Digest>Archives> Nov/Dec 2023

From the Commodore

“Superintendent Dillon in Puerto Rico, Pt. 6”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

Guantánamo Naval Station: The next stop of the tender enroute to the Panama Canal was in Guantánamo Bay. The aids to navigation in this important twenty-mile square area were under the authority of the Commandant, the Lighthouse Service cooperating in maintaining the buoys and lights.

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Windward Point Light Station, Guantánamo Bay, ...

The tender entered the bay rounding the Windward Point Light Station. The Navy had dredged up two Philippine keepers and their families for this station. Their duties were easy with Navy supplies to back them up. The tender entered on Hicacal Beach Range lights, oil lights across the Bay from the Naval station.

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Postcard view of one of the Hicacal Beach range ...

Not far from the Naval station was a lighthouse buoy dock and keeper’s dwelling. The keeper living here, with the help of the Naval motorboat and crew, took care of Hicacal Beach range and other pier lights at the Naval station. He had been sent down from one of the Florida Key lights to get rid of him. He was “nuts” on physical culture at the Key station and practiced nude culture to the dismay of the other keepers. They wanted all hands to wear clothes at meals. The Commandant wanted to get rid of him.

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Construction crews are putting the final touches ...

With this idea in mind, my predecessor superintendent had theoretically conceived a great idea to make Hicacal Beach lights electrical and automated from Naval station power as follows: run a submarine cable two-and-one-half miles across the bay to the Hicacal Beach range lights using the required transformers at each side. It was up to my administration to install same, a nice task, I thought.

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A construction crew is in the process of raising ...

The whole installation was tested out with controls at the Naval station side and worked perfectly till the fleet came into Guantánamo Bay. While the submarine cable was outside of the anchorage area, the Atlantic Fleet filled the Bay and spread out over the cable area plainly marked by signs at both sides, “Cable Crossing – Don’t Anchor.”

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Buck Island Light was another stop for Dillon on ...

The cable was broken after we left the installation in fine working condition, no less than three times by vessels of the fleet anchoring over it. The Naval station force tried to splice it a number of times but the splices leaked and shorted the whole system. It was a failure and I subsequently installed an acetylene gas system using powerful AGA Range lanterns. The submarine cable was written off as experience.

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Dillon almost didn’t make it back to San Juan ...

On to the Panama Canal: Duties performed in Guantánamo Bay, the tender steamed out of the harbor for the 800-mile trip to the Panama Canal, stopping enroute to relieve the automatic lights on the Caribbean reefs of Quito Sueño, Serrana Bank and Roncador Cay in the Yucatan Passage on the route taken by vessels from Gulf ports to the Panama Canal.

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Culebrita Lighthouse in the Virgin Islands is at ...

Acetylene lights on these islands had to be recharged every six months. These tiny islands were always covered with sea birds of various kinds, and when nesting, I walked among them, only to be hissed or pecked at; otherwise, they stayed put. While a detail from the tender serviced the lights, every member of the crew who could, had a fishing line overboard, and in no time, the decks were hopping with tropical fish. Lines were stretched on the buoy deck and enough fish cured in the sun to last for days in the galley. Everyone on board had better like fish and could have all he wanted to eat.

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This 1928 press photo of Frederick P. Dillon, ...

The run to Colon of 300 miles was made without incident The tender Lilac was drydocked which gave me an opportunity to get acquainted with the lighthouse personnel under the Governor. The Canal authorities had drawn on the Lighthouse Bureau for the leading men engaged in the work. The tender Favorite was also a wrecking tug of all work. The buoy depot was at Gatun. The courses through the Gatun Lake were beautifully buoyed and marked by lighthouse tower ranges.

I took a trip through the canal locks on the Favorite to Panama and out to Bona Island Light at the Pacific entrance. In laboriously climbing the hill on Bona Island with machete men clearing out the path ahead, a large boa constrictor snake was encountered in a scrub tree. Tarantulas were numerous in the pathway, good reason for having two beaters on ahead to clean the way.

I saw all the sights of the canal in Panama and elsewhere. The captain of the tug took me to his quarters for his family, furnished by the canal authorities. The tender Lilac was carefully cleaned, painted underwater body with two coats of red lead and anti-fouling paint in the dry dock and refueled ready for the return journey of some 1500 miles direct to San Juan, P.R.

All went well until we arrived south of San Domingo City. There, Jesus Preira, the engineer, came up out of the boiler room to tell the captain that the boiler had sprung a leak, a portentous sign of the age of the Lilac. Not a vessel had been sighted on the trip that might be called on to help. The radio operator could not raise a soul in San Domingo City. The government there was in a ferment; probably, there was no tug nor vessel there anyway.

Jesus said he would watch the boiler to see whether he would have to pull the fires. After an agonizing wait, drifting about, he reappeared saying that with a reduced head of steam, we could keep going slowly, the leaking tubes seemed to be taking up a bit. And so, the tender limped the more than 200 miles to San Juan. Portilla Iron Works welded the tubes but the Bureau decided to retire the Lilac in exchange for the Columbine, a slightly larger tender stationed at Key West, Florida.

