Atlantic County. It’s an expanded diary full of nautical details and historic notations on coastal life in the late 1800s and the oyster trade that sent hundreds of heavily laden sloops out to sea. The sloops sailed their succulent cargo from New Jersey ‘up the beach’ (keeping within sight of the barrier islands) to the bustling fish markets in the port of New York. Oysters in the 1800s, both fresh and sold in jars, were stewed, fried, made into pies, eaten whole and were as popular a food as pizza is today.

Golden Light is the story of a good and simple man who looks forward to all of life – its hard work and righteous pleasures of church, family, friends and potential brides to be walked down lanes under the wild roses. It is a romantic book in the Victorian definition of romance, where all seems bright and good and hopeful until death sneaks out from behind the parlor curtains to snatch the innocent away. In the 1800s, death was always lurking in the form of a wasting disease the Victorians called "consumption," and which we know as tuberculosis.

How the diary was lifted from obscurity and made into a book is a story on its own. James Kirk II began work on the diary in the 1980s when it was given to him by a Lake family descendant. The original diary is a tiny daybook; it fits in the palm of one hand. But Kirk was unable to finish the manuscript before he died of cancer. His son, James B. Kirk III, nursed his father through nine months of his illness, and then took up the task of finishing the book as a testimony to his father.

Kirk III is a professor of English at Stockton State College and a poet. He found himself caught up in the fascinating history of the coastal trade and expanded the book manuscript to twice its original size, also adding illustrations. In its totality, the diary and accompanying historical notes is an adventure story. Lake’s entries are short and to the point. He doesn’t ruminate or philosophize on the meaning of his life; he lives it.

Lightning storms, northeasters and bitterly cold weather not withstanding, the small crew of the Golden Light was at sea 226 days during 1878. Thomas sails to New York and back with clams; to Hog Island, Virginia to pick up oyster seed; to New York with fish oil (fish oil was rendered in fish factories from menhaden, an oily fish also known as bunker, and was used for soap making, machine lubricants, and in paint and leather processing), and to Chincoteague, Virginia for sweet potatoes that were bound for the New York markets.

"Wind around the cumpus," Captain Lake would often write to describe unsettled weather. Each diary entry starts with a weather report, as weather dictated everything a sailor did in 1878.

The publisher left the diary entries in Capt. Lake’s own words, even though they were misspelled or spelled phonetically. Once the reader gets acclimated, it’s easy to hear the Captain’s meaning. And the Kirks explained misspellings, nautical terms (arcane or not) to such an extent that even the most puzzling entry is made clear. For instance:

"April 5, Friday: Clear. Wind WNW. We left Mogathy Bay 8 oclock am. Too reaf Manesel and bonet from the Jib. Got of Smiths Island Lit. Put in agane. Saw top of a cabin and a pump of vessel floating. ther woes a hevey Sea running and it washed us bad all day through. Throwed 4 bush. of oysters over board. Some shad on deck it washed her so bad. Off Chincoteague 6 pm."

Earlier in the book, the Kirks already explained what a mainsail, bonnet and jib are for those readers not familiar with sailing, and then they explained what transpired this stormy day.

"The sight of the wreckage from some unfortunate vessel was confirmation of the ferocity of the storm, but Thomas was determined to press on.

"During most of the day, heavy seas washed over the deck. The young captain’s concern for the sloop was so strong that he jettisoned several hundred pounds of his cargo to lighten her.

"The comment about the shad is worth noting. The sloop was washed over to such an extent that live fish were left on the deck. The scuppers (small openings at deck level in the bulwarks) would permit the water to run off, but would not be large enough to allow the shad, a member of the herring family, to wash overboard. They are tasty fish and probably provided the young men with a meal."

When not sailing, Lake was usually repairing the boat, an arduous task that required the boat to be hauled up on the marsh during an extremely high tide (spring tide) then repaired before the next spring tide could float her again. Or he was farming, hoeing cabbage or burying fish heads in corn rows – just as we’ve all heard the Indians taught the Pilgrims. Or he was tending his grandmother’s store. The Lakes were an industrious family; his uncle was president of the Pleasantville and Atlantic City Turnpike Company, the toll road to Atlantic City.

But Thomas’ life was not all work. He courted a number of local ladies, taking them by horse and buggy to temperance meetings, church (he attended more than one each Sunday – perhaps to meet more ladies?) and beach parties. Beach parties could be quite large; there were 110 people at one in late July. He was a member of the Sons of Temperance fraternal order and the Loyal Order of Red Men, the fraternity that grew out from the Sons of Liberty tea parties of pre-revolutionary America.

He had friends in the various ports he visited, especially in New York, where he could spend weeks on end while selling his oysters and waiting for the weather to turn favorable. While in New York he also attended a theater, rode around Central Park and went shopping.

The Kirks give us an extensive description of the oyster basin in New York, where colorful oyster barges were permanently docked on West 10th Street, allowing the sloops to pull up and unload their cargo on one end and then sell the product out the other. The combination of the young captain’s narrative, the Kirks’ historical notes and the reproductions of early pen and ink drawings and prints, make it easy to imagine the bustling market and the flavor of old New York.

This is perhaps the greatest charm of the book, the ease in which one may imagine what life was like for Thomas Lake in 1878. The reader gets to know and admire the vibrant young captain.

Alas, tuberculosis would announce itself suddenly to Thomas on October 3, when he writes he is so weak in his limbs that he has to hire a deck hand to do his work. He would never captain the Golden Light again. But he would continue farming, helping with the family store and sparking his girlfriends.

In the late 1800s, people still did not know tuberculosis was contagious or that it was necessarily fatal. People often lived for years with consumption and because death in Victorian times came in so many forms, lost at sea being one of them, some of the stricken didn’t live long enough to die of the disease. But Thomas Lake would not live much longer than the year of his life he so carefully chronicled. Thomas perished from tuberculosis six months after he first noticed its effects.

Readers should continue to read past the end of the diary notations and read the Two Elegies by poet James Kirk III.

Golden Light is enjoyable on many levels. Those with an imagination will enjoy immersing themselves in another time. The book is a must read for anyone interested in maritime or local history. Sailors will live vicariously through the trips along the coast. Maritime scholars will find new ground broken in the understanding of the coastal trade. It’s also a good book to read on the beach. Sand and sea will take on a new meaning.

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