When Jules Verne wrote his 1873 classic adventure tale, Around the World in 80 Days, he wasn’t thinking of lighthouses. But his idea was a good one. Just how long would it take to visit every single lighthouse in America and the outlying islands and territories on one extended trip in the 1920s? Commodore Frederick Paul Dillon knew the answer. Twice over!
While serving with the United States Bureau of Lighthouses as the Superintendent on General Duty, a position that he held from 1927 to 1933, Frederick P. Dillon was tasked with the overwhelming responsibility of overseeing operations and recommending improvements for all aids to navigation in all 19 districts, which encompassed 46,000 miles of navigable waters of the United States - all coasts, sounds, bays, rivers, and lakes on the mainland, and from the West Indies to Guantanamo Bay, the approaches of the Panama Canal, the Hawaiian Islands, and Alaska!
In the early 1960s, the then retired Commodore Dillon penned a detailed autobiography of his extensive travels and lighthouse service years in his unpublished manuscript The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer. Regarding his Superintendent travels, he wrote, “Many books have been written about lighthouses by people on the outside looking in. But I was to see the operation of lighthouses and the other aids to navigation from the inside in my six years of travel by rail, sea, and even by air. It took me three years to make the rounds once of all the 19 districts. And I made the rounds twice covering some 80,000 miles.”
Dillon commented that he knew from experience what was required of the personnel on lightships, tenders, light stations, and at depots, and that the Lighthouse Bureau expected constant improvement by its superintendents and increased efficiency of operation of the Aids to Navigation. In addition, it was a “wonderful opportunity to see in detail the United States’ part of the world. I was all eyes, ears and notebooks. I met thousands of personnel- captains, officers, crews, office force, engineers, draftsmen, keepers, depot keepers, and superintendents. Everyone wanted me to see everything. I was submerged.”
It was quite an education for him, considering his upbringing in rural Illinois. The second of four children born to Francis and Alice Merrill Dillion on December 26, 1883 in Camp Point, Illinois, Frederick Dillon did not even see the ocean until the age of 25. After high school, he traded his room and board in exchange for waiting tables at his Aunt Charity’s establishment so he could afford to attend the University of Illinois, where he graduated with a degree in engineering in 1906. A stint as county engineer and then as an assistant civil engineer for army coast artillery posts followed his graduation, during which period he married Miriam Scott in 1909. In 1911, he joined the newly reorganized U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses as an Assistant Superintendent and Lighthouse Engineer-at-Large assigned out of the Charleston district office.
His duties included all types of marine repair and construction projects for light stations, keepers’ dwellings, docks, boathouses, fixed structures on open seas, range lights and post lights, all in isolated locations. Frederick Dillon traveled the district on lighthouse tenders to inspect and take notes on the efficiency of keepers and the need for maintenance and repairs at the various stations.
Frederick Dillon kept this post through the Great War until 1918. He was then promoted to assistant superintendent of the 5th district headquartered in Baltimore, Maryland where he carried on inspections of all lightships, tenders, on and off-shore stations, and lighthouse depots within the district. Another promotion followed in 1920 to become the superintendent of the 9th district in the West Indies, which extended from the Virgin Islands on the East to the Panama Canal on the West; with the area office that was located at the Lighthouse Depot in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
At least two trips covering these 2000 miles were made every year on the lighthouse tender Lilac to “work buoys in the many harbors, visit some twenty light stations for inspection, maintenance and to deliver supplies. The territory was enormous for one tender to serve and one superintendent without an assistant to supervise.” However, this all provided good experience for Dillon in what he was to undertake in his next assignment as Superintendent on General Duty or General Inspector of Lighthouses.
This promotion allowed his family to move stateside in 1927 to Washington, D.C. But for Frederick Dillon, it meant to be on “travel status, visiting some 600 light stations, 40 depots, 40 lightships on station, 50 or more lighthouse tenders, systems of buoys and other aids to navigation” in all 19 districts. His wife Miriam was “aghast at this prospect of family life,” so he sent her and the four children back overseas to experience Europe for a year with a family friend, there to be entertained and sightsee while he started out on his rigorous travel schedule.
Frederick Dillon again used lighthouse tenders as his main form of transport, and in the company of district supervisors, he was able to see the actual functioning of each district. During the six years he traveled, “the lighthouse service was in a particular period of intense activity and expansion. Established shipping lines had resumed after World War I and new lines were developing. The demands were great from shipping interests for new marks and guides of all kinds.”
With the advent of the radio beacon system, some land stations were felt to be obsolete. In the Great Lakes, industry was booming and called for more aids to be established. Many lightships were replaced by fixed structures on constructed piers as a matter of financial expediency.
Of all the lighthouses he visited during this time, Frederick Dillon stated that the most isolated and spectacular lighthouses to visit were on the rockbound coast of Maine, the West Coast, Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, and the Great Lakes because of their unique topography and climate.
In Alaska, aboard the lighthouse tender Cedar, he traveled to light stations perched on rocky headlands. He commented on how the keepers here were a “sturdy breed who loved Alaska” but that a good incentive to stay in service was the fact that after working continuously two years, they would get the third at liberty with full pay.
Dillon sailed the Hawaiian Islands aboard the lighthouse tender Kukui to inspect all light stations and interact with the personnel who consisted mostly of native Hawaiian keepers. He even visited the station at the leper colony on Molokai which he found to be a heartrending experience.
After this initial round of inspections, Frederick Dillon returned back to Washington, D.C. to make his reports, and from then on he was able to resume family life on a somewhat regular basis due to his second round trips being divided into shorter segments with small breaks in between.
At the end of his six years traveling throughout the entire U.S. Lighthouse Service world, he frankly evaluated his position. “I had had a wonderful personal experience to examine the details of operations of the whole service, seeing at the same time the whole United States and its possessions,” but he confessed that “there were [sic] no great advantage to the increased efficiency of the Lighthouse Service as a result of my efforts.” Very few of his recommendations had been adopted and he felt it was “too much for one man,” so he consequently proposed that the position of General Superintendent be removed. This recommendation was followed, making him the last superintendent to serve in this capacity.
Dillon then moved on to be superintendent of the 11th district in Detroit in 1933 where he could finally live at home with his family once again. At the consolidation of the U.S. Bureau of Lighthouses with the U.S. Coast Guard in 1939, Frederick Dillon accepted a commission as commander and was assigned to the district office for the whole of the Great Lakes, headquartered in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked once again in the construction and maintenance of the aids to navigation within the district, and during WW II was part of the “Chalker Mission” to the British Isles to discuss wartime operation of aids to navigation on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1944, Frederick P. Dillon was promoted to the rank of Commodore for his outstanding service during the war in conjunction with the installation of a complete system of LORAN stations to guide bombing missions and surface craft, particularly in the South Pacific.
At the close of the war, Frederick P. Dillon compiled a book entitled, United States Coast Guard Aids to Navigation, 1945, which detailed the development of the aids to navigation from colonial times through WW II. Frederick P. Dillon officially ended his career after 38 years of service on August 1, 1946 and enjoyed several years of retirement with his wife Miriam at his side before he died on September 18, 1965 at the age of 81.
As for a summary statement of his life as a lighthouse engineer, his own words say it best - “I think I have had a unique career.”
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2016 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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