The nondescript Port Jefferson Harbor Breakwater Lighthouse might have been forgotten about in the pages of time if it had not been for one dramatic rescue that its keeper participated in late on the evening of September 7, 1919.
Established in the late 1800s, the lighthouse at the east entrance of Port Jefferson Harbor on the north shore of Long Island Sound in Port Jefferson, New York was not the traditional looking lighthouse. In fact, it was nothing more than a wooden frame tower that held a 1,200-pound fog bell. On top of the tower was a pole with a light on it. But, it did require a lighthouse keeper.
On that early fall evening in 1919, a young gentleman, named Vail Tooker, was wooing Miss Loretta Herron on a canoe trip just outside the mouth of the harbor when the swift current caused the canoe to capsize, throwing both occupants into the water.
Although Mr. Tooker was a good swimmer, Miss Herron was not, and she was barely able to hold onto the overturned canoe as the tide carried them into the sound. Mr. Hooker realized that their clothes, heavy from the water, were weighing them down. He instructed Miss Herron to take off her outing clothing as did he.
At about 12:30 that night, a local lobsterman, Theodore Darling, who had just returned from setting his lobster pots in the Sound, thought that he heard cries for help. As he was returning to his lodging, he again heard cries for help, but at that time he did not have a boat available. Stripping off some of his clothes, he plunged into the water and swam across the harbor channel to the light station where he knew he could procure a boat.
At the lighthouse, he met keeper Burke, and the two of them jumped into the station’s boat. Mr. Darling was too tired from swimming to row, so keeper Burke took to the oars and rowed into the night’s darkness, guided only by the cries for help, which seemed to grow fainter and fainter.
Finally at about 1 a.m., two hours after the couple’s canoe had capsized, they found them. Mr. Tooker was swimming on his back, holding onto the canoe with one hand and supporting Miss Herron, who had become unconscious, with the other hand.
When they were pulled into the keeper’s boat, they thought for sure that Miss Herron was dead from drowning.
As soon as they got back to the lighthouse, they were able to provide proper first aid to the young woman, and she responded to the treatment. Word was sent to the village, and an automobile was dispatched to take her into town. It was later stated that she had swallowed and inhaled so much salt water, that if she had been in the water much longer, she surely would have died. Herman Burke was later commended for his assistance in the rescue as published in the October 1919 edition of the Lighthouse Service Bulletin.
This story appeared in the
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