It isn’t often that much is known about the careers of U.S. Lighthouse Service Depot personnel, and even less often that they are heralded, but master mechanic Axel E. Anderson was a notable exception in both cases.
Born in Stromstad, Sweden on May 30, 1890, Axel Edwin Anderson came to Astoria, Oregon when he was 22 years old. He attended business college for a couple of years and then entered the U.S. Lighthouse Service as a machinist assigned to the U.S. Lighthouse tender Manzanita in 1914. During WWI, the Manzanita and its crew were conscripted as part of the Navy and, after serving 10 months during wartime, Axel was one of the few who was released from duty under a congressional exemption because it was felt that he was indispensable and his skills could not be easily replaced.
In March 1918, he transferred to the 17th Lighthouse District office in Portland, Oregon for a short time before being permanently assigned to the Astoria Tongue Point Lighthouse Depot in 1919 where he stayed until his retirement in 1955.
At the depot, Axel worked on a never-ending variety of assignments and projects for all the aids to navigation throughout the district. He was able to travel on the lighthouse tenders whenever he needed to visit offshore lighthouses and lightships to make repairs or replace equipment on site. He did a lot of fabrication and design and kept daily logs of work orders and how he spent his time.
A sampling from his log entries show that during March of 1923 he made repairs to Columbia River post lights, fabricated piston rings for a fog signal engine at Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, and worked on the tender Manzanita’s boiler. In September of 1926, he installed a refrigerating plant on the Columbia Lightship LV-88, repaired the commutator for the generator on the tender Rose, and adjusted the lantern on the Orford Reef gas buoy.
A few months following the devastating October, 1934 cyclone, Axel Anderson fabricated new chariot wheels to replace the worn ones on the lens pedestal at Oregon’s Tillamook Rock Lighthouse and in June 1935, he prepared and installed the two-tiered aero beacon that replaced the first order lens entirely at that point.
During July of 1935, he went to Cape Disappointment Light to replace a worn magneto and worked on flashers and relays on various range beacons. He then visited Desdemona Sands Lighthouse for a few days to set up the new semi-automatic flashing light that removed the need for a keeper there. There was always something needing repair or replacement, and it appears that Axel Anderson was a “Jack-of-all-trades” and very inventive in being able to find a way to accomplish any task at hand.
Axel Anderson’s work must have been of an exceptional quality because in 1931 he was the subject of a district circular that promoted him to a dual administrative role, parallel with that of the head keeper of the Tongue Point Lighthouse Depot. Having two bosses at a depot was a unique situation in all of the U.S. Lighthouse Service at that time.
Dated June 24, 1931, the circular written by 17th District Superintendent Ralph R. Tinkham stated that, “A.E. Anderson’s official title will be Foreman Machinist and his depot designation will be Master Mechanic. He will be responsible directly to the district office under the supervision of the asst superintendent. As master mechanic he will have charge of all repair and construction work of the depot, including vessel work, busy work, lighthouse equipment and apparatus, depot buildings, wharf, and depot equipment, and any other work of similar character assigned him whether at the depot or elsewhere. He will have immediate supervision and issue all instructions to the depot machinists, blacksmiths, depot carpenter and one of the three permanent depot laborers as well as any temporary mechanics or laborers that may be authorized from time to time. The master mechanic will prepare the time sheets for personnel under his charge.”
The job of the depot keeper was focused on different tasks. The keeper would “perform the duties and exercise the authority usual to that position being responsible for the receipt, storage, safekeeping and issuance of all supplies and equipment; the proper accounting for stocks and stores, tools and equipment, buoys and appendages, etc., supervision and policing of the depot premises and buildings; including the Naval base: servicing of vessels in port, painting of buoys and similar work connected with proper care of stores and equipment held in storage for issue. He will have supervision of and issue instructions to the assistant depot keeper, watchman, two out of the three permanent depot laborers, and such temporary laborers as may be authorized by him. He will have charge of the depot truck and power boat and will operate them as may be necessary to carry on the regular work of the depot or as required by the master mechanic, or by the master of a lighthouse vessel in port for official purposes. Full cooperation is expected and will be required between the depot keeper, master mechanic and officers of vessels.”
The plan must have worked well because Axel Anderson stayed in that position for the next 24 years, as head keepers and later Coast Guard commanding officers of the depot came and went. His reputation for problem-solving and inventiveness became well-known throughout the district, and even in Navy circles.
A favorite family story is told that during WWII when the old battleship Oregon needed to be towed from Portland, Oregon down to California to be converted into an ammunition barge, it had to have running lights installed that could be controlled remotely by the tugboat operator in case of black-outs. The Navy hired multiple electricians to do the job, but they were all unsuccessful. It was only two days before the scheduled sailing and they were getting desperate, so they called on Axel to come to the rescue, because “if anyone could do it, it would be Axel Anderson at the Coast Guard base in Astoria.” Axel was able to perform the feat and the ship left on time.
In 1948, Axel applied his inventiveness again and used his remarkable abilities to make a notable contribution regarding the alignment of range lights. His ingenious invention of a “Directional Drum Lens Alignment Device” was utilized in several districts of the Coast Guard over the next few years with great accuracy and success.
As a result, Axel Anderson was awarded $200 by the Treasury Department Awards Committee, and a grand ceremony with many high-ranking Coast Guard, Navy, and government dignitaries, including the former governor of Oregon, was held at the depot in 1952 to present it to him.
In an accompanying letter, Axel was told that “the merits of your suggested device are shown by the wide publicity given it by Coast Guard Headquarters, and by the fact that Tongue Point Depot is now receiving orders for its manufacture and distribution to other districts for their field use.”
Axel was also commended for “initiative and integrity, though probably beyond the requirements of your duty, [and this] is a fine example of that trait which makes men outstanding and, permits the Coast Guard to better serve.”
Three years later, on May 31, 1955 when Axel E. Anderson retired, he was given the U.S. Treasury Department’s Albert Gallatin Award for his fine contributions over the 41 years that he had labored in the service of the government. Axel stayed in the Astoria area during his retirement years with his family and passed away on October 15, 1966. He is buried in the Ocean View Cemetery in Warrenton where many Lighthouse Service personnel he worked with over the years are also interred.
Axel summed up his fine work ethic and successful career in the acceptance letter he had written upon receiving the award for his invention in 1952 when he said, “It has always been my endeavor to perform my duties in the best possible manner in my years of continual service to my Country, and I shall always continue to do so, to the best of my ability.”
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2019 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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