Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A November Tragedy

This article appeared in The Irish Examiner. No author was given, but it's very well written! The Irish lighthouses are many now, but when the Stephen Whitney wrecked, they were, as Robert Hume said, "lamentably deficient."

Tragedy at sea lit the way to safer system of lighthouses

‘Lamentably deficient’ lighting doomed ships off our coast, but led to a proper system of lighthouses, writes Robert Hume.
Fastnet Rock lighthouse, one of 78 lighthouses maintained today by Irish Lights. Picture: Peter Cox
On Monday 18 October 1847, a large, elegant sailing ship, the Stephen Whitney, named after a wealthy American merchant, left New York for Liverpool by way of Cork, on one of its three regular annual voyages. On board were 76 passengers, a crew of 34, and a cargo, which included corn, cotton, cheese, resin, and 20 boxes of clocks.
For the first 23 days of the voyage, nothing untoward occurred. But all this was to change when the Red Star Line packet ship approached Ireland’s perilous south coast.
As the ship rounded Mizen Head on Wednesday 10 November, the weather became “hazy” and the wind strengthened. When the haze turned to thick fog, Captain W Popham from Cork was unable to make out the glow of the Cape Clear light high above them.
Believing that he was already at the Old Head of Kinsale, when he was in reality still at Brow Head, Crookhaven, he began steering towards what he thought was Cork harbour.
At dinner, passengers congratulated officers on a safe journey in difficult weather. All were looking forward to meeting friends and relatives.
According to the Cork Constitution, many had emigrated from Ireland during the winter famine of 1846/47, but being “disappointed in their hopes of settling in America”, were returning home.
Just before 10 o’clock the wind reached gale force.
A cry went out: “breakers ahead!” Suddenly there was a tremendous crash as the ship’s stern struck the western tip of Calf Island, near Skull.
Recoiling from the original impact, she then smashed broadside against the rocks.
After the vessel struck a third time, it was left shaking like a reed.
“All on board were “stupefied with horror and amazement”, declared the Cork Examiner. “It was evident the ill-fated ship was doomed”.
In less than ten minutes, 92 passengers and crew were “hurled into eternity”.
Sixteen of the crew died, drowned or were crushed to death by the ship. They included Popham, a highly respected captain, who was dashed against the cliffs while trying to swim ashore.
Another victim was a local man, Joseph Cleburn of Bandon.
Seventy-six passengers perished. Many of their names were unknown because the ship only carried records of those who occupied cabins, not those in steerage class.
But there were survivors. Among them was a motherless boy, Patrick Patterson of Roscrea, Co Tipperary. Riddled with guilt for not trying to save his drowning father, he had to be restrained from throwing himself off the cliffs.
William Smith from Baltimore, Maryland, a sailor with seventeen years experience, provided a graphic account of what happened: “We had all the necessary boats… but there was no time to get them down”. When the bales of cotton fell overboard, “people began jumping on them, thinking they were rocks, and drowned”.
By chance, others, including Smith, were spared: “A very heavy sea washed us on the rock, and we jumped off, many of us without getting our feet wet… We then crept up the rock till we felt the grass under our feet, and then sat down… We halloaed as loud as we could... but there was no answer… The mate said ‘There’s a house’…” “The people of the house were as kind to us as if we had all been brothers…I had nothing but my shirt on me, and the man of the house took off his own clothes to cover me. They made us some bread, and I believe, used all their own food to make it… They had not any turf or wood, and they kept burning their straw all night to keep us warm…” Some survivors were taken by boat to Schull where people did their best to provide clothes for them.
Meanwhile, the driver of the Skibbereen mail coach took news of the disaster to Cork.
Stephen Whitney (1776-1860) New York businessman.
Next morning, a revenue boat cruising the coast between Crookhaven, Schull and Baltimore in search of lost property from the Stephen Whitney, passed through a “sea of wood” – the remains of the vessel, ground into small pieces by a ferocious tide.
Reports claimed that local people began to flock in thousands to the scene of the wreck to loot its valuable cargo.
During the next few days, bodies were washed ashore: a child picked up at Roaring Water Bay; a richly dressed lady wearing three gold rings; and a sailor with only one shoe, thrown up on the rocks at Calf Island.
One of the crew attributed the accident to the “lamentably deficient state” of lighting, which had led to so many shipwrecks. At Cape Clear the light was too high above sea level to be useful, and was often obscured by mist and fog. “The whole of the south-west coast requires to be properly lighted”, he said.
The year 1847 was a bad one for shipwrecks — there were five others off the Cork coast. But it was by no means exceptional. In 1867, no fewer than 28 ships went down.
But it was the wreck of the Stephen Whitney that resulted in a particularly high loss of life, and highlighted the need for change.
Responsibility for lighthouses, lightships, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland was entrusted that same year to the Commissioners of Irish Lights. Its remit was to provide aids to navigation, which ensure the safety of life and property at sea.
Under its auspices, the number of Ireland’s lighthouses has increased to 78 — stretching from Bull Rock, Co Cork, to Buncrana Light, Co Donegal, and Muglins Lighthouse, Dublin.
Irish Lights still operate a system of traditional lighthouses, buoys and beacons around the coast of Ireland. It also provides modern radio aids such as radar beacons and GPS. All play a crucial role in maritime safety today, and might have prevented 92 passengers and crew perishing in a few terrifying moments on that foggy, windswept November night.

