My father, Edwin M. Cruickshank, began employment with the Department of Commerce Lighthouse Service on September 11, 1928. He was hired for the position as caretaker and weather observer for Site No. 31 [Medicine Bow, Wyoming]. His salary was $1,200.00 per annum beginning September 8, 1928, under the civil service regulations for the Lighthouse Service. He worked at this position until Site 32 (the “new airport”) was completed approximately two years later.
The old airport was located northwest of Medicine Bow. There was one small office building at this location, which had been built to fit underneath the tower. A small Kohler light plant powered the building. That building was later given or sold to my father, and it was used for a bunkhouse for my brothers while we still lived in Medicine Bow.
The Site 31 field operated only after sunset. I do not have any records indicating the working hours or when the tower lights were turned on. The boundary lights were called “flooded lead acid cells”. These were operating units that used acid contained in large rectangular glass jars and covered with tight fitting porcelain lids. Edwin Cruickshank would take them into Medicine Bow to a local garage to have them recharged when necessary, such as when they became dim.
The jars were approximately twelve to fifteen inches deep, and five to six inches in width and length. I do not how many there were at the old airport. When that airport was closed, our Mother, [Hallene], used the jars for storing mincemeat that was used during the holidays for mincemeat pie. These acid type boundary lights were discontinued when Site 32 was completed and that field was powered by electricity from the power plant.
In 1929 or 1930, a road going north towards Little Medicine was built. This road went through Site 31, which made it necessary to move the airport one mile south of town. Construction was completed in 1930. The office building and tower were the first structures completed. The number “32” was painted on the south side of the office roof, and the letters “O” and “SL” were painted on the north side, which meant Omaha to Salt Lake. It was a guide to assist the pilots in determining their location. The beacon light continually flashed the Morse code signal for the letter “U.” In addition to the beacon light, the tower had antennas for radio communication and a wind sock.
The wind sock, a heavy yellow canvas, indicated the direction and wind velocity. We kids always referred to it as “Dad’s pant leg,” due to the strong winds which blew generally from the west. It was replaced quite often.
The radio range at Site 32, in Medicine Bow, was the last station to be put into service that completed the transcontinental route between New York and San Francisco so pilots could fly at night and in bad weather. They did this by listening to a succession of coded signals that were transmitted from each radio range.
Originally, the ranges were controlled by the Department of Commerce, Lighthouse Division, and manned by airways keepers. In the event of an emergency, the keepers were required to render all assistance available, including gassing the plane, feeding the pilot and passengers if any, and providing accommodations, if necessary, which my father did very well.
When Site 32 first began operating, Edwin worked from dusk until dawn. The beacon was turned on just before sundown and turned off at sunrise. He was the only employee at the site until all three houses were completed and ready for living quarters for the three-man crew. He was supplied with a day bed, which he kept in the office.
We were a family of seven: our parents and five children: Betty, Robert, Evelyn, Edwin and James. It was a very special occasion when one of us was able to spend the night with Dad so we could watch him perform his weather duties.
In addition to the teletype machine, the office contained a telephone, a manual typewriter, and switches to provide electricity to the boundary lights around the field. There was also a barometer, temperature gauges, humidity indicators, and probably many more pieces of equipment needed for reporting conditions to planes en route to various locations.
Balloons were released into the sky to determine visibility. The office had a small shed built next to it that housed the helium gas tanks needed to fill the balloons. That shed was kept under tight lock and key!
Information needed to be filled in hourly on forms by the keeper on duty and then initialed. The form had columns for date, time (a.m. or p.m.), general conditions, ceiling (feet), visibility (miles), wind direction and velocity (miles per hour), temperature (°F), dew point (°F), barometer (inches), field condition or remarks, and observer initials. Readings were taken every hour for each day.
There were two houses located next to the office building and the tower that were used as the living quarters of the two assistant airways keepers. One house had “Medicine Bow” painted in large black letters on the roof, and the other had “Wyoming” on the roof. Next to the Wyoming house was a two-car garage that the two employees shared.
The powerhouse was the last building in this area. The elevation at the site was 6,640 feet above sea level. This was painted above the door on the powerhouse. This was important information that was needed whenever a plane was taking off for another leg of a flight. The powerhouse contained one large electric engine, and the fuel for it was held in a large tank outside of the building.
The powerhouse once caught on fire. One of the employees shot holes in the fuel tank outside the building so that the fuel could drain onto the ground to prevent an explosion. That was when the powerhouse was put out of service and all the electric power to the site came from a garage in Medicine Bow. A cleanup company bulldozed the entire building, crushed the cement base, and hauled it away to a nearby gully.
We moved from our house in Medicine Bow to the “new” airport when I was in the sixth grade in April of 1931. Our family lived in the Wyoming house. Two or three different employees lived in the Medicine Bow house. In all the years that we lived at the airport, we were the only family with children, except for one superintendent who had a young son. The superintendent’s residence was identical to the “Medicine Bow” and “Wyoming” houses, but was located approximately one-half mile from the first two residences.
The houses came with the employment. Because it was a government-owned house, $20.00 was taken out of Dad’s pay each month. Each house had two bedrooms, a very small kitchen with built-in cupboards, and the dining room and living room were combined. The greatest thing about the new house was the indoor plumbing! It was a very small bathroom, but we had a toilet, a bathtub, a sink, a medicine cabinet, and a linen closet, which I was quite impressed with, as we had never had a linen closet in our other homes. We also had hot and cold running water. By today’s standards, it was a very small house, but to us it was a castle!
The kitchen was quite small. There was a coal burning cookstove with the oven located on the side of the stove, and it had a temperature gauge. There was no space for the government issued General Electric refrigerator. It was placed in the basement, making it necessary to carry food up and down the steps whenever we were preparing or finishing a meal.
