Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Two Connecticut River Lighthouses

Going through my old postcards recently, I found the one below of Hayden Light. I researched it and discovered it was the old Essex River Reef Lighthouse, built in 1889 on a reef inside the Connecticut River, not far north of Long Island Sound.

The name Hayden's Light was a local moniker used by the folks living along the river. It honored a longtime lightkeeper named Gilbert Hayden who rowed to the lighthouse twice a day to light and then extinguish its sixth-order lens. Records I found don't indicate the fuel source, but it was probably kerosene.

Bernie Hayden also kept the Essex Reef Light. He may have been a relative of Gilbert Hayden, possibly his son. In Bermie Hayden's later years, his eyesight failed, but he continued to work as a lamplighter until the light was made automatic in 1919. A side note to his service: Mariners and local folk in Essex sometimes teased Bernie by saying the lighthouse has lifted off its foundation and floated away.

The keepers had several months' vacation in the winter when the light was extinguished due to ice on the river. They probably worked at jobs ashore from late December until March.

The Lighthouse Service decided to construct this lighthouse and one farther upriver on Chester Rock due to the high volume of ship traffic on the river. By 1880, sizable vessels traveled all the way from Long Island Sound up to Hartford. Congress appropriated $15,000 to light the river, which included the beacons at Essex Reef and Chester Rock. 

Both were built to the same specifications. The design called for a 25-foot wooden, shingled tower with a black lantern. A submarine foundation consisting of a wooden crib sheathed in metal and filled with rocks rose above the reef and the tower sat atop the crib on a concrete base. A ladder ran up the side of the foundation and the exterior of the tower for access to the lantern room. There was room in the base of the tower for storage of tools and fuel. Both the Essex Reef Light and the Chester Reef Light (shown below, photo from the Deep River Historical Society) displayed sixth-order Fresnel lenses. My research doesn't reveal the type of fuel used, but it probably was kerosene.

Essex Reef Light began its career in the summer of 1889 with a fixed red light. It was changed to fixed white in 1892. Chester Rock Light was replaced by an automatic skeleton tower in 1912, and thereafter no keeper was needed. Essex Reef Light continued in operation until about 1919 when it, too, was replaced by an automatic skeleton beacon. It was converted to a gas light in 1931. The whereabouts of the original sixth-order lenses for these lighthouses is unknown. 

The Coast Guard replaced both lights with modern square steel towers by the 1970s. The image below, from Alex Trabas' website, shows the Essex Reef Light today. It's not as quaint and pretty as the old wooden tower, but it does the job.

The 26 foot steel tower is surmounted by a plastic beacon that flashes green every 4 seconds.  A green dayboard has #25 on it, to identify the beacon in the lineup of river lights. Locals still refer to this as Hayden's Light. It sits off Hayden's Point, named for the first lightkeeper who rowed from his home on the point twice a day so long ago.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Light at Olympia

            So many people come to Washington to see lighthouses and then miss one--Dofflemyer Point Lighthouse, the guidepost into Olympia. It isn't majestic; some say it's not even pretty. It's importance to nineteenth and early twentieth century shipping was, however, critical.

           Olympia was settled in the 1840s and became the capital of Washington Territory in 1853. When Washington became a state in 1889, Olympia naturally became its capital. The name Olympia honors the beautiful Olympic Mountains to the west of the city.

           As Puget Sound became settled, more and more vessels began traveling north and south. The Mosquito Fleet, a nickname for the many passenger steamers that plied the sound, grew in the middle 1800s. Vessels called at Olympia and ferried passengers to places like Tacoma, Seattle, Bremerton, and Port Townsend. In addition, Olympia grew strong as lumber and fishing port. To handle the many ships and ferries, Percival Dock was built in 1887.

Capt. Gene Davis, curator of the Coast Guard Museum Northwest, holds a lens-lantern such as Dofflemyer Point would have exhibited in 1887. The lens-lantern was hung from a wooden post with a spar connected to the top The post light pictured above stood at Pulley Point south of Seattle, but the same design was used at Dofflemyer Point.

With so much maritime activity, merchants and seaman began calling for navigational aids. There was little money available from Washington, D.C. and the Lighthouse Board. With a slim budget, buoys were placed and lights were established, most of the lights in the style of those that operated on small waterways and rivers--post lights.

On December 13, 1887, a 12-foot high wharf post with a lens-lantern light was set up on the northeast side of Budd Inlet, an important turning point for ships headed in and out of the port of Olympia. The site was Dofflemyer Point, a shoal-ridden area named for pioneer Isaac Dofflemyer who settled on the point in 1865.

