Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2022

From the Commodore

“A Shipyard Education”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

I realized that I was a one-sided Lighthouse Engineer. Mr. Peck handled all the ship work: specifications for drydocking, cleaning, painting and repairing the lighthouse tenders, lightships and boats of the Sixth District. I wanted a share of this work for experience and tried in every way to get it.

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The eight, 190-foot, Manzanita-class U.S. ...

I took this matter up with the Superintendent and pointed out that the Lighthouse Service regulations specifically stated that all Assistant Superintendents should familiarize themselves with vessel work so as to become eligible for promotion. The Superintendent said, “Dillon, you ought to be glad you are not involved with these contracts. Mr. Peck is in trouble all the time with the Charleston Navy Yard when they are working on our vessels. They won’t submit a fixed-price bid but only an estimate for the work, and then they do a lot of extra work not called for, running up the cost so as to keep their force employed, so says Mr. Peck. And he is feuding with them all the time.

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The Battleship Idaho is undergoing its fitting ...

“That makes it hard on me because Pat Farrow takes it up with the senator. I think he is trying to get my job through politics. At any rate, when Mr. Gillette comes here from the Bureau, take it up with him and see if he has any help for you.” In the meantime, I visited the yards on my own time, looked over the specifications and the work. I studied textbooks on Naval architecture.

When Mr. Gillette, the Naval Architect and Superintendent of Naval Construction from the Bureau of Lighthouses visited the District, I put my problem straight to him. I knew him well. He was sympathetic. “Dillon, tell you what I’ll do. I am personally acquainted with the manager of the New York Ship Building Company at Camden, N.J. They built the eight tenders of the Manzanita Class for us in 1908. He takes on Webb students every summer for their practical experience. Why don’t you take your 30-day vacation up there with the gang at the shipyard? It would be well worthwhile.” “Oh, that would be great,” said I, hugging myself inside. Mr. Gillette wrote a letter to his friend at the New York Ship.

Shortly thereafter, I roomed at the Camden Y.M.C.A. and reported to the shipyard office and was assigned to the student gang under shipfitter Bickerdyke. “Bick” took me under his wing with the other lads from Webb Naval College. He was a good teacher, with orders to show us the practical side of ship building along with his work. The pay was $12 per week, enough for me to pay my room and board.

Bick’s work in the main was to make wooden templates of steel members that could not be taken directly from the mould loft where ship frames were laid out full-scale. When opportunity offered, Bick would say something like this to me: “Dillon, you carry this angle bar to the punching machine to have rivet holes punched as shown, but, on the way, take your time where they are building Scotch boilers, or where they are furnacing plates, or bending ship’s frames, or a dozen other manufacturing processes. The foremen have all been tipped off to answer any questions which you have about the work, so ask plenty.”

The yard was busy with commercial vessels in every stage of construction. The Battleship Idaho was on the building ways nearing completion. Bick’s gang, including myself, foregathered in the double bottom to help him take off the templates of some misfit parts. There, he lectured us on construction details, all huddled around a single, extension-cord lamp. It was better than any college course I ever had and it was just what I needed, but for some reason I was still excluded from ship work in the District. It must have been because there was no one to relieve me of the load of field construction work.

This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer, Sixth District, Charleston, S. C., 1911 to 1917” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Mar/Apr 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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