From day one until the airport was closed, the five of us kept a running tally of “who made the last trip to the basement” for items needed from the refrigerator, and who was supposed to make the next trip. We must have driven our mother crazy with our continual battles over our trips up and down the stairs!
The attic and the basement were unfinished; the boys slept in the attic during the winter months, and then their beds were moved to the basement in the summer months. The washing area was also in the basement; however, there was no drain for the wash water, so the water had to be carried outdoors by bucket and thrown into a nearby field. This was a grumbling task for my brothers. Mom would frequently leave pennies in the washer for the boys.
We didn’t have a lot of furniture at that time. In the combination dining-living room, we had a round oak table with chairs that matched, one or two rocking chairs, and a day bed. It was a single couch in the daytime, but could be made into a full-size bed if needed. It was a much-used piece of furniture in the house.
The floors in the house were hardwood. Our parents had ordered a rug from the Olson Rug Company of Chicago, which we had in the living room area, and we had braided throw-rugs in the bedrooms. Our first vacuum was a Singer that dad bought on “time payments.” It cost about $40.00. He paid $5.00 a month until it was paid for. Before he bought the vacuum, we had to sweep the floors, and that was a dusty and dirty job.
The floors of the houses were all hardwood and very beautiful. We were furnished with a waxing machine, and several times a year we had to remove the old wax, apply a new coat of Johnson’s floor wax, and polish the floors. The United States Government was very protective of their floors and several times a year made an unannounced inspection to be sure that the floors were being properly treated. And since all three houses had government issued stoves, refrigerators, and furnaces, these too were inspected. We had to make sure we used enough Johnson floor wax and polish to pass the inspection!
Edwin worked at the airport when the country was in the worst of the great depression. The dust storms of the early 1930s started soon after we moved into our home. Mom had white crisscrossed curtains at the windows in the front room and dining room areas. Even though we had storm windows on all the windows, the fine black dust filtered through and the windowsills and curtains were covered with the awful dust that blew for weeks at a time.
The grounds around the buildings had to be kept in meticulous condition at all times. The entire area was covered with two-inch gravel and the man on duty during the day took care of the raking, watering, and the weeding. Our dog, Tramp, enjoyed leftover pancakes. If he didn’t want to eat them right away, he would bury them in the gravel, and as the driveway was being raked, generally old dried-up pancakes surfaced.
There are many memories of life at the airport and one in particular centers around an event that occurred during the winter months in the early 1930s. A Ford Tri-Motor plane landed during a severe winter storm. The temperatures were below zero, and the pilot was afraid that the oil would become too thick if left in the plane on the field overnight, and that the plane could not be started once the weather cleared. The oil was drained from the motor into one of Mother’s galvanized wash tubs, which was placed on her kitchen stove for the night to keep warm.
The following morning, the oil was poured back into the engine and the pilot was permitted to take off. Mother could not cook anything until it was removed. We children were all very excited about having a tub of heavy black oil on our stove. It was also exciting to have the passengers and the pilot come into our home. I don’t know if Mom received a new wash tub or if she had to clean the one she used for her laundry.
A funny incident happened one day when a plane made just a short stop at the field. The office did not have indoor plumbing, and one of the passengers was in the outhouse when the plane took off. Dad always laughed when he told of the incident. The passenger realized, too late, that he had been forgotten. Dad said he was running after the plane while trying to pull up his pants. Dad had to take him to the Union Pacific train for a ride to Rock Springs where he was picked up by another plane.
The fact that Amelia Earhart stopped at Site 32 was very exciting. She was in Denver and traveled by way of Cheyenne to Salt Lake City on June 3 and 4, 1931, therefore, it may have been during those two days that she was at the airport. Dad could have kicked himself because he went into Medicine Bow to fuel the truck and missed her. He was always sorry he had not been on duty that day.
It was the keeper’s duty to report any unusual conditions on the field. Probably Dad’s most notable typo happened one day when he was reporting that some horses were on the field. But instead of typing “horses”, he misspelled the word and typed “hors were on the field.” This was, of course, interpreted as “whores,” and he immediately received many comments, such as, “Keep them there. We’re on our way!” “You guys at Site 32 have all the fun!” He really took a lot of flack for this typo, and I suppose it was an embarrassing thing for him as I do remember he was kidded for some time!
There were several stations that spread across Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada, and the operators were asked to turn on their beacon light during the daylight hours to aid new travelers. There were three full-time employees; each worked a twelve-hour shift. It was almost impossible to get enough sleep. Our dad had a terrible time because our house was too small and had too many people for the grueling schedule.
I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for our mother to keep five kids quiet when Dad was trying to catch a few hours of much needed sleep. So, it was decided that Mom and the five of us kids would spend summers at the long-vacated homestead at Little Medicine.
There were occasions when one of us would get to go into Medicine Bow to spend a day or two with Dad, and those were special times. Often, instead of washing the clothes the “old-fashioned way,” we would bring the dirty clothes to the airport where we could use the washing machine.
Over the years, Dad became well-acquainted with many of the pilots. Once, when Jim was about three or four years-old, a plane landed and the pilot gave Mom and Jim a short ride. I remember how excited Mother was about the flight, and that she couldn’t believe that the ride put Jim to sleep. I have no idea how long the flight was, but Mom truly enjoyed the trip.
In 1935, the airport was shut down, and when our stay at the homestead was over for that summer, we moved back into Medicine Bow. The houses at Site 32 were auctioned off and the employees were transferred to other areas of the government. Edwin did not wish to transfer, so he resigned. However, he continued to record planes that landed on the field and other non-routine occurrences. I am sure that I speak for the five of us that the years we spent living at the airport were exciting ones and that we were all happy for the experiences we had while living there.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2020 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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