In 1887, post beacons were also set up at other critical spots on Puget Sound, including Browns Point in Tacoma, Point Robinson on Vashon-Maury Island, and Alki Point in Seattle. (The lens-lantern pictured above is from Alki Point.) Most of the keepers were lamplighters who lived nearby and came to the sites to tend the beacons. The kerosene reservoirs on the lens-lanterns held enough fuel for eight days, so they were only refueled once a week. A local resident was hired to maintain the beacon at Dofflemyer Point, along with two other minor lights in the area.

As Olympia grew, complaints about the maze of waterways leading to it mounted. The port was not a high priority for the Lighthouse Service funding sources in faraway Washington, D.C., but finally, in 1934, the post light was upgraded and placed on a 34-foot octagonal concrete tower with a tiny iron lantern on top. Inside the lantern was a small drum lens illuminated with an electric bulb. An electric air horn was added as a fog signal. (There was probably a fogbell prior to this.)

B&W photos courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

The light operated self-sufficiently using a sensor, but the foghorn operated manually. For many years after World War II, the fog signal was tended by a local woman named Madeleine Campbell, whose beach home was beside the lighthouse. Campbell switched the foghorn on and off as needed. Thus, she had to keep watch on conditions at Budd Inlet daily.
The light was automated in the 1960s with a plastic optic. The small lantern was removed. The horn was manually operated by Campbell for another twenty years before it, too, was made self-sufficient. In 1987 a radiobeacon was added to the lighthouse to further assist mariners.

In 2006 the Coast Guard removed the historic fog signal, much to the dismay of the Little Boston neighborhood. It was no longer needed and there was no response to the “Notice to Mariners” the Coast Guard published. A small grassroots group in the town hopes to have the foghorn reinstated. 
The light remains active and is visible for 9-miles. It sits on a private beach but can be seen from a nearby marina.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Lights on the Panama Canal

Today, August 14th, marks 102 years since the opening of the Panama Canal, one of the greatest marine engineering projects in modern history. Great fanfare marked opening day with dignitaries in attendance to give speeches and praise those who designed and built the canal. It was an expectedly hot and muggy day, typical of August in Panama.

Construction of the canal began in 1904. Cost for the project was approximately $387-million. Much of the budget was used for digging the canal and building locks, but there was also money spent on navigational aids.

Forty-six lighthouses were built at the Atlantic (Caribbean) and Pacific entrances of the canal and its inland lakes. These lights were intended to assist pilots in entering and exiting the canal and negotiating the inner parts of the waterway that were open or contained locks.

Most of the light towers were range lights--beacons built close together so that when lined up one atop the other they kept a ship in the channel. Huge Gatun Lake is home to most of the 46 lighthouses.

Concrete was the primary building material, since wood and steel easily deteriorate in tropical climates. Even the spiral stairways usually were concrete. Three basic designs were used, and most of the lighthouses had ornate embellishments, adding to the beauty of the canal. The original lighthouses ranged in height from 28 to 88 feet tall. A heavy foundation and base design protected against hurricanes and earthquakes.

In the first years after the canal opened, remote lighthouses were fueled by acetylene gas lamps inside Fresnel lenses. The remainder were electric. Of course, today, all of the canal's lights are either electric or solar-powered and operate automatically.

The lighthouses, like the canal itself, are divided into five sections. The Atlantic (Caribbean) section extends from the Atlantic entrance to Lake Gatun. From there, the Lake Gatun sections travels through the lake to Gamboa. Next is the Culebra Cut section from Gamboa to Pedro Miguel Locks. Then follows the Miraflores Lake section from the Pedro Miguel Locks to Miraflores Lake. Last is the Pacific section from Miraflores Lake to the Pacific Ocean.

The Lighthouse Division of the Panama Canal was established on April 14, 1914, four months before the canal opened. Its chief of operations was  W.F. Beyer. The division experienced several reorganizations during its career. It was transferred to the canal's Dredging Division in the late 1900s. In the 1990s the Coast Guard assigned officers to advise the Panama Canal Commission regarding navigational aids as plans were finalized for returning the canal to Republic of Panama. On December 31, 1999, the canal was officially returned to the government of Panama, which now administers its lighthouses.

One of the best ways to see the lighthouses of the Panama Canal is to take a cruise through the canal.

There are several excellent online sources of pictures and information about the lighthouses of the Panama Canal.

Larry Myhre of Washington has excellent images posted here:

Another good source is here:

And here:

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

The Ingenuity of Blind Man

Alexander Mitchell was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1780, one of thirteen children. He was always a curious boy and loved to design things and conducts experiments. Sadly, his eyesight began to deteriorate when he was a teenager. By age sixteen he could barely see to read, but his siblings kindly read to him and helped him obtain a good education. By age twenty-two, Mitchell was totally blind.