Find this article at:
http://www.irishexaminer.com/lifestyle/features/tragedy-at-sea-lit-the-way-to-safer-system-of-lighthouses-462565.html
 

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

No Alligator Shoes for the Lightkeeper!


Here's a true story I've told at many a lighthouse presentation. It never fails to elicit gasps and moans of disbelief, and hearty peels of laughter. A speaker like me can't find a better lighthouse tale to tell---a true tale and one that gives my audience a thrill.



Let me introduce you to Joe the lighthouse alligator! The Stone family found the big gator stranded in a sinkhole pit near Cape Canaveral Lighthouse in Florida in the early 1930s. Fred Stone, son of keeper Benjamin F. Stone, recalled that the Stone kids quickly became smitten with the handsome reptile and named him Joe. The kids’ mother allowed them to toss leftovers into the pit, and miscellaneous dead animals and even live ones they caught. Joe was not a picky eater. He managed to survive. In fact, he grew rather fat and developed a taste for Mrs. Stone’s finer creations, such as strawberry pie.

What better pet could a bunch of zany lighthouse kids have than an alligator in a pit??!!

Cape Canaveral Lighthouse, photographed a few years after the Stone family lived at the light station.
 (U.S. Coast Guard Photo)

When Fred’s father received word in 1937 that he was to be transferred down to Hillsboro Inlet Lighthouse, he announced that Joe would have to stay behind. Outcry from the kids was loud and insistent, pulling at the keeper's heartstrings. Even Keeper Stone was a bit fond of Joe; the big gator was quite the conversation piece. And so, the keeper relented and told the kids he would allow Joe to go to Hillsboro Lighthouse, but only if they could find a way to safely get the gator out of his pit and transported.
I’ll reserve for your imagination the details of the antics involved in Joe’s extraction from the swampy abyss. Here, I’ll simply say the kids subdued Joe with plenty of food, flipped him on his back---yes, I am told gators go into a trance-like state on their backs---and with lots of brawn and determination they pulled him from the pit and got him onto the roof of the family car. Oh yes, the family car! Tied down securely and sated with Mrs. Stone’s good cooking, Joe was content to ride to Hillsboro.




It’s hard to imagine how that little caravan of vagabond lightkeepers must have looked driving down Route 1, all their belongings in a wagon behind them and an alligator tied fast to the roof. Joe surely did some sightseeing. After all, he'd been stuck in a pit for a long time. His reptilian brain was on overload!

“Keep your fingers inside, kids!” Mrs. Stone probably warned.

"And Benjamin!" she may have added, "Do your best not to stop at any traffic lights or stop signs. Some fool might come near the car and try to pet old Joe. You know he thinks fingers are sausages!"

 It’s doubtful any hitchhikers flagged them down, and the local police probably were too astonished to give them a traffic ticket for running lights and stop signs and hauling a gator across the county line. Onlookers must have thought the circus was coming to town.

At the entrance to Hillsboro Lighthouse (a small dirt road flanked by sable palms and palmetto scrub), the Stone family car turned left into the driveway and wended their way up to the light station. Keeper Stone was assigned two assistant keepers whose families occupied two of the three dwellings on the compound. Imagine their reactions as the boss drove in with an alligator tied to the top of his car. They may have quickly rounded up their dogs and cats and kids and put them inside!

