Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2021

From the Commodore

“Ice Debacles and Wartime Tenders”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

Every known means was employed, by contract and with the capable district construction forces under my general direction, to strengthen and repair the screw pile lighthouses, even the use of Thermit welding of the pile in place. Where nothing else could be done to make the structures resistant to ice floes, heavy rip rap stone was placed in and around the whole foundation packing the piles to a point well above high water.

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The ice could easily damage screw-pile ...

One Baltimore contractor sublet his stone work to a contractor in New York City who loaded a string of old Jersey Canal boats with stone from the Palisades of the Hudson and towed a string of these weird barges to the derrick barge at the light stations.

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A German U-boat sunk the Diamond Shoals Lightship ...

I used each of the seagoing tenders, (Orchid and Columbine) for Chesapeake Bay work and inspection as well as the others, (Arbutus, Laurel, Holly, Maple, and Juniper) for inside waters. The small, but efficient tender, Juniper, towed a valuable repair plant, an inheritance from the Old Lighthouse Board, to the repair and construction projects: a heavily ­wooden barge (dubbed a floral name, the Virginia Creeper.)

It had a main hold big enough to carry a stock of construction materials to last for months, quarters for a repair crew, galley, foreman’s quarters, an immense working deck and a disassembled pile driver frame, engine and gear. This plant was kept busy in the field and later constructed a new lighthouse depot at Portland.

I learned that times were financially good in the Lighthouse Service after some national disaster, flood, hurricane or after unprecedented ice damage to Aids to Navigation.

While I was “up to my ears” in ice damage repair work, the tenders and lightships and even the coastal stations were heavily involved in defense work: the tenders did practically all of the work on the defensive submarine nets for the Navy; they did mine-laying for the Army; they towed floating practice targets, placed buoys and marks for military uses; they were employed on patrol and much other special duty. The light vessels and lighthouses on the coast acted as lookouts and reporting stations.

On August 16, 1918, Diamond Shoal Light Vessel off Cape Hatteras was sunk by the German submarine U-53, after reporting by radio the presence of the submarine, thus warning and saving many vessels. The larger tenders were almost continually in the danger zone and were sent to buoy the wrecks of torpedoed ships.

The Lighthouse Service after the ice floe debacle, benefitted indirectly by it. The Army copied and modified the tender-type vessel and made a number of mine-planters to which the Lighthouse Service fell heir after the War, such as the Acacia. Very slight alterations converted these vessels into first-class seagoing lighthouse tenders, enabling the Service to retire some ancient hulks. The Navy built hundreds of 5000-pound concrete sinkers to anchor submarine nets and a like number of first-class can buoys to hold them up. All these redounded to the Lighthouse Service after the War, but I thought they had been earned.

This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer: January 9, 1918 to September 7, 1920” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 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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