The Second District: Captain [George] Eaton, a typical Easterner in thought and speech, canny and aggressive, was the superintendent. His adult life had been spent in the cradle of the Lighthouse Service. Boston Light on Little Brewster Island, Massachusetts, at the entrance of Boston Harbor, was the first of the colonial lighthouses built in the United States. Traditions of the Service had been established and were still maintained in this area.
Those lighthouses reached by good roads had become engulfed in communities. Even the twelve original colonial lighthouses on offshore islands were in the center of summer dwellers. Some of these, established in sailing days, had outlived their purpose as aids to navigation.
I had seen the region for the first time and trips around with Captain Eaton were a rare privilege. The very name stirred memory of stories of whaling ships and tales of the Revolutions: New Bedford, Buzzards Bay, Woods Hole, Vineyard Sound, Gay Head Light Station, Nantucket Sound and Island, Great Point Light Station, Cape Cod and light station, Plymouth, Marble Head Light Station, Cape Ann, Newburyport, and many other interesting places.
Provincialism had fastened itself on many keepers. Care of the property was a fetish. I was obliged to remove my shoes and don slippers to enter a dwelling. The brass door knobs shined brilliantly from daily polish. And Captain Eaton knew where the best fish chowder and fried clams could be found at wayside eating places. The depot at Chelsea was in perfect order.
What could I find that needed attention in a district carefully administered by an “Old Sea Dog?” Captain Eaton was “well heeled,” too. He had put his savings in Grade A stocks that had swelled over the years. I did not have any savings but I took his good financial advice to heart.
Then to the First District up the Maine Coast. It reminded me somewhat of the Inside Passage of Alaska, lacking the high mountains and not so rugged with fog aplenty in both places. The rocky island light stations had a unique method of access. The tender’s landing boats were each equipped with runner strips each side of the bilges. These exactly fitted small launching ways down the rocky slope of the station at the head of which in the boathouse was located a power-pulling engine.
When the tender’s power boat dashed toward these launching ways, the keepers stood ready to hook into a steel becket at the bow of the tender’s boat the instant it hit the skids which had been greased. The fast run carried the tender’s boat well up on the ways and it was pulled clear of the sea. Then I stepped out to greet the keepers. It was a tricky way to make a landing, but I, with my heart in my mouth, never experienced a failure.
Captain [Carl] Sherman was the superintendent, and like Captain Eaton, his active sea life had been spent in the locality. He was an epicurean judge of seafood, an authority on the preparation of lobsters. Portland Maine Headquarters opened another segment of life that I had not enough time to satisfactorily investigate. The light stations were like nothing I had ever seen before: Matinicus Island, Penobscot Bay, Isle Au Haut, Mt. Desert, Machias Bay, and Lubec are but samples of the places I visited while on the tender Hibiscus.
From this region, I went to the Third, New York District where conditions on Staten Island seemed hectic under Joe Yates, the superintendent. In contrast to other districts, the work was intense. It seemed that Yates had instructed the masters of the six busy lighthouse tenders and the technical staff to let me find my own way around the district. Did he order, “Don’t tell him anything?” So, I had to go it alone in situations strange to me.
I had ways of spotting a tender bound for a busy trip in Long Island Sound, or Upper New York Bay, Sandy Hook and the Lower Bay. I had data and charts for reference. I went by rail down the Jersey Coast to Cape May. I found a small tender based on the Inside Passage at Atlantic City where there was a lighthouse walled-in by city dwellings.
I managed to ferret out the information I needed. All the employees were anxious to show me everything but their mouths seemed to have been sealed by fear and their wills deadened from on high. The Commissioner practiced decentralization of management so sincerely that Yates felt secure in his realm.
This excerpt was 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
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