It wasn't long, though, before the story of Joe's rescue and reassurances of his docile nature were shared with everyone at Hillsboro Lighthouse. A makeshift enclosure was fashioned for the big gator. Joe was mollified with lots of food and then lulled to sleep inside his fenced area with some songs from the kids. The Stone children made sure to splash the big gator with water every hour or two to keep him happy and hydrated until a better cage could be built.


It wasn't long before the Stone family had a gator palace completed to rival the Taj Mahal. Joe was carried inside and lovingly put on display. A sign on the fence said his name--"Big Joe the Alligator." He, being bitten by the hubris bug, absolutely loved the attention. Pictured above with young George Stone and Eugene Santos (courtesy of the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society), Joe had his own cement swimming hole and a sturdy fenced area around it in which to roam, nap, roar, strike a gallant pose, or whatever other activity might satisfy his simple reptilian needs.

It turns out Joe's favorite activity, besides mealtime, was meeting visitors. They came from all around Hillsboro to see the famous "Lighthouse Alligator." If ladies came with alligator purses or men wearing alligator shoes, these biased folks were told they surely would upset old Joe, since he was dumb enough to think those purses and shoes were lost family members. More than one such visitor left a purse or a pair of shoes in their car for fear of offending the great gator!

"All's well that ends well," Shakespeare reminds us. For Joe, it meant one more trip, this time north. After the Stone family moved away from Hillsboro Lighthouse, they donated big Joe to Gatorland, not far from present-day Orlando, Florida.


There, Joe took up retirement from lighthouse life but increased his visibility as a tourist entertainer. He also met LOTS of other gators--a good thing, since the Stone family often wondered if Joe thought himself to be a dog or cat. After all, those were normal lighthouse pets, and there were no mirrors in Joe's pen.

Joe, you'll be glad to hear, lived to a ripe old age, ripe for a gator that is. He spent his sunset years napping, eating chicken wings (no Buffalo Sauce, please), lounging in the Gatorland pools, and flirting with the lady gators. They simply loved his tall tales of life at two Florida lighthouses and his famous ride down Route 1. He even told the girl gators how the Stone kids used to sneak him marshmallows and jelly beans for a treat. Ah, that was the life.

And that is precisely why I love Joe too. His story has brought much laughter and warm feelings to my audiences, young and old. Thanks, Big Joe!

"Joe, old boy, sit up cute now, and I'll give you some pie!"


Tuesday, October 31, 2017

A Guest Blogger--Dave Gamage!

 
Whitehead Lighthouse and dwelling, Maine--Coast Guard Photo

I've never met Dave Gamage, but I so love his Facebook posts. They are always full of interesting, sometimes techie, lighthouse material, not to mention lifesaving info too. He sent me an essay of sorts about a year ago. It's called "What the Heck are Lighthouses Anyway?" I think you'll enjoy it. Do leave comments if you wish, and check out Dave Gamage on Facebook.

Here's the bio he wrote for me--

I am a Mainer, born and brought up on the coast, an amateur historian and author of several articles regarding the Lighthouse Service and the Life-Saving Service. My grandfather was for ten years assistant keeper of Matinicus Rock Light and twenty-one years head keeper at Whitehead Light.  I also have two uncles who served as civilian keepers.  My father during his twenty five year Coast Guard career primarily in search and rescue also served as officer- in -charge of the Rockland Breakwater Light and Portland Head Light.  I am fortunate to have lived at lighthouses and visited others when they were manned and lived at CG small boat stations in Maine and Mass where my father was o.i.c.
And here's his essay called "What the Heck are Lighthouses Anyway?" Enjoy!

People say they love lighthouses. But for many if not most this is passive love, not active. How then do we change passive support to active participation in lighthouse preservation?

The more people who learn of the important role lighthouses played in the history and development of this country the more likely they will support preservation of these and the associated structures, this support by needed contributions of money and by active participation in preservation work at these many lighthouses.

To that end effective lighthouse education would be appropriate for school kids and even for adults. I note that for example the Lighthouse Society has a Teachers Lighthouse Resource for K-4 and there are a few others I have seen.  I do not believe any these will be very effective to excite school kids long term or adults.

To be most effective to teach this history it is most important to begin with something that everyone is most familiar with today. And this is the grocery store that even the youngest child is familiar with and has visited often.  And with this what if one went to the store to do one's week worth of grocery shopping and then to discover the store the store shelves were empty? The store manager tells says he does not anticipate replenishing the shelves for another week or perhaps two. Big problem!