The Virgin Islands: On one of the tender trips east out of San Juan, aids to navigation were visited on Vieques Island, Culebra (Snake) Island, St. Thomas and St. Croix. The Atlantic Fleet had practice maneuvers in this area and part of the fleet could anchor in Great Harbor, Culebra Island. Culebrita (Little Snake) Island Light Station was close by on top of the island where Captain Jose Simeon, formerly of the Spanish Navy, was head keeper. There were a few native inhabitants on Culebra Island, one of whom made a specialty of raising sheep, a very unusual occupation as goats satisfied native needs better.

Whenever the tender anchored in the harbor, the sheep specialist always came aboard to see the captain to negotiate for the sale of mutton for the mess. This kind of business deal was always the matter of verbose, preliminary negotiations, all in Spanish, of course.

With a sparkling smile, and snapping eyes, Jose would say, “Good day, Captain. How is your family, etc. And would you be interested in some fine tender lambs today, etc.? The best in the world, etc.,” with much more palabra (talk). And the Captain would inquire about Jose’s family, etc., etc., and he would like four lambs, in the pink of condition, nicely dressed for nine o’clock tomorrow morning. “And I don’t want goats.” “Oh, no, no, no!” Jose would say, with accompanying gestures. “You know Captain, I would not sell goats to you….” and a lot more talk. And the Captain would say, “All right, Jose, bring four spring lambs tomorrow (and it is always spring here), but they must have birth certificates,” which words were always the occasion of hearty laughs, handshakes, and bowings out, for Jose had heard this birth certificate business before.

At St. Thomas Harbor, there were other bargaining scenes for the benefit of the mess for the tender. A Danish farmer always liked to see the tender anchor in the harbor. He was the proud possessor of an open motorboat which he used to visit the tender. He knew Chief Engineer Preira, and other officers from past years, and showed he had a sense of humor.

On one occasion, his motorboat stalled near the tender. It appeared to be taking on water to the chief who was watching the situation at the gangway of the tender. The chief hustled into a small boat of the tender and was seen alongside of the motorboat in distress. He soon had it operating. Always after that, when the Dane stepped aboard the tender, he would preface his greeting with, “You know, Jesus saved my life once.”

At Charlotte Amalia, St. Thomas, the Navy had a small force and particularly, a band composed of enlisted natives, who were always expected to remain at their home port. They played every afternoon in a bandstand on the waterfront. The captain called them “The Boilermakers” on account of their awful music. Much to their surprise and chagrin, the whole outfit was transferred to the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station. The boys soon became very homesick and finally petitioned the Commandant for a change of station to St. Thomas because the climate did not agree with them. (The climate is the same in both places.)

The great advantage of working for the Lighthouse Service was that the tender visited all the out of the way places inaccessible to tourists. We had to go into a Bay at St. Thomas where we discovered a local company in the wrecking business where an indescribable mass of ships’ parts covered the area; small boats, detached pilot houses, machinery of all kinds strewn about. I wondered where it all came from: some mysterious tales here.

The tender made for Buck Island Light where a Danish keeper was inherited when the Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark for twenty-five million dollars. Then on to St. Croix Harbor, so difficult for even a small ship like the Columbine to enter. There, the port captain and the tender captain were seen discussing the busy situation and exchanging news of the day while Miriam and I explored ashore and hired a car to go to Frederiksted and to Ham’s Bluff Light Station at the other end of the Island. At the light station, the keeper was Danish and the progeny were in the background, unobserved. The dwelling was beautifully furnished with old Colonial pieces including a beautiful four-poster bed.

In the sugar cane fields of St. Croix, turkeys were raised and deer ran wild. On a later buoy trip, the captain thought it would be nice to have a fawn at the San Juan Lighthouse Depot, so presented one to my family. The beautiful little creature, thought to be wild, was put in our unused chicken yard, but the children accidentally left the door ajar. The fawn got out and made for the dwelling where it would sleep curled up in the corner of the living room.

It liked company and followed the children all over the depot. The trouble was that it liked the foliage of all the ornamental bushes and soon had them stripped. I had to give the fawn away to the assistant engineer of the tender who lived across the bay. The turkeys that the captain brought alive came in real handy, except the last one always flew out of the chicken yard and was most difficult to recapture.

These trips on the tender, while rather infrequent, gave me and my family a clear picture of the life and culture of the people of the Lighthouse Service in isolated locations. Remember, the period was between 1920 and 1927. Great changes have taken place since.


After serving as the 9th District Superintendent for those seven years, Dillon was then promoted to the position of General Superintendent of Lighthouses for five years until 1933. Lighthouse Digest was fortunate to acquire a 1928 photograph taken of Superintendent Dillon at the Los Angeles International Airport, upon arrival from an around-the-lighthouse-world inspection trip. In finding out more about him, Lighthouse Digest eventually obtained a complete scan of this 300-page typewritten, unpublished manuscript from the Dillon family, which we have serialized in each issue since 2016. We hope you have enjoyed this unprecedented first-hand account of what life was like throughout the U.S. Lighthouse Service from 1911 to 1946. Thus ends the lighthouse travels and adventures as recorded From the Commodore, Frederick P. Dillon.


This story appeared in the Nov/Dec 2023 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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