Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2008

Another Time – Another Era

The Heartwarming Memories of James T. Wilson


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The author, James T. Wilson, as a Seaman ...

My first U.S. Coast Guard assignment was at Sabine Lifeboat Station in Sabine, Texas in December of 1951. CWO R.C. Teller commanded the station. The Sabine Pass Lighthouse, also located on the Sabine River, but in Louisiana, was also included under his command. Shortly after my arrival, Teller advised me that I was being sent to the lighthouse for a few days. It was customary for low graded personnel at the lifeboat station to be assigned duty time at Sabine Lighthouse.

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Sabine Pass Lighthouse as it appeared in 1952 ...

Steve Purgley, the Lighthouse Keeper at that time, was a career keeper having started his career under the old U.S. Lighthouse Service before it was merged into the Coast Guard in 1939. I was told that his father also had served in the Lighthouse Service as a keeper at a location near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Steve had spent significant time at Sabine Pass Lighthouse accompanied by his wife and daughter. At the time I arrived, Steve’s family was no longer living at the lighthouse with him as Mrs. Purgley was critically ill and they had gone to live with relatives.

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View of Sabine Pass Lighthouse from the end of ...

When I arrived at the lighthouse I was greeted by Seaman Walter West who appeared elated to see me, his replacement. Steven immediately showed me the facilities and gave me the “do’s and don’ts,” and advised that, “This place can be very lonely - if you ever feel bad about being here, tell me.”

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Fading paint on the lighthouse and the ...

For a short time Steve joined me on my assigned watch periods. I was surprised to learn that this station of duty had not only the beacon light but also a radio beacon installation used for long-range navigational purposes.

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James T. Wilson on the right with Walter West ...

Steve was adamant about cleanliness. During daylight hours, considerable time was required to maintain his expectations. I enjoyed duties pertaining to the lighthouse, as the view from the tower was spectacular. At sunrise, after the beacon light was turned off, canvas curtains were hung in the lantern room to prevent the sun’s reflective glare from the lens.

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Dangerous snakes such as this Cottonmouth killed ...

Early mornings in the tower presented a memorable view of the marshland and an abundance of wildlife. The dawn horizon provided a backdrop for birds and flying insects. The gulf would be dotted with shrimp boats already at work and others en route downstream on the Sabine, eager to join them. After a dark night of pure silence, the sounds of birds and shrimp boats churning the water were a welcome introduction to the day.

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Steve Purgly, head keeper at Sabine Pass ...

A two-room building was located between the crew’s quarters and the lighthouse. The larger room or generator room had a shelved wall filled with numerous glass-enclosed batteries and a large diesel-powered engine that served as a generator to recharge all the batteries during daylight hours. Each day the batteries were inspected for general condition and need of water. Each battery had an indicator to gauge its charge status, as well as a tag to identify its age.

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The wife of one of the repairmen, who visited ...

The smaller room was called a watch room. It contained all necessary equipment to monitor the lighthouse beacon, the radio beacon transmission and the station communication radio. Above the desk two old pendulum clocks were mounted on the wall. One clock was set for local time and the other to Greenwich time. A tall steel antenna on the ground nearby was used to transmit the Sabine Pass radio signal to all shipping within range. The radio beacon was set to a repeated “alpha” Morse Code signal for three minutes. The transmission would cease for a specified time, and then automatically repeat.

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The living quarters and small building that ...

The “trick” was to maintain both clocks in sync with the transmission times. To determine the exact time for both clocks, a radio was tuned to USCG Galveston, which provided exact time to the second for Greenwich and local times. Any adjustment required to the clocks or radio beacon was made promptly.

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View in 1952 of the Fresnel lens that was once ...

Purgley had an uncanny sense of knowing when adjustments were needed or would soon be needed. He could tell by the sound of our transmission if it was weakening. He would recognize when the generator engine was not performing in the proper manner by the vibration it made on the floor.

The nearby bayou, then known as Lighthouse Bayou, rambled around through the Louisiana marsh and eventually emptied into the Sabine River as the lighthouse. It was loaded with gar fish. I loved to catch the big brutes in a wire noose with raw chicken as bait. The bayou was the source of water used for fire protection. A gasoline-powered bilge pump was available to pump water from the bayou and produced a good stream from the hose. Steve ordered frequent tests to insure the bilge pump was in working order.

A small boat capable of handling two passengers was available to us for recreation. It was equipped with canoe paddles and it provided a method to explore the marsh.