The following is what I believe would an effective approach to teach the importance of lighthouses that could be adapted for various age levels from young children to adults.


    The grocery store. Where and how does the store keeper acquire all the items on the store shelves? These come today mostly by truck, some by railroad and maybe some by air plane to a nearby airport. What if the store shelves went empty and for many days at a time?

    Now imagine living in a small coastal village many years ago. This village with houses, a school, a church and most importantly a store. This was a general store. It was a grocery store, shoe store, hardware store, book store, toy store and other stores all in one and also post office in this store.
This store was very important to the people in this small town. This town could not exist for long if not for this store. This store was a source of things needed for food, clothing and shelter.

    Many years ago there were no planes, no railroad and no trucks. Instead there were horse drawn wagons. But then only very poor dirt roads, no bridges over shallow rivers and streams.  And the wagon would have to stop on occasion to rest the horses. And without lights they might not travel at night.  It might take several days of travel to bring supplies to the village general store. In winter these roads often blocked by snow, very muddy in spring and the shallow rivers and streams flooding during spring runoff.  If depending on wagons the store shelves in the town would often become empty.

    Instead of wagons, the supplies needed for the store and other items were brought to this village by ships with sails to be unloaded at the wharf at the village harbor. A ship could carry as much as could many wagons. Ships routinely sailed up and down the coast delivering supplies to villages and towns.

    Not only did this town and others depend on ships to deliver the various things they needed but people in this town produced products to sell at other towns. There was a saw mill that produced lumber. There were fields for growing potatoes, squash, carrots, etc. that could not be grown at locations of other towns. For being a town on the coast there were fishermen who in those days with no electricity and thus no refrigeration would dry the fish for shipment. The people in this town depended entirely on these ships to carry the products of their labor to market. This is how they earned a living.


    There was a challenge for the ship captain at night to find the harbor entrance at this village so he may pass it by many miles.  To help the ship captains find the harbor at night the people in this village put oil lamps at the shore near the harbor entrance. That the light from these lamps could be seen at a greater distance they constructed a tower of wood or stone with a room with windows at the top and placed these lamps in this room. This tower was the house for the light, a lighthouse. The room at the top was the lantern. They also had a person from the village to attend to these lamps, to light them at dusk and turn them off at dawn. He also prepared the lamps for the next night and he cleaned the lantern window glass and free from winter snow, frost and condensation. This person was the lightkeeper.

    The keeper stayed at the lighthouse most of the time. He had a wife and children so they built a house for them near the tower. This was the keeper's house.  His family also helped take care of the light tower and the house. This is much like a family farm where each family member participates in the daily activities. If the keeper was taken ill and bedridden the keeper's wife or an older son or daughter would attend to the lamps until he was well again.

    A captain navigated his ship using a compass, a weight on a rope to determine the depth of water, and a float on a rope with which to determine his speed through the water.  During daylight he continuously observed the various features of the coast he was passing, there being many identifiable landmarks such as a hill, and open field, perhaps a random farm house.  It was from this chart that he could identify the safe waters and the hazardous waters to avoid. By observation of two landmarks at the same time a captain could determine his exact location on the navigation chart. This is but one of many ways lighthouses are used by mariners in coastal navigation, aka, coastal piloting. At night none of the many natural land marks could be seen. The only landmarks to aid his navigation at night were the lights of the lighthouses. Lighthouses contributed to preventing the loss of ships and loss of life by significantly aiding the captain to effectively navigate his ship both day and night. What captains did not do was head first for one light and then to the next in connect-the-dots fashion. This was a sure way to be wrecked.
   
    And regarding the fisherman, many were fishing many miles off the shore and for two or three days and nights. And late that last day or early evening head back to their home port and guided by the welcoming light of the lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor.

    Because they were needed the Lighthouse Service was created to take responsibility for all the lighthouses.  And in this to supply and maintain them and to hire the keepers. The Service had a small fleet of ships, lighthouse tenders that traveled the coasts to supply the lighthouses. Many light stations were given one or two small rowboats, a launching ramp and boathouse. This enabled getting to town to pick up the mail and acquire groceries when roads at times were not passable. The landing ramp would also be used by the crew of the lighthouse tender when delivering supplies.


