Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2009

Another Lighthouse History Mystery Solved

By Timothy Harrison


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An early image of part of the St. George ...

It was back in 1994 when I purchased a United States Lighthouse Service Inspector’s flag from a descendant of Wilbur Plumley, who had found the flag among the personal affects of Mr. Plumley. When

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Joseph Taylor Yates worked for the U.S. ...

I established the Museum of Lighthouse History in Wells, Maine on behalf of the American Lighthouse Foundation, I had a friend build a wall display case for the flag. However, we never knew much about Mr. Plumley, but assumed he must have been an employee of the United States Lighthouse Service.

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An experimental lighthouse built at the St. ...

When the Museum of Lighthouse History, merged with the Maine Lighthouse Museum in Rockland, Maine, founded by the late Ken Black, the flag went to Rockland where it is now on display.

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This United States Lighthouse Service Inspectors ...

Every so often I’d do some more research, trying to find some more information about Wilbur Plumley, always to no avail. In the January 2007 issue of Lighthouse Digest,

I again asked for the public’s help and posted the request on the Lighthouse Digest web site.

Proving once again that lighthouse history is always being rediscovered, amazingly, fifteen years after the flag was acquired; we now have, what Paul Harvey would say, “the rest of the story.” This is all thanks to information and documentation supplied by Ted Sadler, who found our on-line request for information. It turns out that Wilbur Plumley was the brother of Ted’s grandmother, Eleanor Plumley and son of Charles Plumley and Isabel Van Riper, and he was never in the Lighthouse Service or the Coast Guard.

However, Isabel Van Riper Plumley’s second husband was Joseph Taylor Yates, who was the Superintendent of the Third Lighthouse District, which was headquartered at the Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island, New York, and the flag had actually belonged to him. More than likely, Yates took the flag as a souvenir after the Lighthouse Service was dissolved in 1939.

We have learned that Joseph T. Yates, who was born on August 13, 1875, spent an amazing 42 years as an employee of the United States Lighthouse Service. When the Lighthouse Service was dissolved in 1939, he had been the Superintendent for 26 years. The dramatic change of having the Lighthouse Service being dissolved must have been disheartening to Yates, as much as it was to many others at the time. After all, Yates had held one of the most important and high-ranking positions in the U.S. Lighthouse Service. He had been the boss, he reported only to the Commissioner of Lighthouses in Washington, D.C. and then, suddenly, at midnight on June 30, 1939, he was no longer the boss and now had to report to a Coast Guard Captain; one Ralph W. Dempwolf, who was commander of the Coast Guard’s New York District.

In a newspaper interview at the time, Yates said he didn’t expect any real changes. However, as anyone who has studied this part of history knows, many changes did happen. Within a few short months after the Coast Guard took over, Yates announced that he would retire on June 30,1940, however he may have stayed slightly longer to assist with the transition.

During his tenure as superintendent he had nearly 200 employees working under him at the Lighthouse Depot and he was responsible for over 19,000 aids to navigation in his district. Also, whether directly or indirectly, the lighthouse keepers, and the captains and crews of the lighthouse tenders and lightships, all reported to him.

In 1931Yates got himself involved in some political turmoil that reached all the way to Washington D.C. It seems the government had built a new home for the Lighthouse Superintendent and the home he was living in was to be replaced by a new post office building. However, Yates refused to move into the new superintendent’s home because he was unhappy with the way the painting had been done and because window screens had not yet been installed. This held up the $345,000 post office project and the dispute reached all the way to Washington. In spite of this, Yates refused to give in and stood his ground until the union workers completed the house to his satisfaction.

During Yates’ service he oversaw many changes, from electricity being brought to lighthouses, lighthouse automation, fog signal and radio beacon changes and many more innovative and technological improvements.

Joseph T. Yates died on March 25, 1943 in New Dorp, Staten Island, NY and was buried at the Ocean View Cemetery, Staten Island, NY.

We wish to thank Ted Sadler for sharing this important part of lighthouse history with us so that others can now learn about it and it can also be saved for future generations. We know there are hundreds of other memories, stories and photographs of the people who worked for the Lighthouse Service as well as the Coast Guard who have yet to be reported or written about. They are simply waiting to be rediscovered, but time is running out.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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