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From the Commodore

“Puerto Rican Inspection Adventures”

By Debra Baldwin


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Frederick P. Dillon

After a rather strenuous experience of a year or more as Superintendent of Lighthouses in the West Indies, I decided that Miriam and I had better take full advantage of our situation, for opportunities to see the life and surrounding countries would probably never again come to us. So, although unprecedented, I let the tender go about its busy work, hired an automobile, and, with chauffer Urrutia, the man of all work about the Depot, who drove the depot truck, laid out an inspection trip by car to all the stations on Puerto Rico accessible by road.

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Located offshore on the Cayos de Ratones, the ...

Urrutia, as chauffer of the hired Buick, was in the seventh heaven of bliss. The roads around Puerto Rico, while hand-made macadam [broken stone], were good, red-painted Spanish buildings at regular intervals were headquarters for road maintenance gangs. Road workers could be seen squatting on their haunches on piles of broken stone splitting it with their little hammers, or they were patching holes in the road with shovel and tamper.

Characteristic with natives, when given a little authority, they become tyrants over their fellows. Urrutia, in his spotless white uniform and Lighthouse Service cap, became arrogant. If the road workers did not hop out of the road fast enough as we passed, he cussed them out in lurid Spanish. Once, he knocked a shovel out of the hand of one of the not-so-nimble peons, stopped the car, and gave him an awful dressing down.

At the end of the first day at the hotel in Mayaguez, Urrutia entered, announcing in a loud voice, to the embarrassment of Miriam and me, “Váya-te, Váya-te, hombres! Aqui viene El Superintendente de Fares!” (equivalent to “Hail, all hail! Here comes the Superintendent of Lighthouses!) All witnesses seemed impressed as though the King of Kackiac [sic] were approaching with his favorite queen.

Some work had to be done by the tender’s crew at Jobos Light near Guayama on the south coast of Puerto Rico and I wanted to see it done, so I made an appointment to meet the tender at the site. I took the commercial bus en route to Guayama. From Caguas to Guayama is an old Spanish military road having the worst hair-pin turns in the mountains in existence.

As we left Caguas, I noticed the driver was having some trouble with his “brakes.” I sat in the back seat behind some ten or twelve native passengers, when, right in the most twisting and steepest parts of the decline, the “brakes” of the bus failed completely.

The bus hurtled down around the sharp, unguarded curves. The driver used marvelous headwork and plunged the bus into the mountain on the inside turn. I found myself catapulted on top of a heap of passengers ahead of me.

Miraculously, nobody was seriously hurt. After some delay, I managed to hire a ride in a passing old-style Phaeton-top Ford to take me to the rendezvous with the tender.

I sat in the back seat of the old jalopy while the Puerto Rican driver, now down on the sugar cane south coast, cautiously threaded his way through herds of longhorn cattle driven down the road to their tasks in the cane field. These fierce-looking beasts were unpredictable through fright as the Ford pushed its way through the herd.

One huge animal with great wide spreading horns became panic-stricken and surged ahead catching his horn in the brace for the surrey top, slid the spear end into the back seat where I was sitting. The impetus of the car swung his head around taking a big chunk of the upholstering out within a few inches of my seat. Ah! The second time of that day that I escaped death. I felt relieved that evening when safe aboard the tender.

This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses- 9th District: 1920 to 1927” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.

This story appeared in the May/Jun 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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