  
    It should be mentioned that the lighthouse tower, dwellings, associated structures such as the small oil house for storing lamp fuel and land combined was known as a light station. This the facility where keepers were stationed, their duty station. An assistant keeper at one station would sometimes be promoted to the position of keeper at another light station where a keeper vacancy occurred.

    To become a light keeper a person would apply for this job position and if accepted he most likely would be assigned to a station quite distant from his home. The Service would provide transportation to his assigned station, often by lighthouse tender, for this new keeper and his family and their household possessions. And would do likewise for a keeper and family when transferring to another duty station. Some lighthouses were located in tidal waters with no separate dwellings. The keepers lived in the lighthouse and these did not have room for the keeper's families.
   
    The Lighthouse Service constructed many more lighthouses at harbors and ports and including places along the coast where there were reefs, ledges, sand bars and islands extending out into the waters that the ship captain would most want to avoid. Many ships were wrecked on these and their contents lost into the ocean. Lighthouses were built at remote locations for the benefit of the ship captains at both day and night. Some of these were on islands several miles off the coast. At some hazardous locations off the shore where a lighthouse could not be constructed a ship, a lightship with captain and crew remained anchored nearby to show a light at night and sound a bell or whistle during fog.

    Fog was a problem for ship captains. Fog at some locations might persist night and day for several days. To aid mariners during fog the Lighthouse Service provided a large bell in a bell house at many lighthouses for the keeper to operate in addition to the light. And at some locations a helper was provided, an assistant keeper who with his family also lived near the lighthouse. Later some of the bells were replaced by steam whistles, two whistles and two boilers, one to operate and one a spare, in a building known as the whistle house. And here another helper, a second assistant keeper might be added. Lots of water was needed for the steam boilers so the Lighthouse Service at some lights constructed a long A-frame structure, a rain shed, such that rainwater from the roof was collected in water tanks for use in the steam boilers.

    It was desired to have lighthouses so located that the ship captain would always have one in view, passing one and when it was well behind him there would be the next one come into view. For this reason many lighthouses were constructed, and at remote locations on the coasts from Maine to Florida, on the Gulf Coast, the Pacific Coast, the Great Lakes, and Alaska.  Lighthouses were also built on some of the rivers.

    The first lighthouse in this country was on an island in outer Boston Harbor. Additional lighthouses were later built in that harbor and to the north and south of the harbor and several lighthouses along the entire length of Cape Cod. In the later years of the age of sail as many as 10,000 ships entered Boston Harbor each year. And all of this lighthouse building was to help ship captains have a safe trip, that the store shelves in many coastal cities and towns would not go empty and the products produced at these locations could go to markets where needed.

    Not only did lighthouses aid mariners navigating the coasts but there were many large ships under sail with freight and passengers arriving here from crossing the ocean from Europe.  At night when making land it would be the light of a lighthouse first seen. And when it was identified the ship captain would then know which way to proceed to his port of destination. If no light were seen he would not know where he was and might proceed on into hazardous waters. There were many incidents where a ship ended a successful trip across the Atlantic Ocean only to be wrecked on our shores with the loss of many lives. Most significant was having a good system of lights on our coasts that made our country a more attractive place with less risk for ships from overseas to do business.

    Ships under sail were entirely dependent on wind. If and when the wind ceased the ship could not move. Ships under sail were sometimes overcome by strong storms and were wrecked when driven ashore by the winds and waves and often with lives lost. When winds became too strong the captain might attempt take his ship to place of refuge such as a sheltered harbor to wait for the wind to subside. And with some storms he might have to wait as many as two or three days before proceeding on.

    In time, however,  steam powered ships came into use, with side paddle wheels or propellers. These ships could travel faster and in higher winds, and when there was no wind, and thus maintain schedules of arrival and departure. So not only did these ships carry freight but also had meal and overnight accommodations for many passengers to travel from place to place for business or for pleasure in much less time than overland by stage coach on the very poor roads. That now suppliers and customers could easily meet face to face, business relationships improved to the benefit of both. And if for example the lumber customer visited the sawmill and liking what he observed he may order even more lumber.
   
    Ships powered by steam striving to run on schedules for the benefit of the convenience and safety of the many passengers they carried had a greater need for the aid provided night and day by lighthouses than did ships under sail powered by the inconsistent winds.

    It was because of the many ships and the lighthouses that helped guide them that this little town and many others and people not only survived, but prospered and these towns grew to become large towns and perhaps small cities. Not only the lighthouse at this one small town was important to the people living here but important also to them the many other lighthouses further up or further down the coast aiding ships to and from their town.

