Digest>Archives> Mar/Apr 2020

From the Commodore

“Upgrades for Cape Romain”

By Debra Baldwin


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This interesting photo of Cape Romain Light ...

At Cape Romain Lighthouse in South Carolina the three keepers met me for the first time, very cordially. They were brimful of information for my notebook. “The boathouse needs repairs. They were very comfortable in their three dwellings (which I inspected), cisterns for fresh water in abundance, plenty of rain lately, no bathtubs in the houses; they could bathe on the nearby beaches. Get their food supplies from McClellanville, about six miles inland where their homes were originally before entering the Service. Their 26-foot long, cabin-type motorboat, with good reliable engine. They had to go through the marsh channels.”

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In another 1916 photo are (L-R) the air tank and ...

One thing that bothered the Keeper in Charge: “See that tower. Do you know, I think it is settling and sways terrible in a high wind.” I noted the octagonal, tapered, brick, distinctly painted tower some 130 feet high and walked endlessly up the spiral stairs, the cast iron treads of which were neatly painted metallic brown. From the balcony at the top, I viewed in the far distant seascape a beautiful sweeping water spout which had just broken away from the rain cloud above.

What if one of these whirling watery gusts should sweep the Station? Perhaps it had happened in the past leading to the Keeper’s fears. Historically, when the tower was built to about one third of its designed height, the foundation had settled so that one face of the octagonal structure became vertical. After some delay and investigation, construction continued with that side vertical to the top. My job developed to check the tower annually for further settlement with the surveyors’ transit for the satisfaction of all concerned.

Mr. Ignatz Paweck, the Lampist from the shop in the Old Custom House office building in Charleston had, some time previously, installed incandescent oil vapor (I.O.V.) lighting equipment in the lens (Second Order) at this station as he had at some twenty others of the district. The illuminant was kerosene oil burned as a gas with a mantle. The installation included an air pressure tank, piped to a kerosene tank, piped to the burner which had to be preheated with an alcohol torch, the mantle placed in position, the gas lighted, which produced a powerful white light with much heat, considered a marvel for its time. This was a big improvement over the five or three wick burners previously used. The keeper had to pump the air pressure up to 60 pounds twice a night.

“I wish you would examine the chariot wheels and track,” said the Keeper. “We have an awful time regulating the speed of the turning of the lens.” The keeper had a stop watch for this purpose. True enough. Both wheels and track showed wear and I made a dimensioned sketch in my notebook of the design of the worn parts. The lens of course was turned by immense clockworks in a large case supporting it and the lens chariot. The power came from some 200 more or less pounds of cast iron weights that slowly descended in a channel down one side of the tower. Toward midnight when the weights arrived near the base of the tower, the Keeper (or his assistant on watch) had to wind those weights up again, no easy task.

At a later date with sample drawings of ball bearing chariots from similar installations before me, I designed ball bearings for Cape Romain Light station with the attendant spacing ring and V-type races and with the help of Captain Helander and the Waterlily crew, in one daytime installed them without interference with the operation of the revolving lens. Much later I did the same for Jupiter Inlet Light Station near West Palm Beach, Florida.

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 Mar/Apr 2020 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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