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.

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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!"