Digest>Archives> Sep/Oct 2019

From the Commodore

“A Time of Change and New Beginnings”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

I noted in the press great dissatisfaction among shipping interests with the poor service being rendered by the Lighthouse Board in the operation of Aids to Navigation. A reorganization of this work was ordered by an Act of Congress.

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Commissioner George R. Putnam (front row, center) ...

The Lighthouse Bureau was created in the Department of Commerce in 1910. President Taft appointed George R. Putnam as Commissioner of Lighthouses to head this Bureau. When Taft was Governor in the Philippine Islands he saw Putnam in the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey in charge of coastal mapping there, a person of unimpeachable honesty and ability.

Luckily for me, I had seen posted on the bulletin board of the post office of an examination for Assistant Superintendent and Lighthouse Engineer-at-Large in the Lighthouse Service. I took the examination, two days of seven hours each, technical subjects with emphasis on mathematics and marine structures. I was the only candidate in the sixth Lighthouse District who passed the examination. A request soon came for me to appear at the Bureau of Lighthouses in Washington for an interview. I was able to demonstrate from my experience that I would be an asset to the Lighthouse Service and was engaged to report for duty in Charleston, March 16, 1911.

From research I learned the following. Congress, by the Act of August 7, 1789 authorized the maintenance of lighthouses and other Aids to Navigation at the expense of the United States under the Treasury Department, directed personally by the Secretary of the Treasury until 1820. In 1852, the United States Lighthouse Board was formed consisting of officers of the Navy, Army, and civilians. From 1852 until 1910, naval officers were selected as Chairman of the Board, except when professor Joseph Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution was Chairman from 1871 to 1878.

In general [prior to 1910], the U.S. Army Engineers had charge of the construction and repair of Aids to Navigation while Naval Officers were the operating heads of the 19 Districts, (corresponding to Naval Districts), and were called District Inspectors. The lighthouse tenders served the Inspectors for inspection work and the delivering of the supplies to the light stations, as well as the establishment and maintenance of the large system of buoys, both lighted and unlighted. The preparation and distribution of Notice to Mariners advising of establishment and changes in Aids to Navigation was under the direction of the Inspectors.

The U.S. District Engineers used part of the fleet of tenders for construction and maintenance of fixed structures. All large and some small tenders were well-equipped with a saloon, Stewards Department and quarters for use of the Inspectors and Engineer Officer’s travel about the Districts on official business. I was told by Officers who served on tenders that they were used often as private yachts of the Inspectors and Engineer Officers.

Commissioner Putnam faced a mountainous task when he started to reorganize the Lighthouse Service. He immediately put all positions in a Civil Service status. That is where I came in. He fell heir to all the civilian hold-overs from the Engineer’s and Inspector’s sides of the service as well as the construction equipment of the Engineers. The Inspectors of the Districts remained on duty until relieved by the District Heads or Lighthouse Superintendents. Thus, Putnam fell heir to the “dregs” of the old regime. Many of the hold-overs had secured their positions through favoritism or on a friendship basis from the former Lighthouse Board members, Inspectors or Engineer Officers.

I reported for duty to Captain Field of the Navy who was waiting for the arrival of the new Superintendent of Lighthouses, Captain Harold D. King, transferred from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic survey where he had seen long and successful service.

I learned that three other Coast Survey Officers were assigned to other Districts and the Superintendents of the remaining Districts were carefully chosen from men in the ranks or from masters of lighthouse tenders with administrative ability. The Commissioner laid great stress on decentralizing his authority to the District Superintendents most of whom proved worthy of this confidence.

My work, I could see, would be challenging in Marine construction: the repair and construction of light stations; keeper’s dwellings, docks, boathouses; fixed structures often in the open sea, range lights, post lights, etc. – all in isolated locations. It looked like a permanent life work with chances for advancement and I was in on the ground floor.

This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer, Sixth District, Charleston, S. C., 1911 to 1917” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the Sep/Oct 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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