Digest>Archives> Jul/Aug 2013

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Kristi Aresvik Putnam Christens Lighthouse Tender Lilac

By Jim Claflin


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We recently obtained a wonderful lot of photographs and period newspaper clippings relating to the 1933 christening of the Lighthouse Service tender Lilac by Miss. Kristi Aresvik Putnam, daughter of Lighthouse Commissioner George R. Putnam. The rare lot came from Kristi Aresvik Putnam Hay’s estate on Cape Cod and includes large original photographs of the occasion including the construction and launching of the vessel.

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Lighthouse tenders, the lifeline to the keepers of America’s lighthouses and lightships, towed lightships, tended buoys, carried necessities and saved lives day and night, in weather fair or foul. Without these services the keepers of America’s lighthouses and lightships could not have survived.

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Lighthouse Commissioner George Rockwell Putnam was the first commissioner of the newly reorganized U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910. He led an amazing life during a period of time when new frontiers were being explored, and the practical application of science was changing American life.

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(l to r) Lighthouse Commissioner George R. ...

Captain Jean Butler, G-WP(d), U.S.C.G., in March 2005 U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, noted: “Putnam led the Lighthouse Service through 25 years of modernization and expansion, from 1910-1935, meeting the growing commerce needs of the nation. He had great vision and was a change agent that greatly improved the Service’s effectiveness and efficiency, instituted technical improvements in aids to navigation, and pioneered the use of radio navigation, the first true all-weather navigation system. Equally important, he achieved many gains for employees including career progression, sick pay, annual leave and a retirement system…. Putnam ensured the Service hired the most competent people, each selected solely on his record and his merits, even for the most senior positions. This increased employees’ morale, created feasible career paths to positions of greater responsibility and improved the professionalism of the service. He later referred to his term as commissioner as an adventure in government administration…. Putnam also championed many personnel actions that improved working conditions for employees, things that are taken for granted today, such as performance awards, compensation for injuries sustained on the job, annual leave for crews of tenders, paid sick leave for hospitalized crews of tenders and lightships, and reimbursement for provisions and clothing provided by employees to shipwreck victims. Most notably, his commitment and perseverance led to the passage of the Retirement Act for Lighthouse Service.”

Commissioner George Putnam retired to Dorset, Vermont, in April 1935 at age 70. Upon his retirement, the New York Times published an editorial that said of him, “He was one of those quiet, capable, hardworking chiefs of the permanent government service of whom the general public hears little, but to whom it owes much.”

Two of the Putnams’ children were daughters Kristi Aresvik (born in 1918) and Elizabeth Duncan. Elizabeth had been chosen to do the perform the christening on March 25, 1933 when the LHT Arbutus was launched at the same shipyard and it was Kristi who was selected to christen the Lilac on this auspicious occasion.

The event was described in numerous newspapers of the time as “…all that could be desired, and it was really surprising that so large a number attended.” Besides Commissioner Putnam, his wife and daughter, others in attendance included Assistant Secretary of Commerce Dr. John Dickinson; H.D. King, Acting Commissioner, Department of Commerce, Bureau of Lighthouses; E.C. Gillette, Superintendent of Naval Construction, and many others. Also present were a number of Kristi’s friends from Bryn Mawr College. Before the launching, Kristi Putnam was presented with a lovely bouquet of iris and roses at a fine luncheon at the Hotel DuPont. Following the luncheon, all of the party went by automobile to the shipyard.

The Lilac was one of three tenders laid down in the Violet Class of 1930 (Violet, Lilac, Mistletoe). She was constructed at the Pusey & Jones Shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware at a cost of $350,000 and christened on May 26, 1933. She was 173 feet 4 inches long with a displacement of 1012 tons full. Her propulsion consisted of two 500 HP triple expansion engines turning two propellers, supplied by two oil-fired Babcock & Wilcox watertube boilers. She had a normal complement of 7 officers and 23 men in the 1930’s (until 1937).

