Digest>Archives> April 2006

Memories of Lighthouse Machinist William K. Larkin, Jr.


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William H. Larkin, Jr. Photograph courtesy of ...

As a machinist in the United States Lighthouse Service in the last decade of the 19th century, William K. Larkin, Jr. vividly recalled his experiences in an article written for the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Journal in January 1900.

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Larkin believed the staging, shown here, to store ...

He entered the Lighthouse Service soon after graduating from the Institute in 1893, and although he became a well-known engineer and inventor in his later life, he never forgot the days when he went “lighthousing,” as it was called then. For a number of years, he traveled the New England coast visiting lighthouses and installing and repairing aids to navigation.

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He was one of the youngest machinists in New England. Most of the men had been in the service for over 25 years and were dedicated to the life, having no desire to quit in spite of long hours, low pay and hard work. They were mainly all around, old-time, hard-working and very able mechanics — able to lay bricks, stretch a submarine cable, install a boiler, pull an oar, mend a steam engine, anchor a buoy and work as jacks-of-all-trades in maintaining the navigational aids of the old Lighthouse Service, often under adverse weather conditions at sea and on remote islands.

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“They must go on call,” wrote

Mr. Larkin, “for lives depend on their arrival or non-arrival. They must drive over snow-bound roads in the winter, pull a mile or two in a leaky dory, arrive at the station in the dead of night, and, though half-frozen, go at once to the whistle house, work 48 hours incessantly — all of this falls to their lot.”

Some were blacksmiths, engineers, carpenters, bricklayers and masons but they were all versatile. Their chief base of operations was the Lighthouse Depot in Staten Island, New York,

but they also worked out of smaller installations along the coast as well.

A machine shop for the repair on fog signals in the First and Second Lighthouse Districts (there were then 16 Districts) was located in Boston.

The Collapse of Minot's Ledge

They were also investigators of sort in determining from past disasters or accidents how to prevent future tragedies. For example, when the octagonal skeleton tower of Minot's Ledge Lighthouse off the coast of Cohasset, Massachusetts toppled into the sea in 1851 destroying the lighthouse and killing its keepers, the machinists wanted to know why the lighthouse failed. The structure was cross-braced and the keepers had built staging about halfway up the iron pillars to store supplies. It was this staging, Larkin believed, that was responsible for the tower tipping over and crashing into the sea.

Meeting the Keepers

As he traveled up and down the coast, Larkin got to know all of the keepers. He recalled Sam, the keeper of the light on Ram Island in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, as the most active and hustling keeper “downeast,” despite the fact that he wore a wooden peg to replace a leg lost in the service. He looked forward to his visits to Seguin Island, for he found the assistant keeper there, Mr. Spinney, to be “an ornithologist of note, a philosopher, expounder of Paracelsus, member

of scientific societies, author of valuable articles on his particular subjects, and — last, but not least — proprietor of an excellent museum of his own collections.”

Larkin recalled the keeper at Pumpkin Island who also owned and operated a thriving summer colony for tourists, and a keeper in Lubec who was for years trying to invent a revolutionary lifeboat.

Besides serving the lighthouses, the machinists were detailed to service lightships and buoys. At that time, there were about 30 to 40 lightships. These were equipped for both sail and steam, most of them having two short, stout masts, at the top of which were eight reflector lamps. The steam power proved a blessing in heavy weather, being used to ease the strain on the mooring chains, or, if the chains broke, to propel the vessels to port. During the severe winter storms of 1899, several lightships and their crews were saved by their steam engines when they went adrift from their moorings.

Electricity was Unpopular

Electricity had its drawbacks in the 1890s. American lighthouse engineers found it quite unsatisfactory, even though it was becoming quite popular in Europe. “In some particular cases,” Mr. Larkin wrote, “the electric light has been found to be worse than none at all.” He cited the case of a lighthouse at Hell Gate in the East River, Manhattan, NY, where electrically-lighted beacons cast “such dense and black shadows,” that mariners became bewildered. The whole apparatus was subsequently removed. A later experiment with the bivalve lens was tried at Navesink Light Station in New Jersey and proved more satisfactory. Nevertheless, kerosene continued to be the favored luminant.

“Perhaps,” wrote Larkin, “the most serious objection to the more general introduction of the electric light is the fact that it is hard to find men who are capable of caring for the complicated machinery and who are willing to enter the service at the pay rate the Lighthouse Board can offer.”

He may have hit the nail on the head! Those old-time, hard-working, dedicated machinists, although able to lay a brick, forge a chain, build a tower, repair a steam whistle and repair a steam boiler, had not come to terms with the mysteries of electricity.

Fog Signal was a Matter of

Life or Death

The boilers in use at the signal stations were nearly all of the locomotive type and none were set in brick. This type, the machinists found, was the most suitable and the easiest to repair. The machines carried from 40 to 60 pounds gauge pressure and averaged 125 gallons evaporation per hour, using 75 pounds of coal. They were often operated for long periods, particularly off the coast of Maine and other offshore islands. The average ten-inch second whistle required about 30 cubic feet of steam per second of blast, at 55 pounds gauge pressure. When blasts were almost constant, especially in heavy periods of fog, a great deal of steam was required. In some cases, large steel drums had to be added to the boilers to maintain sufficient steam.

“One of the most essential qualifications for a steam or other signal,” wrote Mr. Larkin, “is the possibility of getting it into operation as quickly as possible after fog shows itself.” He kept some records on this. At Seguin Island Lighthouse in Maine, enough steam to blow the whistle could be generated from cold water within 28 minutes of lighting the coal-fired furnace. But a trumpet signal at Highland Light on Cape Cod, operated by Hornley-Akroyd oil engines, could be blowing within nine minutes after the fog rolled in.

Unlike the majority of the 1890s machinists, Mr. Larkin finally left the lighthouse service to seek more lucrative employment. By then, he had contributed many new ideas at Worcester Polytechnic Institute and had made the older mechanics in the lighthouse service aware of changes coming in the new century. At the same time, his experiences in working with aids to navigation on the New England coast contributed to his later career as an inventor and engineer.

Larkin never forgot what it was like to be inspecting a fog signal at close hand when it went into operation. “At short range,” he said, “it would be difficult to find anything more blood-chilling than the long drawn-out, trumpet-like howl emitted by one of those machines.”

But what was ear-splitting noise to the young machinist must have been heavenly music to the mariner lost in the thick fog off the dangerous New England coast.

Today's modern foghorns cannot even closely be compared to those foghorns of yesteryear. Even more unfortunately, today with modern technology, many lighthouses no longer even have a foghorn. However, one of the most soothing sounds to many coastal people is the sound of the foghorn blowing in the distance on those fog-shrouded days. But few will know or remember the machinists of yesteryear who worked to develop the technology we have today.

Editor's Note:

This story was adapted in part from a story by Florence Kern in a 1978 issue of the Coast Guard Bulletin.

This story appeared in the April 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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