When Robert R. Charette’s Coast Guard lighthouse duty began in November of 1957, it was onboard a floating lighthouse - the Brenton Reef Lightship WAL 525. When his required lightship assignment was up, he was offered an open assignment at a “land” lighthouse, which he felt would be a welcomed change from bouncing around on a rolling lightship. So, in April of 1959, Robert R. Charette was assigned as an engineman at a not-so-typical-looking lighthouse – the Gull Rocks Light Station in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island.
In those days, Gull Rocks Light Station was considered a three-man stag station; however, most of the time there were only two men actually at the lighthouse. Charette described the station as consisting of a skeletal tower with a flashing green light, a fog bell, a generator shack, an outhouse, and a four-room “A” frame house. There was no running water, but there was a hand pump in the kitchen sink that drew water from a tank under the kitchen deck. Cooking was done on a combination gas and oil stove which also supplied heat for that area. The combination living room and office was heated by an oil-fired parlor stove. The second floor consisted of two bedrooms which were heated by openings in the deck that allowed heat to rise from the kitchen and living-room stoves.
The outhouse was a structure hanging out over the rocks. Inside there was a regular toilet that had water piped in from a fifty gallon tank located on a platform attached to the outside of the outhouse. Charette said, “The tank was filled by hand with buckets of seawater, which was not a job we enjoyed. One night during a serious storm, the tank and platform attached to the outhouse was blown off and the piping entering the structure destroyed the toilet. We needed a quick fix for this situation. I found an old rocking chair in the attic of the house. Removing the rockers and part of the seat, I attached the toilet seat to it and set it in the outhouse. It worked just fine. No flushing needed.”
However, during an inspection by the Group Commander, Chief Warrant Officer Campagna, things got a little strange. Charette recalled, “He opened the door of the outhouse and looked in and quickly shut the door. He gave me a funny look and opened the door and looked in again. This time he turned to me and said, “What the hell is that?” I explained what happened and told him I already sent a request to District Headquarters for a new toilet but had to do something in the meantime. He laughed and continued with his inspection. As is turned out, we never received a new toilet.”
Charette continued, “We had shore power and a standby generator, so we were never without electricity. We also had telephone service which kept us in contact with Group Headquarters as well as the Castle Hill Lifeboat Station. Gull Rocks Light Station was equipped with a wooden sixteen-foot skiff and a ten-foot fiberglass skiff powered by seven-and-a-half-horse outboard motors. A hand winch located at the end of our pier made it possible to lower and raise the boats to and from the water. The boats were used to go into Newport for supplies and mail.”
For some strange reason the much larger Rose Island Lighthouse did not have boats at that time, so they had to rely on the crew of the Gull Rocks Light Station to take them back and forth to town. Water and fuel oil was delivered by the Coast Guard buoy tender out of Bristol, RI. Work aboard the station consisted of painting, cleaning, and servicing the generator and the outboard motors, but mostly monitoring the operation of the light and fog bell. Free time in summer was spent fishing, swimming, and digging quahogs at nearby Rose Island. Fall and winter was the time for duck hunting and some fishing and, of course, watching TV. Because they didn’t have running water at Gull Rocks, Charette said that they had to take their lighthouse boat and go to the Rose Island Lighthouse to take showers where they had all the “real” comforts of home. “We had 48 hours of liberty each week, which gave me enough time to go home to Massachusetts to visit, as well as do my laundry.”
The light station also had pets said Charette, “A dog [was] given to us by the owner of the Newport Water Taxi named Huckleberry Hound and a cat named Salty that I had brought from home. For a short time there was a monkey owned by Bos’n Mate 3rd class Bill Nickles, which left with him when he got transferred.
“I had heard rumors from some of the locals that Gull Rocks Light was going to become an unmanned station, but no date was known when that would take place,” said Charette. “However, in April of 1960 when I was returning from an extended leave, I was surprised to find out that Gull Rocks was no longer a manned station and I was now a member of the crew at Castle Hill Lifeboat Station in Newport, Rhode Island.”
Robert R. Charette served at the Castle Hill Life Boat Station until October of 1960 when he was transferred to the Point Judith Life Boat Station and Lighthouse where he served until April of 1961; he was then transferred back to the Castle Hill Lifeboat Station until July 30, 1961 when he was discharged. He said that his time in the Coast Guard was a great learning experience which left him with many fond memories and mostly happy times.
This story appeared in the
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