    If you visit a lighthouse stand beside the tower and look out the waters beyond. Then imagine many ships under sail and steamships passing in both directions, one hundred or more night and day aided by this lighthouse and the dedication of its keepers and their families.  And this is but one of the many lighthouses that not only ship captains depended upon but also all the people living in towns and cities all along the coasts.  And also people living inland whose supplies came from coastal towns and the products of there labor was shipped from these towns.

    Lighthouses helped save many ships and the lives of those on the ships and aided successful trips up and down coast to significantly enhance the lives and livelihoods of many hundreds of people on shore and inland. This enabled this country of ours to grow and to prosper. This is what lighthouses were all about.
*  *  *  *  *
A presentation of this type can easily and effectively be supplemented by a variety of possible visual aids.  It can be adapted for presentation to various age groups. It not necessary to delve into the details of the Argand lamp, lighthouse clockwork,  Fresnel lens, or lighthouse characteristics, sectored lights, range lights, buoys, fixed markers, numerous post lights on some rivers and the various designs of lighthouse structures. These lighthouses, our history, and hopefully from this comes not just knowledge of individual lighthouses but conceptual understanding of our system of multiple lighthouses and with this the increased willingness and desire to actively contribute to their preservation.           DG 5/29/16

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Back in the Day There Were Traffic Lights on Ships




On Diamond Shoals with all its dreads,
There’s a flashing buoy and a ship painted red…

                                                C.R. Farrow

                                                ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’


                Imagine a ship with a go-nowhere mission, its sole purpose to sit anchored at sea pitching and rolling with the swells.  Other ships looked for it and expected to find it in a prescribed spot, but carefully steered clear, as if some horrible plague was aboard. By day its colorfully-painted hull contrasted with the blue sea and sky, and at night it shone like a bright lantern afloat on the water.  In fog or storms, its bell bonged or a horn croaked loudly to warn other ships of its presence.
Just such a ship existed twenty years ago at Nantucket Shoals.  More than a hundred of its kind were afloat off the American coast at the turn of the century, with perhaps a thousand in service worldwide.  What manner of vessel drew such a strange assignment?  The lightship
Author Photo

This sturdy navigational aid was a commingling of lighthouse and ship, lightkeeper and sailor.   Its job was to anchor at sea near perilous rocks and bars to warn other ships away, or it served as a guidepost for the approach to an important port or inlet.  Whatever the task, it was duty that proved monotonous and dangerous, inglorious and unpopular, at times even mad. 
Lightships once lit the seaways practically everywhere there was water in or along the U.S., including the Great Lakes and the mighty Mississippi.  Their names reflected the hazards they marked — Nantucket Shoals, Carysfort Reef, Hen & Chickens, Columbia Bar, Wolf Trap, Sandy Hook, the Frying Pan, Rattlesnake Shoal, Fishing Rip, Combahee Bank.  The last of these antique signposts at sea was decommissioned more than a decade ago, replaced by modern technology.  But for most of the 19th and 20th centuries, these briny traffic signals guided shipping where lighthouses could not be built and buoys proved inadequate. 
No ship was ever pressed into service under greater need yet was so ungainly of countenance and so despised by its crew.  Lightship duty was the best and the worst.  Said one skipper aboard the Cross Rip Lightship, which guarded Tuckernuck Shoal, Massachusetts:  “If it weren’t for the disgrace it would bring upon my family. I’d rather go to state prison. Yet I know there’s no nobler duty to be served aboard any vessel anywhere.”
The world’s first official lightship, the Nore, went into service in the Thames River estuary in 1731, guiding ships into England’s busiest harbor.  Her British designer received a patent for the 12-foot crossbeam on her single mast from which twin lanterns were suspended. She was, in essence, a floating lighthouse, a glowing sloop anchored near the uncertain river bottom where mud and silt would not support a light tower.  Her keepers were a half dozen able-bodied seamen who spent their days looking longingly toward the bounding main and dreaming of exotic ports, all the while stuck over the muck within sight and sound of the marvelous delights of London’s shantytown.
        It wasn’t long before the major ports of the world adopted the idea of the lightship, for it seemed the best way to mark offshore danger zones and guide vessels into port.  The earliest light vessels in the U.S. were small boats moored in bays.  The first one went into service at Craney Island, Virginia in 1821 and was tended by a lone lamplighter who rowed to it nightly to kindle its lantern and returned at dawn to extinguish it.  Later, revenue cutters were refitted to make larger lightships with permanent crews.  These could be anchored off the coastline miles at sea.  The first such “outside” lightship in the nation was assigned in 1823 to the sealane off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, the busy artery for New York Harbor. 
Two sizes of lightships came into initial use.  Small vessels displaced 100-tons or less; larger lightships could go as big as 300-tons.  They had little or no motive power and were designed with a bulky, flattened hull with a bilge keel added to reduce rolling in heavy seas.  Huge mushroom-shaped anchors held them on position, digging firmly into the seabed.  Each link in the anchor chain was the diameter of a dinner plate. 
Heavy seas sometimes did mysterious things to the anchor.  In 1951, after a May storm pummeled the Eastern Seaboard, the anchor chain of Barnegat Lightship #79 was found tied in a perfect overhand knot.  Scientists and seaman alike were baffled, but quickly attributed the curiosity to freak wave action.  The tender Sassafras raised the anchor onto her deck and carefully worked out the knot.
The preferred hull material was wood, since it was thought to stand up to pounding seas better than metal.  But in warmer waters marine worms were a problem.  The first Charleston Lightship rotted away in only eight years.  It was replaced by a vessel with an iron hull.  Here again were problems.  Iron demanded frequent painting to inhibit rust, and tenacious marine creatures encrusted the bottom.  Crewman spent many hours wielding scrapers, brushes, and the handy “Lightship Barnacle Bumper,” an implement that resembled a large hoe. 
 
