Louisiana’s Ship Shoal Lighthouse sits today as a rustic and tilting abandoned relic of a bygone era. Although there has been talk in recent years of dismantling this giant and moving it to shore, its future is questionable.
Built in 1859, south of Grand Isle in the Gulf of Mexico near the community of Berwick, the lighthouse has seen its share of trouble and excitement over the years. Battered by tremendous seas in ocean storms it is hard for us to understand today the fear the keepers had during these inclement times. The keepers also suffered from heat, mosquitoes, spiders and drinking water that was contaminated and caused many keepers to become violently ill. It was reported that one keeper even became paralyzed from the bad water.
Even though the tower had been abandoned in 1929 after it was automated, the United States Coast Guard assigned personnel to the tower during World War II to watch for an enemy invasion or submarine activity. If an attack had come the lookouts assigned to the tower would surely have died in an attack by sea or air and the tower could have easily been blown out of the water.
But none of the keepers assigned to the lighthouse could have imagined the horror that would besiege the lighthouse keepers here in January of 1886.
The New York Times, in a first hand interview by one of their reporters with Third Assistant Keeper Keech, recorded the event. Unfortunately the story, which had a headline of “Desperate Fight For Life In A Lighthouse,” did not indicate the first names of all the participants or the names of some of the others. But it does give a harrowing account of why lighthouse keeping was not all the romance and wonder that many people dream about today.
Keech recounted, “I was the third and Mr. Dunn was the principal keeper of the lighthouse.” He went on to say how they had seen the first and second assistant keepers on their journey by boat up the Atchafalaya Bayou for provisions. They waited for five days for their return. Realizing that the distance of 50 miles was not that far, they concluded that something must have happened to them. But just what, they didn’t know. The seas had been unusually calm, but out on the water, anything can happen.
Keech went on, “On the morning of the fifth day, while we were tarring outside, we noticed a boat becalmed to the southward, and on examination we came to the conclusion that it was the missing boat belonging to our station. So I took the dinghy and pulled out to her. On getting along side I found in her only one man, and he was a stranger. I asked him where he was going with our boat. He said he was going to Pascagoula, and asked in return what light that was. I told him it was the Ship Shoal, and asked where he had gotten the boat from. He said he had bought her from three men near Morgan City for $100.”
Not fully believing the story Keech said, “I told him that our first and second assistant keepers had gone up the bayou in her;
that we hadn’t seen them since, and that I proposed to take him to the station. He made no resistance.”
For the next three days, Keech and Dunn fed the man and watched him closely trying to figure out what to do. Knowing that they dare not leave the lighthouse unattended, and with a certain amount of fear, neither one of them wanted to accompany the man alone to the mainland for the authorities to look into the matter. They decided they would wait a few more days to see if the other keepers would indeed return, but something inside them gave them the feeling that this was doubtful.
“Keech continued by saying, “The fourth night Dunn was in the watch room, and I lay asleep in my own room. I was awakened by a terrible pain in my head and found myself bleeding and the stranger standing over me with a hatchet giving it to me as fast as ever he could. I yelled, ‘Murderer, Murderer!’ jumped up, called again to Dunn to come down and help me and no sooner had I got the words out of mouth than the stranger pulled out a revolver and began firing. Three balls struck me and I fell in a faint.
Dunn, in the mean time, had hurried down and armed himself but when he got to the foot of the stairway all was quiet and dark in my room, and he could not hear anything. He crept cautiously into the small room where the small lamps were kept, past a skylight that caught the gleam of the big lantern. The stranger was watching for him and banged away at him through my window, hitting him in the right shoulder. Dunn fired back into the darkness
into the direction of the flash and the stranger shot him twice more, again in the right shoulder and the right side. Dunn fell over, but got up at once and just then I came to and called for him. We heard nothing from the stranger for some minutes and then discovered that he had gone into the watch-room. We barricaded the stairway, covered the skylight, and then turned to estimate damages. I was ready again to faint from loss of blood. Half my face was gone as you can see, and I had three pistol wounds. Poor Dunn was suffering principally from two bullet wounds in his shoulder. Each of us had to use the left hand in binding up as best we could the other’s wounds.”
Exactly how the keepers captured the stranger is unclear. Since he was trapped in the watch-room with no place to go and no ammunition left, he must have eventually surrendered, but, perhaps, not without a final fight of desperation, because Keech went on to say, “The next day we took our prisoner to Morgan City and he is now in jail there. He gave his name as Davy Jones. He is a hideous looking man, all the lower side of his face having been chopped away in the encounter.”
Exactly what happened to the missing first and second lighthouse keepers are unknown to us at this time, however, we can only assume from the story that they somehow met their deaths at the hand of the stranger. We can only wonder if lighthouse keepers Dunn and Keech ever returned to their jobs or if the strange madman they encountered was the last straw for them.
Our thanks to Judi Kearney of Ambler,
PA who donated the old newspaper to us that recounted this horrific but amazing story of the lighthouse keepers of yesteryear as another example of one of the many ways the life of a lighthouse keeper was anything but idyllic.
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2007 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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