Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2016

From The Commodore

Putnam’s Problem Solver

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

I was at the Bureau in Washington preparing for my next inspection assignment when the Commissioner called me into his office. Mr. Putnam was reading an item in the Weekly Notice to Mariners to the effect: “Upon the completion of Milwaukee Breakwater Light Station and the commissioning of the light and fog signal, Milwaukee Lightship will be discontinued.” A pile of letters and telegrams of protest lay thick on Putnam’s desk, no doubt instigated by the powerful Lake Carrier’s Association, arguing against the removal of the Lightship. The general basis for the objections was a claim that the fog signal sound was reflected from shore and had no directional quality when picked up by lake vessels making the Port of Milwaukee in the frequent foggy condition.

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The Milwaukee Breakwater Lighthouse in Milwaukee, ...

“Dillon,” Mr. Putnam said, “I have arranged for you to meet a representative Captain selected by the Lake Carrier’s Association aboard the Tender Sumac to test out the claim of reflection of sound making for confusion of the fog signal from the light station on the end of Milwaukee Breakwater. Use any means you wish to get at the truth. In the meantime, we will defer the discontinuance of the Milwaukee Lightship.”

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The Milwaukee Lightship LV95. (Lighthouse Digest ...

The Captain of the Tender Sumac and the Lake Carrier’s Association Captain were experienced pilots who had taken ships in and out of Milwaukee Harbor under all conditions of weather, fair or foul. I carefully studied the chart. I had been in the area for the first time, without previous coaching or precedent of any kind, but I had an inspiration.

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The U.S. Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender ...

I said to the Tender Captain, “You and your First Officer and the Captain here are familiar with the navigation of these waters. I am going to blindfold the Tender Captain, have the fog signal on the end of the Breakwater operate continuously, put the Tender in charge of the First Officer and take the Tender out from the Light Station in various directions to the limit of sound from the fog signal. From each point the Captain of the Tender standing just outside the pilot house window will point indicating the heading which the Tender shall take to the operating fog signal. The first officer will have the ship follow on this course stopping at a safe distance off the end of the Breakwater. First Officer, you will please put these dark goggles over the Captain’s eyes securely covered with the black, soft cloth.” After a pause, “Can you see anything, Captain?” “Not a thing” was the reply.

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George Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses. ...

The first two runs in were made perfectly, no confusion nor reflection of sound. On the third run, the fog signal blanked out when a dead spot was encountered. This did not fool the blindfolded Captain. “Keep her on course,” he said quietly. And the sound signal soon came back strong. The runs were made exhaustively. No perceptible confusion was caused by the so-called reflection of sound. The L.C.A. Captain was a good sport. He was satisfied with the test. Milwaukee Lightship was discontinued. The Commissioner was a generous-minded person. He had a radio beacon installed synchronized with the sound signal for distance finding in addition to the other signal light. The navigation problem was solved to the satisfaction of all concerned.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses on General Duty: January 4, 1927 to September 1, 1933” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 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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