Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2022

From the Commodore

“Retirement Restlessness”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

After resting a few months, I recovered my health with renewed drive. How could I keep myself busy? Why not become an Aids to Navigation consultant to foreign countries, particularly Latin America? I had a working knowledge of Spanish from my six years in Puerto Rico.

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This photo of Frederick P. Dillon and his wife, ...

I relinquished for the time being my retirement pay and after lengthy negotiations, I was rated as a Lighthouse Engineer on the staff of the Coast and Geodetic Survey as a representative of the State Department in its Cultural Relations Division. We were off to the Dominican Republic to make a survey and report on Aids to Navigation.

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The remains of a square skeletal lighthouse tower ...
Photo by: Jaun Sangiovanni

It turned out that the person in actual charge of the Aids to Navigation Service of Lights and Buoys, was Julio R. Logrono, Second Lieutenant in the Navy, so the Aids to Navigation were in the military. Logrono really knew his Aids to Navigation; he built them on land; he maintained them; and he serviced them. He accompanied me on all inspection trips.

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Ruins of a square cylindrical white concrete ...
Photo by: Peter Mosselberger

I laid out a program to see every aid. Logrono arranged the transportation although access to some, on account of the rugged coast and extreme isolation, proved to be difficult and hazardous. I forgot that I was 63 and not as supple nor sturdy as I had been, but, nevertheless, I insisted on seeing all 23 lights.

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The discarded beacon light from the Alto Velo ...

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An inside view of the ruins of the 20-foot Alto ...

A Few Difficult Inspections

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Alto Velo Island is as desolate today as when ...

By my persistent nudging, Logrono succeeded in having a Corvette assigned for my inspection purposes around the coast to the various lights. Corvettes had been used by Canada for convoy duty during WWII, after which they became surplus. By some arrangement, the Dominican Republic took over several which became their Navy, being fully armed.

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This postcard view from several years ago shows ...

They were used as general service vessels, as revenue cutters, work boats for delivering materials and supplies for Aids to Navigation construction and repair work under Logrono’s supervision and for any other assignments by the government. I procured from the Coast and Geodetic Survey Office before leaving the States, an American Air Force chart of Hispaniola which included Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the best map available. It showed in considerable detail, the location of the lights, roads, and topography of the country. This was of immeasurable help in my travels. A whole book could be written about these experiences which were most extraordinary.

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The current Engaño beacon is a 26-foot fiberglass ...
Photo by: Milvio Nuñez

Cape Samana Light

The Corvette dropped anchor on June 23, 1947 several miles Northeast of a village on the North Coast. The Coast Guard boat came alongside and with Logrono in charge, took me ashore, landing the dinghy. Cape Samana to the east was a bold headland about 8 miles distant.

My objective was to reach Cape Samana Light on a shelf of this headland, 500 feet above the sea. Logrono hurried inland to a farm where he unceremoniously commandeered two native ponies to the owner’s angry protest for he knew that he would not be paid for their use; one for Logrono and one for me.

A group of beaters from the boats went ahead with machetes following a poorly marked, little-used trail though the forest uphill and down dale, but climbing on the average up and up. They had a lot of brush cutting and branch cutting to do to make progress for the ponies possible. Even then, I had to fend off the higher branches or be swept off my pony.

After about five miles of this torturesome travel, Logrono leaped off his pony and shouted in Spanish, “This is as far as we go on horseback. We’ll have to walk the rest of the way.” I had been whipped by branches long enough and gladly plowed after the beaters, a long three more miles, up the rugged trail, which by this time had come out seaside of the precipitous headland to a shelf 500 feet above the water where Cape Samana Light was built.

I recognized here as at many other lights of the country, U.S. Lighthouse Service standard steel skeletal towers and enclosed tankhouses built from U.S. designs, no doubt the work of Americans under military occupation; towers varying in height from 30 to 200 feet, depending on the topography of the site. About 1200 feet along the shelf of the headland was a hand-powered derrick for hoisting the 200-pound acetylene gas accumulators, a vertical lift of over 4500 feet from a beach landing below. To service the light and renew the gas tanks required a lift by hand tackle as high as the Washington Monument.

The light came from a 375mm AGA lantern with a one-foot burner. It could be seen 270 degrees around the horizon. But it was a man-killing job to hoist the tanks to the shelf and carry them to the unusual location of the light. An electric battery-operated light with a charging plant would have made a more powerful light at less cost and labor of maintenance. The very act of inspecting the layout was a severe test of my stamina and I practically fell off my horse at the end into the arms of the working party and was carried to the landing boat amidst the maledictions of the owner of the ponies who demanded pay for their use.

