Digest>Archives> June 2000

Frederic W. Morong, Jr. (1883 to 1947)

District Machinist, U.S. Lighthouse Service; Author of Brasswork: The Lightkeepers’ Lament

By David A. Gamage


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Frederic W. Morong, Jr. was born on April 17, 1883 at Grand Manan, New Brunswick. He was the son of Frederic William Morong and Ellen Douglas Campbell of Calais, Maine.

He attended grade school and high school in Lubec and later Washington Academy in East Machias. Upon completion of school, he became an apprentice machinist with the Thomas Laughlin Company in Portland. In 1902 he went West, but later returned to Lubec and worked for the American Can Company. Fred was also a musician. He belonged to the Lubec Band Association and played in the Lubec Brass Band. He married Maude Louise Libby of Vinalhaven June 26, 1907.

Lighthouse Service Family

Fred’s father Frederic Morong, Sr. followed the sea for most of his life, first sailing on coastal schooners as seaman, and later as mate and then master. He later operated steamships along the coasts of Maine and New Brunswick. In 1890 he joined the Lighthouse Service and served at Petit Manan, Libby Island, Lubec Channel (first keeper) and Little River. He retired in 1915 and returned to Lubec where he died in 1920. One of Frederic Morong’s sons, Alonzo Morong was a lightkeeper at several Maine lights: Two Lights at Cape Elizabeth, Browns Head, Seguin and Ft. Popham. Alonzo’s son Clifford was born at Cape Elizabeth Light and was later keeper here and at Race Point, Massachusetts.

Fred Morong, Jr. entered the Lighthouse Service in 1922 after proving to the service that he was a citizen since he was born in Canada. Fred was first a mechanic and then an inspector. As district machinist, he traveled extensively for days and sometimes weeks at a time to the numerous lighthouses in the 1st Lighthouse District while his family lived in the Camden-Rockport area. They moved to South Portland where he was assigned to the Coast Guard base during his last years of service. This assignment pleased the family because it more or less ended the need for Fred to travel and he could spend more time at home with his wife and children.

The District Machinist:

The successful operation of the lights and fog signals was greatly impacted by the skills, abilities and competency of the district machinist and his counterpart, the district lampist. However, in the numerous books and articles written about the lighthouse service, there is little or no mention of these men and of the valuable role they played by repairing light station apparatus and training the keepers to operate and maintain existing and new lamps and fog signal machinery.

The importance to the Service of these lamp and machinery specialists is apparent in instruction No. 1 of the l902 Instructions to Light-Keepers and Masters of Light-House Vessels which reads, “All keepers must acquaint themselves with the workings of the apparatus in their charge. When the station is visited by an officer or employee of the Lighthouse Establishment, especially while the machinist or lampist is there, the keepers will take pains to acquire knowledge of every detail regarding the mechanism of the apparatus. Ignorance on any point will not be considered an excuse for neglect of duty.”

Instruction no.175 to light vessel masters also names these specialists and implies their importance and the esteem in which they were held. “When lampists or machinists are on board they are to mess (partake of meals) with the officers of the vessel.”

Brasswork: The Lighthouse

Keeper’s Lament

In the course of his duties as district machinist, Fred Morong, Jr. probably came to know most of the lightkeepers in the 1st District. He was well liked and was a welcomed overnight guest at the lighthouse homes of many keepers when his work required lengthy stays at the lights. Besides being highly competent and innovative in his ability to diagnose problems and to fix any type of machinery from fog signal clockwork to diesel-powered air compressors, he was entertaining and interesting, and the lighthouse families enjoyed his company in the evening.

Fred often heard the keepers, and likely his father, complain about the trials and tribulations of working for the “guv’ment”. The noted frugality of the lighthouse service was no doubt the cause of many complaints about items the service supplied to the stations or ceased to supply. Repetitive and time-consuming chores were another cause for grumbling and complaining. Foremost was polishing brass. A keeper would polish his brasswork to the point of perfection and to his pride and satisfaction. But for various reasons the shine wouldn’t last and he would be compelled to polish this same brass time and time again. The complaining about brasswork inspired Fred, while working at Little River Light, to write the poem he titled, “Brasswork: The Light-Keepers Lament.”

Fred wrote Brasswork for the enjoyment of the light keepers. It was written from his in-depth understanding and appreciation of the work these men did as keepers of the lights. Though humorous, it was not meant to poke fun at them, but rather at their constant complaining.

The words of Brasswork offer a unique insight into the routine lightkeeping tasks performed by these “guv’ment” men, and not just brass polishing. In the 11th stanza Fred acknowledged his frequent contribution to keeper’s soiled brasswork with his words:

“So it goes in the Summer, and along in the Fall

Comes the district machinist to overhaul,

And rub dirty and greasy paws over all

My Brasswork.”

