Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2011

Life at Hog Island Shoals Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse, RI.
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

When prospective buyers visited Rhode Island’s Hog Island Shoals Lighthouse in July of 2006, they were greeted to a much different situation than when Tom Dunwoodie served at the lighthouse from 1959 to 1960 toward the end of the era of lighthouse keeping at the lighthouse, which came to a close in 1964.

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Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse, RI.
Photo by: Timothy Harrison

Although the interested buyers arrived to view the tower that many called a “survivor,” it was in bad shape. The ladder going up to the lighthouse was rusted, some of the porthole windows were boarded up, and peeling paint was everywhere, as were the birds and the mess they leave behind. The ‘wantabe owners’ couldn’t even get the door open to the outside upper deck; its hinges were too rusted. Under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, the government had offered the lighthouse for free to any qualified nonprofit or government entity, but none wanted it. However, structurally, the lighthouse was sound and it would surely appeal to someone with enough funds to buy and restore it.

Interestingly, the treacherous shoals in the area were first marked, not by the federal government, but by a privately owned light vessel maintained by the Old Colony Steamboat Company. Although the vessel was put there for Old Colony’s expressed use, other vessels benefited from the beacon. However, other ship operators complained that the light was too dim from the privately owned light vessel, and Congress approved a federal lightship, the LV 12, to be assigned to the area until money was approved to build an actual lighthouse.

Other than modern conveniences, Dunwoodie’s stay at the lighthouse, as one of its last keepers, was similar in many ways to what the lighthouse keepers experienced since the lighthouse was built in 1901. Amazingly, the light in the tower was still being lit by kerosene until electricity came to the lighthouse in 1959.

However, Dunwoodie said that nothing in Coast Guard boot camp or engine-man school in Groton, Connecticut could have prepared him for the shock of being assigned to the “spark-plug” looking lighthouse surrounded by water.

Dunwoodie recalled, “We arrived at the lighthouse in a 16-foot skiff which had to be maneuvered in between two piles of rock and then we had to hook up block and tackle to each end of the boat so it could be pulled up slightly out of the water so it wouldn’t keep hitting the rocks from the ocean swells. Then we transferred the food to the main deck with a bucket and rope. My biggest surprise was seeing nothing more than a chain ladder that we had to climb to reach the main deck. Then the fun began. The boat now had to be pulled up to the main deck and secured.”

Dunwoodie recalled that sanitary conditions at the lighthouse were something else the Coast Guard had never mentioned to him in training. In boot camp there was a specific dialogue about keeping a clean body and brushing one’s teeth, but living at a lighthouse like this one was never mentioned by any instructors. Although Hog Island Shoal Lighthouse has a cistern below the engine room for collecting rain water, a hot water tank was not among the amenities. Plus, there was no bath tub or shower provided. The men would have to heat water on the kitchen stove, pour it in the kitchen sink, and wash themselves in the kitchen where they cooked and ate their meals. They were encouraged not to do this during meal time.

Unlike some spark-plug style lighthouses where an outhouse hung out over the water, Hog Island Shoal had an indoor toilet in its own little room located within the engine room. However, the men had to pump the water by hand into a bucket and then dump it into the toilet bowl to be flushed down and away.

During heavy rains, the spigot to the cistern valve on the rooftop would be opened to allow for seagull and other bird excrement to be washed from the roof rather than into the cistern. It was required that the cistern be cleaned twice a year and whitewashed. Entry to the cistern was done through a small hatch door, and the cleaning of the cistern was assigned to the junior man, who at that time was Dunwoodie.

When there was not enough rain to keep the cistern full, water was delivered by the buoy tender Spar from the Buoy Depot in Bristol, Rhode Island. Dunwoodie recalled that getting the water from the tender to the lighthouse was extremely difficult and hard work for the two men who would be on duty at the lighthouse during the delivery. The crew from the buoy tender would shoot a line across the main deck roof. The men on the lighthouse would then have to pull the line in until a larger line was pulled into the lighthouse that was attached to a rubber hose filled with air. The men would then pull the hose through the kitchen, downstairs to the engine room and finally to the cistern hatch.

Diesel fuel, which was needed to operate the two Hercules diesel generators, also had to be delivered by the buoy tender. This was done by the same basic method of delivery as was done with the water delivery. The fuel was stored in two 500-gallon tanks on the main deck. One time while the Coast Guard tender was attempting to deliver oil from the tender Spar, the crewman handling the hose on board the ship slipped and fell overboard into Narragansett Bay. Although he was quickly pulled out of the drink and they all had a good laugh about it afterward, he could have gotten seriously injured, proving once again that any type of duty out on the water has its dangers.

Food for the light station was generally picked up by the man who would be returning from liberty. The food order was called into the Bristol Depot. When the returning man had the food order, he would drive his car to the lumber yard in Portsmouth, RI and turn the cars headlights on as a signal that the food was ready to be picked up and brought out to the lighthouse.

Without electricity, both the stove and the refrigerator had to be powered by propane, which was supplied by tanks that also had to be delivered to the lighthouse and the empties returned.

Although one man of the three man crew would be allowed three days of liberty on a rotating basis, sometimes weather conditions, such as fog, snow and ice, would prevent liberty. However, it was the ocean swells generally caused by a southwest wind that were the biggest culprit in not allowing the men to lower and launch the station’s 16-foot fiberglass boat and leave the station for liberty.

Dunwoodie recalled that most of his duty at the lighthouse was routine, such as charting the weather, making sure the light and foghorn were in pristine operating order, and keeping everything clean and polished. Dunwoodie also humorously recounted, “Since the Officer in Charge was usually a Boatswain Mate, we were always painting inside and out.” Free time was spent fishing, watching TV, swimming, and studying for advancement.

Although being in the tower during a storm could be unnerving as the waves and wind smashed against the tower often causing the structure to literally shake, Dunwoodie said it was the fog that was the biggest cause of anxiety at the lighthouse. The constant blast of a fog horn from and on a round tower surrounded by water is much different from the sound of being stationed at a land or island based lighthouse. Dunwoodie continued by saying, “It’s the loudest sound you will ever hear in your life and it vibrated through the entire tower. And, the fog can be eerie, especially when it’s continuous for a few days and you’re tired from a lack of sleep. After a while I’d stand out on the main deck hoping to see lights ashore. This is when one’s mind and ears play tricks on you. You really have to experience this to know the feeling.”

One December day, near the end of the month, a call came over the radio to the lighthouse, instructing the keepers to put on their best work clothes for a visitor who would be arriving soon. The visitor was not an inspector, but instead it was Santa Claus coming out to celebrate Christmas with the keepers. Santa arrived with a TV crew from Providence, Rhode Island. That night the men gained their moment in fame when they got to watch themselves on television.

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This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2011 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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