Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2021

From the Commodore

“Dillon in Detroit”

By Debra Baldwin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

The 11th District, located in the heart of the Great Lakes, was one of the largest and most important lighthouse districts in the Lighthouse Service. It included the Lake Erie entrance to the Detroit River up to Lake St. Clair, Lake Huron and Lake Superior and connection waters.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
The U.S. Lighthouse Service Tender Marigold ...

At the time, the light stations and aids to navigation protected the largest traffic in bulk cargo carriers in the world; more vessels carrying iron ore, coal, and other bulk cargoes passed through the waters of these channels in one year than through the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal combined.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
St. Joseph Pier Lighthouse in Michigan has been ...

Because of the importance of the district and the long periods of fog and thick weather to which it was subjected, it was the most elaborately equipped district of the Lighthouse Service with some of the most modern light stations in the United States, including powerful lights, fog signals and radio beacons, etc.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was President when I arrived in Detroit. The highly industrialized city was in the aftermath of a depression. Stores and dwellings were vacant and for rent all over town. People were out of work. Federal Relief programs were organized. The Lighthouse Service was ordered to “make work.” Five million dollars was allotted, a goodly sum for the Lighthouse Service.

All the construction projects possible were quickly organized. The experienced construction forces under me were expanded. I had a fine engineering staff, draftsmen, old time field foremen and working parties. A fine technical and construction force for radio beacon work was centered in the Detroit Depot for the whole Lighthouse Service. These were strenuous times in the 11th Lighthouse District.

I had several ideas to increase the efficiency of the inspection work of the district. I made copious rough notes of work to be done at light stations when I was on long trips on the tenders. As soon as I left the station and boarded the tender, I immediately dictated these notes on cylinders and sent them to the office at the first mailing place to be transcribed, long in advance of my return to Detroit. In that way, nothing slipped my memory and a complete clear record of maintenance work was kept on file.

At the close of navigation on the Great Lakes, lightkeepers had to be removed from offshore stations imprisoned by ice; sometimes with extreme difficulty if an early freeze set in. Taking the keepers off was often an arduous task for the tenders. The car ferries attempted to run all winter. They were good ice breakers and usually kept their runs broken clear of ice. The maintenance of lights and signals on the breakwaters under severe ice conditions when the lighthouses became encased in ice was extremely difficult and dangerous for the keepers.

An idea which was not so wise was to make inspections of shore stations and the iced-in tenders in the winter time. One trip to the Soo [Sault Ste. Marie] and Duluth by rail in the dead of winter cured me of this venture.

I wanted to see what it was like aboard an iced-in tender. It was most uncomfortable. I got caught in a blizzard in Duluth, twenty or more degrees below zero, the train blocked by snow drifts with no heat and I was lucky to get out alive.

Nothing daunted, on another trip, I started out from Detroit to Eagle Harbor on the Upper Peninsula by Depot automobile by myself. The car had no heating system. Everything went all right upbound. The ferry from Mackinac City to St. Ignace plowed its way through the ice and the roads were fairly free of snow, but on the return journey, I was caught in another blizzard and lost my way. The wonderful snow plow dug me out along the road.

I returned with difficulty to Detroit with a case of “shingles” that put me out of business for some time. I was scheduled to make a broadcast on “The Work of the Lighthouse Service” on the night of my return, and, although ill at the time, I fulfilled the assignment.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses – 11th District, Detroit: 1933 to 1939” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History