As the time of the launching approached, whistles of the Pusey & Jones shipyard and other factories sent up their chorus. The Lilac was cleaned and polished, and gaily decorated with numerous flags and pennants. In deference to Prohibition, in effect at the time, Miss. Putnam smashed a bottle of tri-colored Brandywine water on her bow rather than the traditional champagne. Workmen with sledge hammers swung on the blocks, and at 2:33 pm, the Lilac glided down the greased ways, out of the lofty construction shed, and into the Christiana River. When she backed with a splash into the muddy water, long chains tightened to keep her from bumping the opposite river bank.

The Lilac was built as a replacement for the USLHT Iris and was assigned to the Fourth Lighthouse District, working the Delaware River and Bay from Trenton, New Jersey south to the mouth of Delaware Bay. Her base was located in Edgemoor, Delaware, just north of Wilmington until 1948, when she was shifted to Gloucester, New Jersey, just below Philadelphia.

Kristi Aresvik Putnam went on to graduate from Bryn Mawr College and in September 1941, she announced her engagement to Mr. John Hay, grandson of the late Secretary of State John Hay.

John Hay (1915-2011) was an early nature writer and naturalist, and was an early and significant conservationist both in Massachusetts and in Maine. He used his skill as a writer in the Army during the War as an associate editor of Yank, the army newspaper. After his discharge, he and his new wife Kristi, settled on Hay’s 18 acre lot in Brewster on Cape Cod, to raise their family, which eventually numbered four. In all, John Hay wrote 18 books. His first, The Run, was published in 1959 and his last, Mind the Gap, in 2004.

The Hays remained on Cape Cod from 1945 until 2005, when they moved to Bremen, Maine. Much of Kristi’s career on Cape Cod was involved with school and libraries. She served as a volunteer at the Brewster Ladies’ Library during the 1950s and 1960s and was involved with many aspects of the Children’s Room including children’s book selection. She also served on the library’s board of directors. During the 1970s and into the ‘80s, Hay was the elementary school librarian in Brewster, and then at Stony Brook Elementary School. She was instrumental in helping to design the library as a central and essential space in the school, in planning the new school library for children kindergarten through the fifth grade, and in ordering all the library materials. After her retirement as librarian from Stony Brook in 1981, she worked in Brewster Book Store for a number of years.

On Oct. 9, 2007, Kristi Aresvik Putnam Hay, age 88, died at her home in Bremen, Maine. She was survived by her husband, two daughters, Susan Burroughs of Bowdoinham, Maine, and Katherine Hay of Northampton, Massachussetts; one son, Charles Hay of Essex, Massachussetts, seven grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

In addition to maintaining the aids to navigation in the Fourth Lighthouse District during her 39-year career, the Lilac would be involved in rescue and firefighting efforts during a number of marine disasters. During abnormal ice conditions in the winter of 1935-36, the tenders Lilac and Violet were sent into the Lower Delaware Bay to evacuate the keepers on endangered offshore lighthouses. The Lilac was decommissioned in February 1972, by which time she was the last steam-driven tender in the Coast Guard fleet.

In 2003, the Lilac was acquired by the The Lilac Preservation Project, a group of New Yorkers dedicated to restoring the Lilac to operating condition. Today she is moored at the Hudson River Park’s Pier 25 on the west side of Manhattan in New York City, where she can be view and toured, and serves as a venue for a number of functions.

For more information on the U.S.L.H.T. Lilac today, you will want to contact the LILAC Preservation Project, 80 White Street, New York, NY 10013.

If you would like more information on tenders of the Lighthouse Service, a great resource is U.S. Lighthouse Service Tenders, by Douglas Peterson (U.S.C.G. Retired). Published by Eastwind Publishing in 2000, this is the first book to feature all of the lighthouse tenders and auxiliary craft of the United States Lighthouse service from 1840 until 1939. Lighthouse Tenders, the lifeline to the keepers of America’s lighthouses and lightships, towed lightships, tended buoys, carried necessities and saved lives day and night, in weather fair or foul. Without these services the keepers of America’s lighthouses and lightships could not have survived. More than 150 years ago the first tender was launched, to be followed by 300 ships of varying design used for lighthouse service-all of which are presented in this thoroughly researched book. Vintage photographs, drawings, plans and statistics illustrate the historic profile of each ship. With over 175 b/w photos and plans, this book would be a fine addition to any lighthouse library.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Jul/Aug 2013 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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