Edited by Jeremy D’Entremont
Photos courtesy of Susan Ellis Berghan
“Captain Dave.” When I was a child, that name evoked images of the exotic and the romantic. Captain Dave’s sixth child, James, was my grandfather, who died when my father was eight months old. My father seemed to know little about his paternal family, so I built a vision upon what scant information I had: sea captain, Wales and Key West. In my mind, Captain Dave commanded a tall, masted schooner sailing the seven seas . . .
The real Captain Dave, I have discovered more recently, was both more heroic and more down-to-earth than the mythical figure of
David Ellis was baptized the 6th of October 1829, in Aberporth, on the shore of Cardigan Bay in Wales. His father, Evan Ellis, was listed as a mariner. It is doubtful that he was the first mariner in the Ellis line, as that was the primary occupation in this part of Wales.
He certainly was not the last. Each of the next three generations produced at least one sailor.
David first went to sea on a coasting vessel in 1846. He went to America around 1847 or 1848, and the 1860 census found him in Key West, Florida. (I trust future research will disclose the reasons David ended up in Key West.) He was in Key West during the Civil War working as a mariner for the U.S. government, and there is convincing evidence that he was the captain of the schooner Tortugas, which sailed between Key West and Fort Jefferson. There are two mentions of Captain Ellis in the diary kept by Emily Holder, wife of the assistant surgeon at Fort Jefferson.
In 1867, Captain Ellis married Ellen Holfert, who had just turned 15. Of the eight children that Ellen and David would eventually have, one died in infancy, two married and the other five never married.
Late in 1868, David became an American citizen and joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service. When most people think of the Lighthouse Service, they think of lighthouses. But there were also the tenders, the ships that supplied the lighthouses. The crews on the tenders brought fuel, food, mail, supplies and replacement personnel. Without them, lighthouses could not have continued. The crewmen had to be
highly skilled sailors to approach some of the treacherous locations.
They might be remodeling a kitchen at a lighthouse one week and fighting a hurricane to get to a stranded lightship the next week. Without this tiny fleet, commerce would have faltered. Immigration would have stumbled. They were unrecognized in their time and forgotten in ours.
David Ellis was to captain on these tenders for 25 years. His stories are mundane, heroic, tedious, exciting, but above all, important.
In the Monroe County, Florida, 1870 census, David listed his occupation as master mariner, which means he would be the captain on the vessels he sailed. Sometime during the 1860s, he passed an examination and was certified to captain vessels. In other words, he was Captain Dave. Since that is how he is referred to in his obituary, and that is how my father referred to him, that is what I will call him from this point forward.
Beginning in 1875, the tenders were named for flowers and trees. Somehow, these macho sailors accepted working on ships with names like Bluebell, Pansy or Dandelion. (Yes, these are real names.) Perhaps these names were to compensate for the fact that the vessels were homely. These rugged vessels were like the men who worked on them: tenacious.
Captain Dave’s vessel in the early 1870s was the Spray. His salary was $100 a month. The Spray was a 76-foot schooner with a wooden hull. Purchased in 1853 by the Lighthouse Service, it was rebuilt in 1868.
It transferred between districts, finally ending up in the Seventh District in April 1876. It was condemned in the spring of 1878 and sold in 1879.
A Lighthouse Board report for the period ending June 30, 1877 reads: “Cape Saint George, Saint George’s Sound, Florida. - The materials for the new dwelling have been purchased, and taken to the site, and mechanics are now engaged in its erection.”
On July 2, Captain Dave went to St. Vincent Island and procured 340 pounds of fresh beef. On July 4, the crew took the day off. They had been working the previous nine days straight at Cape St. George. Captain Dave went to town to get a bag of salt. The next day, the crew was back to work. That night, a big squall of wind and rain came through, “anchor at 40 fathoms. . . lasted two hours.”
The crew continued working at Cape St. George until August 14. They worked on the dwelling, dried out the sails as squalls came through, killed a pig and shingled the kitchen. What appeared as a short 22-word sentence in the report to the Secretary of the Treasury was actually 50 days of hard work for these men.
The official report stated, “In 1878, workers built a keepers’ quarters so well that, soon after completion, it withstood a hurricane without suffering any damage.”
Captain Dave transferred to New Orleans in 1880. It appears that the Lighthouse Board scheduled an inspection of the Eighth District during Mardi Gras in 1882. It is encouraging to note, based on his logbook, that all was not hard labor on the tenders.
Tuesday, February 21, 1882. Str. Geranium lay at lamp shop. All the crew on shore enjoying their liberty of Mardi Gras.
Wednesday, February 22, 1882. Str. Geranium lay
at lamp shop New Orleans at 6 a.m. Started down the
river for Port Eads at 1 p.m. Got down to wharf and
filled water and other things in storehouse. At 3 p.m.,
L. H. Tender Joseph Henry came down with Capt. Heuer and party from lighthouse board. We took them outside the jetties for a sail and came back to dock and laid till 2 a.m.
The tender Captain Dave commanded at this time was built in 1863 as a private steaming tug. Later that year, it was purchased by the U.S. Navy and commissioned the Geranium, the name it kept. It was sold to the Lighthouse Service in 1865 and it was assigned to the Eighth District until 1884 when it was transferred elsewhere. It was a single beam steam engine with side paddle wheels.
Captain Dave’s last tender was the wooden-hulled, 153-foot Arbutus. Built at a cost of $49,769.16, it was commissioned on July 1, 1879. It had a coal-fired, twin propeller steam engine. Following is a report on the Arbutus from the Lighthouse Board for 1891:
“This steamer was actively employed during the year in making repairs to the lighthouses in the seventh and eighth districts. During the year, the tender was docked and the old metal was taken off
and replaced with new where required. Calking was done where necessary and other minor repairs were made. A new starboard
crank pin shaft was put in, the machinery was thoroughly repaired and a new pair of composition propeller wheels was put on.
During the year, she ran 15,168 miles and consumed 639 tons of coal. The tender is in excellent condition.”
Captain Dave was nearing the end of his career. For 25 years, he had worked tirelessly, navigating the southern coast and up into
New England. In all degrees of weather, in vessels of varying stages of seaworthiness, he and his crews had maintained and sustained the lighthouses. They had been the backbone of a system of lights and navigational aids at a time in our country when the shipping lanes were as heavily traveled as the interstates today. It was not a glamorous job. These men were workaholics. They were jacks-of-all-trades. They did their jobs so well that no one noticed.
On October 31, 1893, Captain David Ellis died at home after an illness of about a month. He turned out to be the hero of my youth, but in ways I had not imagined. There is more to be written about his work with the Lighthouse Service. But for now, I have met a man who
was hardworking, dedicated to his profession and his family and respected by his family and neighbors. These are the same qualities passed on to his grandson, his namesake — my father, David John Ellis.
May the tradition continue in my son, who is named David in honor of his heritage.
For a more extensive version of Captain Dave’s story, visit www.ancestorsremembered.com on the web.
This story appeared in the
March 2006 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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