While most of us might despair such a fate, Mitchell learned to use his hands to examine and learn and invent. He became a tinkerer and borrowed money to start a brick company in Belfast. He oversaw construction of about twenty buildings and was quickly acknowledged for his brilliant ideas. He designed several useful methods and tools for his company. During this time he also married and had a family.

Living near the sea, Mitchell loved all things nautical. His son, John, became his eyes, assisting him in his experiments and travels. The family had a boat, and Mitchell designed a special sail for it. In 1832, while on Belfast Lough, he tested the sail. It was attached to a pole on which a large flanged screw had been mounted to make it swivel.

It was windy that day, so Mitchell thrust the screw of the sail's pole into the sand while he positioned the boat in order to affix the sail to it. He told his son to hold the sail, but to their surprise, the wind caught the sail and whirled the pole around and around, screwing it firmly into the sand. When Mitchell tried to remove the screw he found it so tightly anchored in the sand it wouldn't budge. It took great effort to free it.

This got Mitchell to thinking about screws. He had always been fascinated with them. Even the corkscrew that opened a wine bottle at dinner interested him. He began to think about larger screws that might anchor iron piles for wharves, piers, bridges, even lighthouses. He set to work getting drawings prepared and had a few examples of his invention made. He called it the screwpile.

In the spring of 1833, he and his son, then aged nineteen, took one of the fabricated screwpiles out to Belfast Lough in their boat. Together father and son screwed the pile deep into the mucky sands of the lough until only a few feet of it remained above water. They returned home, and in the night a storm passed through Belfast. The next day, they rowed out to the lough and found the screwpile still firm in the seafloor.

Mitchell knew his design would not only anchor lighthouses firmly, but also that wind and waves could pass through the iron piles unhindered.

Mitchell's proposed method for inserting screwpiles into the sea floor.

A second test of a screwpile in Belfast Lough gave similar results. Confident in his idea, Mitchell had his screwpile patented later in the year. At first, no one seemed interested. But in 1838 the Corporation of Trinity House--the lighthouse authority of England--contacted Mitchell and asked if he would design the foundation for a lighthouse at Maplin Sands in the Thames Estuary.

Mitchell's design called for eight iron legs to be screwed twenty-two feet into the mucky estuary floor. The legs were heavily braced and then a house for the lightkeeper was mounted on top. The lighthouse was first lit in February 1841 and was a great success.

In the years that followed, Mitchell supervised the construction of many projects involving screwpiles, including the lighthouses at Wexford, Cobh, Soldier's Point, and Spit Bank. Perhaps he was happiest when a screwpile lighthouse went into service in his home harbor at Belfast Lough, where he had first experimented with screwpiles.
Belfast Lough Lighthouse

A photo of the Belfast Lough Lighthouse years after its construction. Today, Blackhead Lighthouse and other beacons around Belfast have replaced it.

Remains of the Wyre Lighthouse a few years ago at Port Fleetwood. The superstructure was destroyed by fire in 1948, but enough of the foundation remained to mount a small light. It still stands but is crumbling. A group has formed to save it. 

Lighthouse authorities around the world quickly adopted Mitchell's design. Brandywine Shoal in the Delaware Bay was the site of the first screwpile lighthouse in the United States. The image below shows the old lighthouse next to its new, caisson-style replacement. 

Eventually, over one-hundred of these designs would be built in the nation. Among the more famous ones are the tall, iron screwpile lighthouses of the Florida Strait. Lt. George Gorden Meade, who would later distinguish himself as the Union commander at the Battle of Gettysburg, oversaw construction of these lighthouses. When he discovered that coral reefs were hollow, he designed a spinoff of Mitchell's invention and called it the diskpile. It had special shoes that anchored the screwpile to the underside of the crust of a coral reef.

Sand Key Lighthouse, which successfully replaced a traditional masonry lighthouse that was washed away by the sea.

Carysfort Reef Lighthouse off the Florida Keys.

Fowey Rocks Lighthouse, southeast of Key Biscayne, Florida

Today, few of Mitchell's screwpile lighthouses remain. Many have been replaced by caisson lighthouses, which sit on large concrete tubes filled with riprap. Some stand on heavy tubular legs similar to those of marine oil platforms. But you will find several screwpile lighthouses preserved in museums and a few that remain standing.

Thomas Point Lighthouse is the last Chesapeake Bay screwpile lighthouses standing and operating on its original site.

Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse, now on display at Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

Alexander Mitchell died in 1868 at the age of 88. He is buried in Belfast.