The Long Blue Line: Keeper Miles—working with a disability in the 1800s

By Cmdr. Neil E. Hurley, United States Coast Guard (retired)

Illustration of a man with prosthetic leg climbing a ladder. (A.A. Marks Company 1888)

It is a sad fact of medical history from the 1880’s that many people who suffered from broken arms or legs were treated with amputation. At the time, there simply were no antibiotics or complex surgeries that could save a limb and, as a consequence, the injured person’s life.

In the United States, the A.A. Marks Company of New York was the nation’s largest manufacturer of artificial arms, hands, legs and feet. In 1891, they estimated that there were 250,000 people in the United States who were “maimed” in some fashion. The biggest culprits were railroads and machinery. About 85 percent of amputations were legs, and 15 percent were arms. Not only were men injured, but women accounted for 22 percent of legs amputated.   

Although patients usually recovered from amputation, it was unusual for a person to continue working in the same occupation as they previously held. This was certainly true for lighthouse keepers, as they were government appointees who required a high degree of mobility to climb stairs and ladders as part of their duties maintaining a lighthouse. 

Coast Chart No. 158 “From St. Mary’s Entrance Southward to Latitude 30 (deg) North,” published 1882, showing the north end of Amelia Island. (NOAA)

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1845, John Miles was a keeper in the United States Lighthouse Service who continued to serve after losing his leg. After the Civil War, Miles lived in Fernandina, Florida, and served at Amelia Island’s North Range Lights located in the extreme northeast corner of Florida. There he lived and worked from 1873 into the 1880s and likely until his death in 1895.

Miles’ service as a lighthouse keeper is documented in the bi-annual Official Register of Employees of the United States. Starting out as the assistant lighthouse keeper, he was paid $400 per year. He was promoted to the position of head keeper in 1880 and his pay increased to $600. Between 1887 and 1889, lighthouse keepers received a pay increase and his salary was then increased to $660 per year.  

John Miles’ disability is reflected in two documents, a testimonial published by the A.A. Marks Artificial Limb Company, and a letter from the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Image of an artificial leg from “A Treatise on Marks’ Patent Limbs with Rubber Hands and Feet. (A.A. Marks Company 1888)

Miles’ testimonial was dated November 3, 1887:
Dear Sir: Permit me to say that your artificial leg with rubber feet attached, which I have been using continuously since December 1886, is all that you have claimed for it. 
I have but seven inches of thigh stump. My occupation is U.S. Light House Keeper, North Beacon Ranges, Amelia Island, Fla. and I have to go up and down in one of the ranges 45 feet high, on iron-rod steps, at least twice a day; so I have good reason to say your limbs are all you claim for them. 
You are at liberty to use this as you wish.
Respectfully yours, John Miles.

Chris Belcher, a Florida lighthouse historian and president of the Florida Lighthouse Association, found a second source of information in the U.S. National Archives. Apparently, Miles’ continued employment as a lighthouse keeper after having his leg amputated required special permission from the chairman of the U.S. Lighthouse Board in Washington, D.C. The letter was written by Cmdr. Benjamin Lamberton (U.S. Navy), Inspector of the Sixth Lighthouse District headquartered in Charleston, South Carolina:

Photograph of Amelia Island North Rear Range Light located near Fernandina, Florida. (National Archives)

December 14th, 1885
To: Chairman of the Light House Board Washington D.C.
I have the honor to acknowledge the receipt of the Boards letter of the 12th instant making inquiries concerning the disability of Mr. John Miles Keeper of the North Range, Amelia Island, Florida.
As stated in my Report of Inspections of this Station dated Nov. 23rd 1885 the keeper had his leg broken on the 4th of November 1885 and sometime later had the leg amputated at the knee joint. The lights were being attended to by a very intelligent young man whom Mr. Miles had employed and the Station was in its usual good condition and the Lights properly kept. Mr. Miles was hauling supplies to the station, for his personal use, when the accident occurred.
Being a sober, industrious man who has been in the Light House Service continuously since June 1st 1873 and against whom no report has ever been made, I felt his case was one deserving sincere consideration hence made a special report of his illness and no recommendations as to his removal until it was definitely determined that he would be permanently disabled.

During the 19th century, employers discriminated against people with disabilities and racial minorities. Not only was John Miles one of the earliest known disabled lighthouse keepers, but records indicate that he was also African-American. Census records from 1870 list Miles as a single black male living in Fernandina, working as a domestic servant. In the past several years, researchers have uncovered dozens of other African-American keepers like Miles, who kept the light. These black keepers served mainly in Maryland, Virginia, and along the Southeast Coast of the U.S.

Headstone of John Miles at the Fernandina Beach Cemetery, Fernandina, Florida. (

Miles was buried in the African-American section of the Bosque Bello Cemetery in Fernandina Beach. His headstone indicates that he was born on August 10, 1845, and died on February 16, 1895, at the age of 50. HI headstone also indicates that he was “a devoted husband and affectionate father.” Moreover, he should also be remembered as a hard-working lighthouse keeper who overcame a severe injury to become one of the Lighthouse Service’s first keepers with a disability.

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