Fred’s poem received publicity, perhaps more than he intended, when a copy of Brasswork was sent to Boston radio station WEEI and was read over the air on the Big Brothers Club program, a radio pen-pal club. It was a favorite of the youth at the time and especially those living on remote lightstations who were familiar with and, no doubt, trained in the “art” of polishing brass. Soon after, Fred’s poem circulated throughout the lighthouse service, eventually to the West Coast where his poem appears in part in the logbook of the Point Reyes (California) Light Station. In his 1935 book, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast, Robert Sterling, assistant keeper of Portlland Head Light and a contemporary of Fred Morong, published Brasswork, acknowledging Fred with a brief biography and honorary title of lightkeepers “Unofficial Poet Laureate.”

Remembering Fred Morong:

In The Lighthouse Keeper’s Wife, Connie Small remembered an occasion when Fred Morong was at Seguin Light to repair equipment in the steam whistle house while a carpenter crew was also there repairing the tramway. Everyone gathered in the keepers house for an enjoyable evening of own-made entertainment. She tells of playing the piano, with carpenter Howard Colbath playing violin, keeper Elston Small playing banjo, accordion, guitar and harmonica, “while Fred sang along in his nice baritone voice, and the three daughters of keeper Frank Bracey did the Charleston.”

For the “Enjoying Maine” column in the Portland Press Herald, Bill Caldwell wrote an article in 1977 entitled “Stevenson’s Forte Was Lighthouses” and in which Caldwell paid tribute to Fred Morong. “Maine also had a poet of her own who wrote about lighthouses and who worked on lighthouses built by (Maine lighthouse builder) Royal Luther. Fred Morong never was a poet to be mentioned in the same breath as Robert Lewis Stevenson - but they lived and loved the sea at the same time.”

Fred attended to fog signal machinery needs at Matinicus Rock and at White Head. My grandfather Arthur Beal was a keeper at these two lights when steam whistles were replaced by air horns, first at the Rock and later at Whitehead. Regrettably I have no personal recollections of Fred but I remember my grandparents speaking fondly of him and of enjoying his visits. My grandfather often commented that Fred could fix anything that moved and things that wouldn’t but were supposed to. If he didn’t have the right fittings he would make them. Perhaps my grandmother may have had moments of misgiving about Fred’s visits because usually this meant overhauling the engines. During the middle of this activity Arthur would show up at the door of her clean kitchen with Fred in tow for lunch time “grub”, both of them smelling of diesel fuel, with dirty “paws” and wearing their grease-covered work clothes.

* * * *

Fred Morong’s final home base was the South Portland Depot. He and his wife Maude lived nearby in their home on Spring Street in South Portland. Fred was a member of the St. Paul’s Lodge, AF&AM at Rockport, Maine; Mt. Sinai Chapter AF&AM; Council No.4 of Portland Commandery, the Escort Association of the Commandery, Korea Temple Shrine, Masonic Club of Portland, Cornerstone Chapter; OES; Fraternity Lodge IOOF; Portland Lodge of Columbia Rebekahs; and the Eskimo Club of South Portland.

Frederic W. Morong, Jr., district machinist and the lightkeeper’s “unofficial poet laureate” died at South Portland on Dec.23, 1947 at age 64. His wife, five sons and three daughters survived him. Fred is interred at the Carver Cemetery at Vinalhaven, Maine.


Mrs. Clifford Morong, Brewer, Maine

Mr. Charles E. Morong, Camden, Maine

“Morong Family Genealogy”

Robert Sterling, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast, Stephen Day Press, 1935

Instructions to Light-Keepers, U. S. Light-House Establishment, 1902

Author’s Note: Many years ago, Margaret Graham Neeson of Spruce Head Island gave me a copy of the poem Brasswork, but Fred Morong was not identified as the author. I later discovered his identity from reading Keeper Robert Sterling’s book, a copy of which the author had given to my grandfather. I had heard about Fred the machinist from my grandparents. My mother knew Fred when she was living at Matinicus and when she was one of the children who belonged to the Big Brothers Club when Fred’s poem was first aired.

This poem has appeared in several lighthouse books and publications but with little or no acknowledgement of Fred Morong. Practically nothing has been written about the importance of the District Machinist to the Lighthouse Service. I was compelled to take on this task to develop a biography with the goal to hopefully re-introduce Fred Morong to present and future readers of his poem. Knowledge of Fred and his job adds greater meaning to his words in Brasswork.

Pursuit of this goal led me to contact Shirley Morong who gave me the initial direction in this endeavor. I had previously met her husband Clifford Morong at Quoddy Head light when they were living in Lubec. Clif and I sat for a while near the lighthouse on a bench overlooking Grand Mannan Channel and we talked about people we had known in the Lighthouse Service and Coast Guard.

Most recently, I had the privilege to visit Fred Morong’s son, Charles Morong and his wife Dottie at their home in Camden. Charles had earlier sent me information about his father and grandfather and had corrected inaccuracies in my earlier drafts. He also provided the unique photo of Fred Morong wearing his district machinist uniform. More than this, meeting with Charles was meaningful to me, for this brought me closer to the Fred Morong I had never met. This was the highlight of my journey to my goal.

This story appeared in the June 2000 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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