Alger Burgess was not a man to mince words. He'd tell you that working on a lighthouse and buoy tender back in the 1930s was backbreaking, brutal, filthy work. He'd also tell you that he loved it. “I even liked that better than going fishing,” he said. And coming from a man who worked as a commercial fisherman for many years, that's saying something.
Burgess, who was a native of Maine's Casco Bay area, died on July 28, 2004. He was among the last surviving employees of the old U.S. Lighthouse Service. Thanks to his friends Marjorie and Bill Monroe, I had the opportunity to interview him at his daughter Sharon's home on Chebeague Island in June.
Alger Burgess spent his boyhood years on Peaks Island in the Casco Bay and went lobstering and clamming to help support the family. He joined the Lighthouse Service in 1937 and was assigned to the tender Hibiscus. The vessel, built in 1908 and operated out of Portland, was one of eight 190-foot tenders built around the same time. They were the largest tenders built in the U.S. until 1996 when the Coast Guard's “Juniper-class” seagoing buoy tenders were launched.
When Burgess became a crewman, the Hibiscus was just about to make its annual summer inspection tour of all the lighthouses on the Maine coast, also working on buoys along the way. “What we had to do was service each and every one of them,” he said, “all the way down in Portsmouth [New Hampshire], the river there, up to the St. Croix River [on the border of Canada]. The first lighthouse I had anything to do with was the Portland Lightship. We brought coal aboard her, and fresh water. Tending buoys was mostly what we did.”
An important function of the tender was to deliver supplies to the light stations. Coal was delivered to the tender by trucks and had to be shoveled into bags by the crew. “We were either lugging coal, oil, water, or grub, whatever,” remembered Burgess. “We loaded it aboard. And then we'd go to a certain area in the district. We'd take whatever we had from the tender to the cargo boat, and from the cargo boat we carried it ashore to the lighthouse. Of course, oil we pumped. Coal was bagged in 80-pound bags. You lugged it on the back of your neck.”
The dangers were many, especially in light stations where there was a long walk from the cargo boat to the storage areas. “I'll tell you,” Burgess said, “many a time I had a skinned elbow, knees. You'd be walking, you'd slip on a piece of rockweed or kelp or something and down you'd go, with the coal right on top of you. As long as you didn't break your neck, you were all right.”
Most of the stations were difficult, but some were worse than others. “There's no easy one,” said Burgess. “Seguin at the mouth of the Kennebec – now that was a son of a gun because you had to lug everything so high. Sometimes, two of us would be lugging and it would take two of us ten or fifteen minutes to go up that hill.”
One time at Halfway Rock Light, far out in the Casco Bay, the crew of the Hibiscus had a hard time getting the small cargo boat onto the narrow landing ramp. “It was rough there as you might imagine,” recalled Burgess. “She laid right over and dumped the coal off. We had to pick the coal out of the water and lug that up.”
Burgess remembered a visit to Petit Manan Light, one of Maine's more remote island stations. “The keepers were a good bunch of people,” he said. “We went down Petit Manan, and this little guy had arthritis or rheumatism or whatever it was – he could just about walk. He says to the boatswain, 'John, how many years you've been coming here?' And John says, 'How many years you been here?' And he says, 'I can't remember.'”
Tending buoys was the most time-consuming part of the crew's duties. “First thing we did, we had to load all the buoys up there at the dock, at the depot,” Burgess remembered. “We had to load them so we knew which buoy we were going to do first, so it would be on the outside, so we wouldn't have to pile them all over one another. If we took any spar buoys we wouldn't take any steel buoys, because it was too hard to take both. The long spar buoys, some of them were 65, 70 feet long. We put 'em on deck there. Of course, you lay 'em down and tie one end of 'em, and you only had to worry about the other end.”
Burgess was once hit in the leg by a wooden spar buoy, giving him a long-lasting deep bruise. The wooden buoys would sometimes break unexpectedly. “You never could tell when they was rotten inside,” he said. “The marine worms got into them. If they broke and came down and hit the deck, that wasn't bad.”
The lighted buoys had two cylinders of gas inside them. “They were somewhere around 560 pounds apiece,” said Burgess. “And some of the buoys had four in them – the big offshore buoys. The Hibiscus would lift several tons over the side. The bigger tenders could lift 11 tons.” Large gas tanks also had to be installed at some locations like the lighted monument on Little Mark Island in the Casco Bay. “The cylinders that you put on those islands, like Mark Island, they would weigh – I think it was 217 pounds apiece,” Burgess recalled. “That didn't count the tank – the tank probably weighed 30 to 40 pounds apiece. Of course, it took two men to lug them. You'd put them on you shoulder.”
Burgess said that the crew of the Hibiscus set a record for the most buoys serviced on the coast of Maine in one year during the summer of 1939, the year that the Lighthouse Service became part of the Coast Guard. That summer, the vessel and her crew also took part in the salvage of the submarine Squalus, which sank with the tragic loss of 26 lives off the Isles of Shoals.
Burgess joined the Coast Guard after the changes in administration. He wanted to keep working on tenders but said, “The Coast Guard had other ideas, and they just shanghaied me off on one of those big cutters and I was long gone.” He served aboard the 250-foot cutter Chelan and then the 165-foot Algonquin. He also served about a month on the Portland Lightship. “It was like going to sea, only you wasn't moving,” he said. “They moved the lightship because they thought it might be a target for submarines. I remember the cook – he could do anything. He came from Addison [Maine]. He was not only a good cook, but a good man. A good shipmate.”
During his time in the North Atlantic during World War II, Burgess received a gold lifesaving medal and a good conduct medal. He left the Coast Guard in 1944 and resumed his fishing career. All in all, he has very fond memories of the Hibiscus. “We had a good crew,” he said. “The captain's name was Faulkingham, from Jonesport. The first mate was Mr. Perry. Bob Perry. Faulkingham, Perry and Wallace were the best officers I ever had in my life. They knew everything about what they were supposed to do. And that's quite an honor for anybody who served under them to say that about them. And ol' John the boatswain mate was fantastic. He was a good man. Strong as a bull. He was the mate on a Portuguese barkentine. Couldn't speak good English. He'd hold four bags of coal – 80 pounds to a bag.”
Burgess worked full time as a commercial fisherman until 1970. He was also an active Shriner and once was awarded a medal of commendation for saving a child's life during a drive to the hospital. He lived in Florida for some years, but returned to Maine after the death of his wife in 1998. He was told that his family was related to Abbie Burgess, the fabled heroine of Maine's Matinicus Rock Light Station. There's no doubt that saltwater coursed through his veins.
Before his death, he toured the state-of-the-art tender Marcus Hanna and saw how buoy tending is done today. “It's pretty foreign to me, I'll tell you,” he said with mild disdain. For Alger Burgess, the old ways of doing things weren't easy, but they were the best ways.
This story appeared in the
October 2004 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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