Alto Velo Light

July 9 1947: A special trip not accompanied by Coast Guard was made on the Corvette to Alto Velo Light, located at an elevation of about 500 feet on the very top of the Island of the same name which lay off the extreme southern peninsula of the Dominican Republic.

I was reminded of the many times I had passed this light, always in the daytime, for the light was then considered unreliable for night navigation, back about 1920 to 1927 aboard the lighthouse Tenders Lilac and Columbine, plowing back and forth from San Juan, Puerto Rico to the Canal Zone with stops at Mona, Navassa and Guantanamo Bay. Now, I was to get a close up of the mysterious Alto Velo situation.

Captain Brito of the Corvette anchored in the shelter of the great looming mass of Alto Velo Island. The ship’s whaleboat was put over, manned by four dusky oarsmen. I, with Logrono and some helpers, was put ashore. “Let me show you the keeper’s dwelling,” said Logrono in Spanish, as we approached a weather-beaten frame shed boarded up vertically with strips of wood covering the cracks.

It was unpainted with a flat roof of corrugated iron pitching to a gutter with a downspout to carry the rainwater to a big cylindrical, sheet iron tank at the corner of the shed. A small lean-to pantry or closet was beside the entrance door. A tattered soul, the keeper, stood beside his short, fat wife, near the door, both grinning a welcome to the shore party. The surroundings were grim- no trees, nor shrubbery nor evidence of a garden to cheer up the living souls in this isolated place.

The usual trek was toiled up the rugged hill to the light something like three-quarters of a mile of hard climbing in the hot sun, but there was a brisk trade wind blowing. I was “fagged” on reaching the top to find the usual U.S. standard lighthouse tower and enclosed tankhouse for the acetylene cylinders. When the light was serviced, the ship’s crew lugged these 200-pound cylinders up and down that awful trail. I had seen Alto Velo Light at close range. The local boys deserved a lot of credit for maintaining a lighthouse service around the Dominican Republic. My job was to recommend ways and means of reducing hardship at the same time increasing reliability and power of the lights at lower cost.

Cape Engaño Light

Cape Engaño Light, June 24, 1947: Located on the extreme eastern end of the Dominican Republic, on the windward exposure to the Trade Winds. The approach was in the whaleboat of the Corvette, Logrono in the bow picking the way through the reef, a most exciting experience: the slightest miscalculation would have meant disaster to all hands, for there was no hope of rescue had the whaleboat crashed and swamped. The occupants were not even furnished life preservers. But we made it to the quiet water behind the reef where I was literally carried “piggy-back” dry-shod ashore.

In the rear distance was a wooden shed of crude construction with the usual galvanized roof with gutter and downspout leading to a concrete cistern, a modern touch: the keeper’s dwelling. The coastline was flat with scrubby timber growth, the ground covered with varieties of cactus, but living conditions were not impossible as this back country could be reached by pony transportation. There were no roads, just trails.

In the far distance onshore was the most unusual light structure I had ever seen: a typical U.S. Lighthouse Standard 150-foot steel tower. For the lower 100 feet, the angle legs, struts and diagonals were all heavily encased in reinforced concrete, the steel ladders staggering up one side to the top and hanging precariously on the outside of the structure.

Logrono invited me to ascend but I politely declined, expecting the others that did to come clattering down in a mess of wreckage, but they made it without incident nor accident. A large tankhouse of reinforced concrete was at the base of the tower and the acetylene gas supply line meandered up to the lantern in a “hay-wire” fashion. Logrono identified the lantern to be the 375mm type.

Making Reports

These three lights and their surroundings briefly described were a sample of the most difficult of approach of the 23 inspected by me. Some of the others could be reached by roads or trails which gave me experience in the interior.

Before leaving the country I had finished a 125-page report and recommendations, typed and translated in the American Embassy Office, illustrated with the snap shots I had taken at the sites, titled “Proposed Five Year Plan for the Establishment and Maintenance of Aids to Navigation for the Dominican Republic: Organization, Depot, Lighthouse Tender, Floating Equipment, Buoys, Other Aids, Budget Spread over Five Years, Plans and Specifications for the Above Items, List of Manufacturers of Equipment, Schedules and Photographs.”

Perhaps the study was too elaborate for as small a country but it was something to guide it. I was looking forward to my life of retirement in Washington as I saw my mission in the Dominican Republic drawing to a close.

This excerpt is taken from “Chapter XIII: Looking Backward then Forward” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 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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