The old single mast Carpentaria Lightship from Australia, now part of the maritime museum in Sydney. It had a sweet little Fresnel lens and a fogbell. A docent told me he thought it was maintained one day a week by an Aussie lamplighter.     Author Photo

       Severe storms or the movement of ice sometimes dragged the anchor or parted its chain, setting a lightship adrift. There was little or no motive power on these vessels —certainly not enough to hold a position in heavy seas or against an ice floe.  Pushed off station, a lightship became a hazard. It no longer marked its true spot and was a derelict with a helpless crew still aboard. There were always hours of concern until a tug reached the vessel and towed her back to her proper position.
During the worst weather when other ships headed for safety, the lightship remained on duty, often sacrificing itself.  Buffalo Lightship #22 sank in Lake Erie in a November 1913 storm after being swamped by a huge wave.  All hands died and the vessel was never salvaged.  A similar fate befell the Cuttyhunk Lightship off Cape Cod in September 1944.  Nothing was recovered from her except the bodies of two crewmen.   Vineyard Lightship # 73 was equally unfortunate, though five of her crew were ashore on leave.
Even on position, a lightship was at risk.  During a storm or heavy fog other ships sometimes crashed into it.  Ambrose Lightship off busy New York Harbor was hit often.  The damage usually was minor, but on a foggy day in 1934 the lightship at Nantucket Shoals was cut in two and sunk by the huge liner, Olympia, sister ship to the Titanic.  The Nantucket sank in a matter of minutes, and 7 of the 11-man crew died.
Wartime also saw the loss of lightships.  In August 1918 the Diamond Shoals Lightship sighted a German submarine attacking a freighter and sent a message to all nearby vessels to steer clear of the enemy U-boat.  In doing so, she made herself the target.  With no guns to defend herself, she became a sad casualty of war.
Lightship duty was tedious and difficult. Resident crews of 6 to 12 men lived in cramped quarters, ate mundane meals of salt beef and biscuits, and did repetitious jobs without any change in scenery for long periods, even during the foulest weather.  If visibility was poor, the fog bells and horns deprived even the hardiest man of sleep.  Seasickness was a problem too, since lightships were anchored and rolled constantly.   Some men couldn’t overcome it and had special waivers from lightship duty placed in their service records. 
 

Crewmen were chosen based on seamanship ability and mechanical aptitude.  They called themselves “fish” because of the long months they spent at sea.  Those less enamored of the job referred to themselves as “flotsam.”  Maritime historian James Gibbs noted that “temperamental and impatient individuals are not for lightships.”  Most of a crewman’s day was spent working at shipboard duties, cleaning and repairing the beacons, or standing watch.  To assuage the tedium there were hobbies such as scrimshaw, whittling, and ships in bottles.  The crewmen of the Nantucket Lightship were known for their handsome baskets.

