Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2015

Recalling Life at a Lost Lighthouse

By Timothy Harrison


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In 1952, Mrs. Lillian Hughes, then 88-years old, provided a rare insight to life at a lost lighthouse in Galveston Bay, Texas that most people have never even heard about. In recalling that “a woman’s place really is the home,” she told how she was once the only woman keeper on the Gulf Coast of the United States, a job she never wanted, but had reluctantly accepted, as the keeper of the Redfish Bar Lighthouse.

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Lillian Ahern, later Lillian Hughes, at age 88 in ...

Built in 1854, the Redfish Bar Lighthouse, sometimes spelled Red Fish, was one of three similar lighthouses that were built as minor lights to mark the dangerous sand bars and oyster reefs in Galveston Bay. During the Civil War, the lighthouse had been badly damaged by Confederate forces. But, after the war the lighthouse was totally rehabilitated, and in May of 1868 it was relighted as an aid to navigation.

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The Redfish Bar Cut Lighthouse. Look closely and ...

Lillian had never expected to live at a lighthouse way out in the Bay surrounded by water, but she went where her husband went. Coming from a long line of mariners, she was never frightened of the water and she adapted well to life at the lighthouse. Although life was somewhat lonely, interestingly enough, quite a few visitors always seemed to find their way out to the remote lighthouse.

Thankfully, visitors and her husband brought food from the mainland, because the food that the government supplied was often less than favorable. She said that every six months the U.S. Navy delivered rations of corned beef and salt pork by the half barrel. “If you could bite through the pork, you could bite through an eight-penny nail,” she said.

Her husband, David B. Ahern, was a former U.S. Navy petty officer, who used his naval experience to secure the prestigious job of a lighthouse keeper. Although the rugged remote life had been good to them for five years at the lighthouse, things changed dramatically in 1887 after her husband went to Galveston for supplies. When the skiff returned, her husband was not in it.

She recalled, “The boat came in, but as I helped pull up the skiff, a sailor called out, ‘Your husband drowned last night.’” The announcement was very matter of factually given. No words like “I’m sorry to report. . . ,” just that he had drowned. She never got any other details about what might have happened or how it happened. However, Lt. Commander William W. Mead, who was the lighthouse inspector for the district, ordered a search, but they never found Ahern’s body. Lillian said she kept watching through the spy-glass hoping for some type of miracle.

Lillian recalled, “After a few days Commander Mead came by and said, ‘If I had one applicant for this job, I’ve had 20, but it’s yours if you want it.’ I guess chivalry operated pretty strong in those days and he couldn’t evict a widow woman with two kids.”

In 1890 Commander Mead moved on and other lighthouse inspectors came. “The inspectors were fine men,” she recalled. “Once in a while, there’d be one with a great thirst. There was a Lieutenant Mullen who was always asking me for a bit of snake-bite remedy, but we didn’t have any whiskey for medicinal use.”

In recalling the lighthouse inspections when the Navy men wearing white gloves would run their fingers behind the stove and across the window sills, she kept the lighthouse in tip-top shape. She said, “They never ‘gigged’ me but once, for reporting the wrong wick length, it was an eighth of an inch off.”

Lillian’s pay was $160.00 every three months and with no other possible way to make extra money living out in the bay, it had to last. Finally, after being a lighthouse keeper for two years and raising two children at a lighthouse with no yard and only a dangerous balcony to play on, and almost no other adults to ever talk with, she had enough. She gave her notice and quit. She moved to Galveston on the mainland and remarried. She was no longer Lillian Ahern; she was now Lillian Hughes, but her friends all called her Lilly.

Because of changes in the shipping channel, in 1900 it was decided that the Red Fish Bar Lighthouse was to be moved. However, the hurricane of 1900 severely damaged the lighthouse and it was decided that the lighthouse could not be moved. So a new lighthouse, called the Redfish Bar Cut Lighthouse, was built nearby.

The old Redfish Bar Lighthouse was repaired and allowed to stand, and an eight-day red lens was installed as a minor light for use by the few mariners who still used the old shipping lane. However in 1912 it was discontinued and the structure stood dark being used as a daymark only. However, the old Redfish Bar Lighthouse did not last much longer after that; it was destroyed in the Galveston hurricane of 1915.

The new Redfish Bar Cut Lighthouse stood until 1936 when the government demolished it and replaced it with a light on a skeleton tower.

Always remaining spry into her later years, Lillian Hughes was always willing to talk about her lighthouse years in Galveston Bay. Fortunately, because she shared her story back in 1952, it has been saved for history to now be told again to future generations.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 2015 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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