Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2012

Almost Killed by a Bug

By Richard Clayton


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American Shoal Lighthouse, 15 miles east of Key ...

At the beginning of the twentieth century, few people even remotely realized what isolation meant to the men living under restricted conditions, such as prevailed at the lighthouse stations on the Florida Keys. On average, they resided on a cast iron skeletal structure, ten miles offshore, resting in very shallow water atop a reef. The temperature ranged from 70 degrees in winter to 90 degrees in summer with high humidity.

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Hillsboro Lighthouse in Pompano Beach, Florida as ...

Alfred Alexander Berghell was appointed as the head keeper at the American Shoal Light on January 18, 1905. The cast iron lighthouse, built in 1880, was on a screw pile foundation with a platform and a skeletal tower that reached 109 feet above the water. The site was on the outermost reefs, covered with four feet of water. The bachelor station was manned by a three-man crew.

Nothing much happened at the station until this log book entry:

August 6, 1905: Keeper is feverish and vomits all day.

It was a medical report written by an assistant who was a man of few words.

August 7: Keeper down with a bad case of dengue fever.

August 8: Keeper still sick.

August 9: Keeper beginning to feel better but cannot keep food in the stomach. Would send off to Key West for man but have no dingy. Schooners will not stop, except we come out to them.

What in the world is dengue fever? It turns out to be an infectious tropical disease transmitted by several species of mosquito. As there is no vaccine, prevention is sought by reducing the number of mosquitoes and limiting exposure to bites. Symptoms include fever, headache, muscle and joint pains, and a characteristic skin rash that is similar to measles.

Picture this lighthouse keeper: 39-year old Alfred Berghell. His body, wracked with a high fever, was lying in dirty bed covers in a cast iron house isolated from the outside world with little or no medication. It was August in Southern Florida, 90 degrees with high humidity and no air-conditioning. There was no boat to take him ashore to seek medical help and relief. He may well have been delirious at times.

He remembered that his father was one of the richest and most influential men in Finland when Alfred was born in 1866. His father owned three homes and young Alfred grew up on a country estate with many servants.

Alfred had a passion for the sea and dreamed of being a sea captain one day. At the age of 14, he was able to sail to America on a trading ship owned by his brother-in-law and he worked as a crew member just for the fun of it. When he got back to Finland, he was accepted at the Russian Naval Academy and graduated at age 19.

At the graduation ball a young Russian officer insulted the lady who Alfred was dancing with, and a duel ensued outside where Alfred pinned the officer down and ripped the insignia off the officer’s uniform. Now the boy of 19 was in danger of arrest and life in Siberia. His uncle arranged a passport and Alfred left Finland for good.

In England, Alfred found work on one of his brother-in-law’s merchant vessels as a Junior Officer until he was old enough to be Captain. He spent several years trading for pearls in the South Seas, travelling around the world four times. At age 30 he became gravely ill, spending over two years recuperating in Australia. During this period he became very hard-of-hearing. It was determined that, because of the hearing loss, he would have difficulty as the captain of a sea-going vessel.

A friend suggested Berghell go to the United States and enter the Lighthouse Service, which he did. He started out as a second assistant keeper at the Pensacola Light in 1897, and later was transferred to Dry Tortugas, located on Loggerhead Key. He transferred again as the first assistant at the Rebecca Shoals Light, before being appointed as head keeper at American Shoal. Most of his lighthouse duty had been on stations in the Florida Keys.

August 20: Had flag out all day to put keeper off but no vessel came near the light.

August 21: Keeper left station, sick at 10 a.m.

Presumably he was taken by boat to Key West where he might recover. A year earlier, in 1904, a formal church was organized with 15 charter members who were all devout disciples of Mary Baker Eddy. They became the Church of Christian Science for South Florida. One of the charter members was 38 year-old Alfred Berghell, when he was the first assistant at Dry Tortugas.

While in that town, he was surrounded by friendly church members who would have prayed for him without ceasing. It was there that he probably met 26-year old Gertrude whom he married in 1907. Through the miracle of prayer, he slowly recovered.

Between 1885 and 1901, the Lighthouse Board petitioned Congress annually for funds to place a lighthouse at Hillsboro Inlet, located between Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale, about 40 miles north of Miami. In 1904, with funding in place, three acres of swampland north of the inlet were purchased. Two years later, a skeletal tower was built in Detroit and made a 4,000 nautical mile journey through two of the Great Lakes, down the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, across the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Atlantic seaboard to its new home. The octagonal cast iron tower rose 136 feet with a second order lens. It was erected very close to the shoreline.

In January 1907, Captain Berghell was appointed to be the head keeper at the new light station, and two-story quarters were built to accommodate Alfred and his wife. No longer would he be stationed at a bachelor’s only lighthouse. On March 7, 1907, the keeper climbed the 175 steps to the lighthouse tower where he lit the kerosene lamps.

The following entry in the logbook would have been a delight to write:

May 25, 1907: A baby girl born to keeper and wife at 9:30 am. (The child was named Marie Elizabeth Berghell)

The log book entries were fairly routine, with an occasional mention of the first assistant keeper not doing the work properly. One such example was in February 1908:

Feb 05, 1908: At sunrise on Keeper watch, saw what looked to be a tramp steamer ashore about 7 miles S by W from light. Went down from tower and told assts to make launch ready to go out to her. 1st Assistant, Henry Keyes, refused absolutely to come saying that we were no life saving crew. Keeper went south along canal nearly abreast of the steamer which was flying signals of distress. Dr. Pete, a northern gentleman living nearby offered to come out with me to the wreck and carry some of his men with him. Went back to the inlet and crossed same without trouble. Reached steamer which was hard on inner reef. Headed on toward south shore, went aboard and asked the Captain to fill out wreck report and asked for cause of casualty. Captain said he could see the white flash but not red sector and said he could get his whole crew to testify to that effect. She ran ashore at 5 am. While aboard, getting the paper filled out, they started engine full speed astern causing a heavy strain on line and when a heavy sea came the launch broke adrift. Dr. Pete and his men became frightened and sat down in the launch without throwing the anchors overboard. Got a boat from Tow Boat to take me to launch, but before I got there she was right in breakers beginning to fill up. Jumped overboard and got men in launch to hold her head on till we got through the surf and hauled her up as far as we could. Emptied the water out of her. Ten colored men from Pompano helped us get her back through the surf and afloat and were towed back to the station by Mr. Hardy’s launch. When asking the 1st Assistant why he didn’t come out to Hardy’s launch to help get the station launch off the beach, told me that two men had to be at the station by law. Have come to the station several times and found him fishing.

The keeper and his wife were blessed a second time.

July 26, 1908: A son was born at 8:05 am. (They named him Cuthbert Charles)

Captain Alfred Berghell was the keeper at the Hillsboro Inlet Light for four years,

1907 to 1911, when he retired at age 45. During his leadership, ten assistants came and left for various reasons. He was a keeper for 14 years.

The 1920 and 1930 U.S. Census indicates that Captain Berghell, with his wife and two children, had moved to California and were living in Santa Monica. Alfred died at the age of 81 in 1947. Gertrude died at the age of 72 in 1951.

[A special note of thanks to Hib Casselberry, the Historian and Past President for the Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society. Also, to his wife Martha for her story of the Hillsboro Inlet’s early keepers. They provided the information about Captain Berghell’s early life in Finland.]

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2012 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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