Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2021

From the Commodore

“Mona and Macario”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

Great tales had been told about Mona Island, how, in the days of the buccaneers, the island had been a rendezvous for pirates who lay in wait for Spanish merchantmen in the lea of this five-mile-long island, marking the Mona Passage between San Domingo and Puerto Rico. So, I was keen to visit this station.

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Mona Island Lighthouse, Puerto Rico 1901 ...

About eight in the morning, low-lying land appeared on the horizon. As the tender approached this great strip of land, it rose higher and higher until the details became clearer. A great, undulating plain stood menacingly before the tender. It appeared rugged with scrubby trees and a yellowish-green carpeting. On the point to the far right: Mona Island Lighthouse tower; the dwelling could not be seen.

The Captain then explained the landing procedure to me. “You see that we are on the windward side of the Island. That cave there, (pointing), is protected by a reef where you see the breakers ahead. Behind the reef the sea is always calm and you will find a nice beach.

“We have constructed, this side of the cliffs, some range daymarks which you can just barely see. Keep these range marks in line and they will carry you through an opening in the reef. Martin has been in and out a number of times.”

I marveled at the skill Martin showed in handling the crew of the cargo boat as I hung on to the thwart rather anxiously. Running before the great swells as they built up approaching the reef, the slightest miscalculation or lack of control would turn the cargo boat crosswise to the sea and all hands, including me, would be swamped and thrown onto the reef.

The final rise and heave catapulted the cargo boat through the opening as the oarsmen hoisted their oars in unison, watching the accuracy of their charging boat. As the boat grounded on the coral sand beach, the two bow-oarsmen banked their oars and nimbly jumped into the warm tropical water, clothes and all. I got ashore, dry shod, piggyback, riding one of the sailors, as was the custom.

All around the cave rose vertically the rugged wall of the island. The path toward the light station led over a rocky trail close under the cliff to the right for about half a mile. I stood at the mouth of the cave which was the terminus of a mile-long tram road from the cave to the light station at the northeast rim of the island. This tram road was inherited from the Spanish engineers after they had completed the light station.

The head keeper, who had spied the tender at anchor, approached me riding on a flat car provided with two seats and a gay canopy shade. The motive power: Macario, a little moth-eaten burro with its upper lip twisted in an expression of disgust. And why should Macario be happy? He had no pals, nothing to live for in this God-forsaken desert except for those bushels of oats that the tender brought to him annually with the keeper’s supply of oil and paint. His harness was scanty, too, just a ragged old collar and some ropes to the ear, not even reins to a bridle, nowhere to steer but forward.

Macario’s top speed was a walk. He protested a trot and was always looking back to see whether the keeper was about to beat him with that long piece of cane. Macario was made fast to the other end of the tram car. The keeper and I took seats under the canopy, when the keeper with his long goad let out a blast, punctuated with whack, whack, “Alante, Macario!” (Get up, Macario!)

Macario twisted his neck around to see what was doing, faked a trot and drifted back to his standard walking pace. After a few more attempts of like encouragement, the keeper gave up the beating in disgust except when Macario stopped to nibble on a tempting cactus blossom when he was prodded into the long walk to the lighthouse. How he found any vegetation to eat was a mystery but he was an expert at that. Yet, he was expected to work pulling the chariot. He had a right to be mean.

The problem for the tender at Mona Island Light Station was to deliver oil and supplies including oats for Macario up through the cave to the terminus of the tram road. [On subsequent trips,] Big Martin had found a landing closer to the cave than the circuitous path under the cliffs. Macario’s problem was to pull all those supplies to the station and live.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses – 9th District: 1920 to 1927” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2021 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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