Maritime traffic at Sabine Pass was primarily tankers and shrimp fleets. We seldom saw pleasure boats. Large oil refineries in Port Arthur, Texas produced the tanker cargo. The petroleum industry was just starting exploration and testing for off-shore drilling platforms. Numerous boats were seen daily enroute to testing sites. Sabine Pass also was used as an entrance to the inter-coastal canal and occasionally freighters were noted on the log of maritime traffic at the Lifeboat Station.

A long narrow boardwalk was used to connect the lighthouse facility to the Sabine River. The on the river included a small steel barge and boat house for the lighthouse boat. The two-wheeled cart was used to transport bulky items from the dock. The Lifeboat Station delivered supplies frequently. When heavy or bulky supplies were included they also sent help along with the boat crew. The dock was well posted to prevent any unauthorized use. However, we would occasionally find a shrimper at the dock claiming to need assistance or repairs. Steve would usually permit them to remain at the dock for repairs in exchange for a generous supply of fresh fish, which would be a menu favorite for a few days.

Steve prepared all our meals and took special pride in his “Cajun cooking.” He was a splendid cook. I quickly adapted to his gumbo and crab cakes. His coffee required more time. I found thinning with water or canned milk the only way I could tolerate his coffee. His huge coffee pot was always hot and available with his brew.

After a few assignments of duty at the lighthouse, Steve told me one morning he would be absent for a short period of time and when he returned he would have a treat for me. When he returned he was carrying a small bag of oysters. He indicated he had his own private oyster bed just downstream and he only tongued them out for himself and close friends. It was my first experience eating raw oysters from the shell. It took a little encouragement for me to take the first taste. That evening we fried up a batch that was more to my delight and more to my Hoosier heritage. Steve had worked hard to provide me the opportunity to share one of his favorite foods — fresh oysters. I truly appreciated his efforts and hospitality.

While on watch late one night, Steve informed me that he was reasonably certain that the Sabine Lighthouse would soon be decommissioned. He indicated that the need for it was diminishing and the Lifeboat Station was assuming more of his responsibilities. After nearly ninety-six years of continuous operation he felt that Sabine Lighthouse, like many other similar lights, would cease to be a manned aid to navigation. He seemed depressed to anticipate a transfer to another lighthouse with probable closure to soon follow.

I consider my very short time with Steve Purgley a rare experience and one I’ll remember for my lifetime and am happy to share the memories with others. It is seldom that a person from a small Indiana community can claim to have served on a lighthouse and to have been befriended by a true Lighthouse Keeper.

Shortly thereafter, I was ordered back to the Lifeboat Station. When reporting back I was introduced to an officer from the Eighth District Headquarters. He informed me that I would be transferred to New Orleans. I only talked with Steve one time before I departed for my new assignment, but at his request I promised to keep in touch.

After I arrived in New Orleans I soon learned that Steve had been appointed the Keeper at Mobile Point Lighthouse at Mobile Bay. While I was in New Orleans I would mail him a short letter and at Christmas I would send him a holiday greeting. I seldom received a response.

I was released from the service in 1954 and six years later I was married. We honeymooned in various places in the South. When we left New Orleans, I drove to Mobile Point Lighthouse, an unannounced surprise visit. Steve had remarried and was doing what he enjoyed best, as Keeper of the Mobile Point Lighthouse. Steve was pleased to see us and immediately served us coffee. I didn’t ask, but I’d swear it was from the same pot he’d used at Sabine Pass.

My wife had heard my description of Steve’s coffee and I was not surprised that she made more than one attempt to thin his brew with canned milk. I was proud that she consumed nearly a full cup. Our visit was very short but both Steve and Mrs. Purgley appeared to be truly pleased that I had brought my new bride to their home for a visit.

During the early 1980’s while living in Arlington, Texas, Sarah and I vacationed in a beach cottage near Galveston. I finally had my chance to return to Sabine Pass. The old Lifeboat Station remained, but it was in deplorable condition. From that location I could hardly see the lighthouse, but my vision was good enough to tell that it was probably in shambles. The distance was such that nothing was visible from ground level. The once bright three black and two white tower stripes had all but faded away. Only the steel framework remained of the lantern room.

I could not help but think that the old girl deserved a better passing. In her day, she produced that bright beacon, night after night, for which Steve Purgley, as well as others before him, had provided the necessary care and devotion.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2008 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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