Many crews also kept pets.  The Minots Ledge Lightship off Cohasset, Massachusetts had a dog on board that was trained to swim to passing ships to pick up newspapers and mail in a special waterproof pouch attached to her back.  Charleston Lightship #53 had “Tom,” a hefty old striped cat born on the vessel and encharged with keeping down the rodent population.  The skipper said of him: 
“When the boat goes in to dock, he’ll go ashore, get into a few fights, and come aboard next morning with scratches and general evidence of having had a night of it.  But you may be sure he’ll never let the ship leave without him.”
The deck of a lightship was cluttered with machinery to maintain the beacon and fog signal.  Early on, cannons and bells sounded the fog warnings and had to be tended by hand, but by about 1860 automatic bell-striking mechanisms had been designed.  Whistles, sirens, and horns replaced some of the bells in the late 1800s.  These required cantankerous boilers to make steam for the bellows, but also enormous fortitude on the part of the crew.  In places like New England and the Pacific Northwest, fog plagued the shoreline up to a third of the year.  The constant coal shoveling for the boilers and the never-ending din of the horns wore down many a seaman and added colorful comments to the ship’s logbook.
The hallmark of the lightship – the signature that made it easily identifiable at sea – was the light basket or light cage.  Most lightships had two, mounted near the top of masts. The earliest beacons were oil lamps, which were fueled on deck then hauled up the masts on their own little pulley systems. Gimbals kept the lamps level as the ship rolled in the waves.  Later, gas and electric lights were used in conjunction with small lenses to increase brilliance.
Mushroom anchor on the LV Columbia at Astoria. Author Photo

Advances in marine engineering eventually rendered lightships obsolete.   Screwpile lighthouses with their iron legs screwed deep into the seafloor, caisson lighthouses atop firmly sunk concrete piers, and huge Texas Towers similar to oil rigs upstaged the small lightship at anchor.  Where permanent structures could not be built, the Large Navigation Buoy could be moored to do the same functions as a lightship cheaper, better, and with less danger to human life.
The last lightship was taken out of service in 1982.  It had served on Nantucket Shoals and carried the nickname of its predecessors — “The Statue of Liberty of the Seas.”  Until 1886 when the true Lady Liberty was lit in New York Harbor, it was the first beacon immigrants sighted when headed to America, the first symbol of freedom in a new land.  After its ceremonious decommissioning, it visited a number of East Coast ports looking for a retirement home. Today it sits at Captains Cove in Bridgeport, Connecticut under restoration in preparation for a new career as a museum piece.
        Although earlier decommissioned lightships suffered humiliating ends as scrap metal and targets for Navy torpedoes, about a dozen have been preserved and opened to the public.  They can be toured at places like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, the Columbia River Maritime Museum, the Coast Guard Museum in Seattle, South Street Seaport in New York City, and Virginia’s Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum. 
       Still, some have fared poorly. Historic Barnegat Lightship #79, stationed on Five Fathom Bank and Barnegat Shoals, was decommissioned in 1969 and passed from museum to museum without proper care.  She is now at Pine Point Marina in Camden, New Jersey, languishing in the muck of the Delaware River, her century-old hull badly leaking.  Though listed on the National Register of Historic Places and designated as a National Historic landmark, there is no funding for restoration at this time.
Relics like Barnegat Lightship represent a colorful but almost-forgotten chapter in the long struggle to make our seaways safe.  There were once hundreds of them guarding the outermost perils along America’s shores.  Today there are none.  Maritime historian H.C. Adamson gave a fine farewell tribute to them in his Keepers of the Lights:  “Never in the entire history of the sea have smaller ships and fewer men been entrusted with bigger jobs or performed them with greater credit.”

Photos in this blog are from various sources, but primarily gifts from the collections of Doug Bingham and Jim Gibbs.

Aerial view of LV Columbia on duty at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Sketch of the New South Shoals LV in stormy seas with light baskets lowered.

Sevenstones LV, England. Courtesy of National Maritime Museum.

San Francisco LV as it passes the work to a Large Navigation Buoy in 1971. The vessel was then retired.
Minots Ledge LV that preceded the Minots Ledge Lighthouse.

The old wooden LV50 being towed ashore and readied for an overland trip to be repaired and refloated. The LV ran aground in Bakers Bay on the Columbia River.