By Megan Beck
Curator - Noble Maritime Collection
Norman Pulliam, a former Coast Guardsman who, in 1964, volunteered for duty at Robbins Reef Lighthouse in New York Harbor, was one of the last keepers of the light before it was automated. The museum had previously pieced together the story of keeper Kate Walker’s time at the lighthouse from 1886 until 1919, and a timeline of events since the Coast Guard took over in 1939. Pulliam’s photographs and stories describe the last chapter in the narrative of the years when Robbins Reef had keepers.
Pulliam enlisted in the United States Coast Guard at age 18 and was stationed at Coast Guard Group New York. Hailing from California, he had never been to New York City before … “I got off [the subway] at Battery Park ... all of New York harbor right in front of me. I could see Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, which I had only seen on television during the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve firework celebrations. There was another little speck sitting way out in the harbor …. I would get to know that little speck very well.” Just a few months into his service—and after weeks on mess hall duty—he received word that his superiors were looking for a volunteer seaman for lighthouse duty, and he signed up quickly.
On July 27, 1964, Pulliam arrived at Robbins Reef and was greeted by a member of the crew, who sailed out on a skiff to meet his boat. The water around the lighthouse is shallow at low tide, and “we did not have any kind of boat dock or platform; … the ladder was the only access up to the lighthouse. We relied heavily on our 16-foot skiff for our basic survival needs. It hauled our groceries, propane bottles, and crewmembers going to or coming back from liberty.”
The Coast Guard made many changes to the lighthouse in the 1940s and 50s. When they kept the light, the promenade was partially enclosed with a porch which had a toilet, shower, sinks, and a washing machine. The Guard added electricity, and the crew enjoyed modern conveniences like a television and, for the first time, running water, courtesy of a potable water tank and a hot water heater. “A couple of our crewmembers thought we should be receiving ‘isolated duty’ pay for working on Robbins Reef Lighthouse. For me it was peaceful and laidback…. we were never awakened by the sound of reveille, but you could always count on the sound of a fresh pot of coffee percolating on the stove in the kitchen. You might even wake up to the smell of bacon cooking on the stove and drifting up the stairwell.”
That’s not to say the work wasn’t difficult and tiring. There were four crewmembers—three were aboard the lighthouse at all times, and one was always awake. They would work for 6 days and then have 3 days of liberty. The day was divided up into three watches, each 8 hours long. From 8 am to 4 pm, “we did general housekeeping work such as cleaning the bathroom, stove, shower, defrosting the refrigerator… I was a Seaman and the only one responsible for cleaning and polishing the brass on the 4th order Fresnel lens atop the light. I could spend an entire day polishing the brass and cleaning the lens and the windows inside and out.” From 4 PM – 12 am the crew had “free time to do basically anything we wanted to do. We could watch TV, read, write a letter, put a fishing line in the water, or maybe go up and take a nap before dinner.” The last watch was from 12 am – 8 am. “This was a long and monotonous watch, but all of us took turns. This watch cleaned the kitchen area and mopped, waxed, and buffed the kitchen floor.”
Pulliam vividly remembers the day he and his fellow crewmembers were informed that plans to automate the lighthouse were underway. “One day early in October 1964 … we were instructed to pick up personnel the following morning…. [the gentleman who arrived] was not a ‘Coastie.’ We offered him a cup of coffee and he said he was preparing to make the lighthouse automated and, when completed, no one would need to live on the lighthouse any longer. This came as a complete shock to us…. It would mark the end of a long era. It looks like I would be one of the last few ‘Coasties’ to serve on Robbins Reef Lighthouse.”
In March of 1965, Pulliam received his orders; his lighthouse duty was complete. Though he went on to serve several more years with the Coast Guard, he remembers his time at Robbins Reef Lighthouse as “Paradise Island.”
This story appeared in the
Jul/Aug 2018 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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