In his new book "Wave-Swept Lighthouses of New England," historian Jeremy D'Entremont brings these iconic structures to life with stories about the people who built and tended them over the years.

Nothing says New England like a lighthouse on a rocky ledge, surrounded by a roiling ocean. In his new book "Wave-Swept Lighthouses of New England," historian Jeremy D'Entremont brings these iconic structures to life with stories about the people who built and tended them over the years.

Published by Arcadia Publishing as part of its "Images of America" series, the 128-page volume features dramatic photos, historical sketches and detailed text.

A "wave-swept lighthouse" is one built offshore, either on a rocky ledge or a caisson embedded into the ocean floor. Their remote locations and exposure to the elements made service in one of these lights the most challenging in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Imagine the terror of assistant keepers Joseph Wilson and Joseph Antoine at Minot's Ledge off Cohasset, Massachusetts, the country's first "wave-swept" light.

In a furious April storm in 1851, just a year after the structure was built, it began to sway. The two dropped a note in a bottle: "The light house won't stand over to night — she shakes 2 feet each way now."

When the note was found by a Gloucester fisherman, both the lighthouse and its occupants had been washed away. It was no wonder, if you consider its construction. It was perched 70 feet high on piles drilled into rock, and looked more like a water tower than a lighthouse. It became obvious to its early keepers that the iron lighthouse was vulnerable to both wind and waves. After its loss, the U.S. Lighthouse Board designed a much sturdier granite light, which still stands today.

Minot's is one of D'Entremont's favorite lighthouses, although he concedes that singling one out is "like naming a favorite child or grandchild."

"You wouldn't call it pretty," he said. "It's striking."

His book contains dramatic photos of waves hitting the 108-foot light, including one taken during the Blizzard of 1978.

The book focuses as much on the perilous existence of lightkeepers as it does on architecture and engineering. As D'Entremont notes in the preface, people's stories are what make lighthouses the focus of our romantic imaginations.

"Sometimes when I'm researching a book or story, I get emotionally involved in the story," D'Entremont said. "I'll cry a bit when I'm working on the story. Walter Eberle was one of those stories."

Eberle was the assistant lightkeeper on duty at Whale Rock Light in Narragansett Bay during the Hurricane of 1938.

Whale Rock is one of the so-called "sparkplug" lights. Less dramatic than the towering granite obelisks of New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, these squat structures were either constructed over caissons rooted in the ocean floor or set atop rock formations.

Unlike Plum Beach Light farther up Narragansett Bay, Whale Rock was not affixed to a caisson but "was perched on rock," D'Entremont said. "It was bolted to the ledge, and apparently not that well."

Eberle, who looks handsome and happy in the wedding photo D'Entremont includes in the book, was the father of six children. He was on duty alone at Whale Rock on Sept. 21, 1938, when the most devastating hurricane in New England history slammed the south shore. At some point in the rising water and 120-mph winds, the lighthouse toppled off its base and into the ocean.

For an article published in Lighthouse Digest, D'Entremont interviewed Eberle's daughter, Dorothy, who was 12 when her father died. Her memory of the tragedy was keen, he recalled. She has since died.

The author has been amassing photographs and documents about lighthouses for years, and his depth of knowledge gives the book rich insights. His connections include Dolly Bicknell, whose father, Edward Rowe Snow, wrote many books about lighthouses and New England maritime history. He also has done extensive research through the National Archives, the U.S. Lighthouse Society and the U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office in Washington, D.C.

D'Entremont is president of the American Lighthouse Foundation. A New Hampshire resident, he gives tours each summer of nearby Portland Head Light in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Not a wave-swept lighthouse — it is on the mainland — Portland Head is one of the most photographed lighthouses in New England. He also founded an organization that takes care of Portsmouth Harbor and Whaleback lights on the Maine-New Hampshire border.

“I've been amassing this stuff for a long time,” he says of his collection.

Arcadia originally approached him about a book on Nubble Light in York, Maine, also a calendar favorite. But his other publisher wanted him to save that subject for their imprint, so he and Arcadia came up with the wave-swept lights as an alternative.

Despite his passion for lighthouses and their rich legacy of keepers, D'Entremont has no illusions about living on a pile of rock at sea. "No, not at all. I know too much. I know what the life was like. It was a hard job; some places were harder than others."

Among the harrowing stories he tells are of people driven to attempted murder or suicide by the isolation and demands of lightkeeping. Whale Rock seemed especially cursed; long before Eberle's death, in 1897 an assistant keeper attacked his boss with a knife and had to be hauled off "in irons."

At Conimicut Light in Narragansett Bay, in 1922, the lightkeeper's wife poisoned herself and her two sons while her husband was away; one child lived.

Most lighthouse residents were philosophical, relying on books (and later, TV) to while away the hours. In 1975, a lightkeeper at Halfway Rock in Casco Bay, Maine, told the Portland Press Herald a basketball had washed up and he had spent all day counting "2,448 pimples" on its surface.

Today the Coast Guard has automated its active lighthouses, mostly with solar-powered LED lamps. Gone are most of the giant Fresnel lenses that rotated on a bed of mercury. Other lighthouses, like Plum Beach Light off Jamestown, have been decommissioned and acquired by nonprofits or philanthropic individuals.

Meanwhile, D'Entremont keeps busy lecturing, writing and giving tours. He has two programs coming up in Massachusetts: in Scituate at 7 p.m. on Aug. 16 at the GAR Hall and at 6 p.m. on  Sept. 25 at the Saugus Public Library. For more information, visit his website at www.newenglandlighthouses.net.

— Betty J. Cotter teaches at the University of Rhode Island and Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn. She is the author of "The Winters" and "Roberta’s Woods."