Digest>Archives> May/Jun 2021

From the Commodore

“Dillon’s First Days”

By Debra Baldwin


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Frederick P. Dillon

The sixth district office in Charleston was in the famed Old Custom House of Revolutionary days at the foot of Broad Street. George Washington had made a speech from its front porch. In the basement dungeon, pirates had been confined awaiting execution.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
This photo was taken around 1911 when Dillon ...

By what strange turn of Fortune’s Wheel was a city-bred, mid-Western, flat-country young man such as I to take on the duties of a lighthouse engineer working on Aids to Marine Navigation? Here was a challenge that suited me. It looked like a permanent life work with changes for advancement and I was in on the ground floor.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<

The Old Custom House near the waterfront on the east side of East Bay Street looked out west down Broad Street, a somewhat mysterious prominent building. A pair of front steps led up to a platform entrance. Inside was a large tiled area with stairs on one side leading to the string of rooms all around the building except in the front, the Inspector’s offices on the right, the Engineer’s offices on the left.

When I entered the left wing, whom should I meet but a Mr. Tom Peck. His wife was the niece of a high-ranking officer of the Navy on the old Lighthouse Board who had put him to work inspecting the construction and repairs to lightships.

He was familiar with the personnel and work of the General Lighthouse Depot on Staten Island in the 3rd lighthouse district. I am afraid I pumped him for this information. For years, this was the most important district in the Lighthouse Board Administration.

Supplies for the whole service were accumulated here and sent to districts by tender. Mr. Lami, a naturalized Frenchman, inspected the lens equipment purchased in France. Manufacturing of buoys and other special lighthouse equipment for the districts was done here, such as incandescent oil vapor apparatus. Lampists were trained here and sent out to the districts. These voluntary contributions of information were valuable to me in sizing up my situation in the office.

Incidentally, Peck demonstrated often and clearly that he had no formal technical education and that he considered his exclusive bailiwick in the district the duty of attending to the maintenance and repair of vessels. This work included the drydocking and repair annually of the ocean-going tender Cypress, and, later, the Mangrove, plus four lightships on station and one Relief. The small Inside Tenders, Snowdrop and Waterlily were wooden vessels with little work of this kind. So, I poked around the office in the filing cabinets and bookcases to see what I could find.

Everything was in a neglected heap, no records nor card files. Here I was, the draftsman, designer, civil engineer, with an immense program of construction and maintenance work on my hands. There was a wealth of technical information to be found in the heaps of drawings from the old cabinets: photo lithographs of lighthouses, lightships, tenders, docks, wharves, and an accumulation of many years from all parts of the country. This was a “gold mine.”

The library was full of historical information from the establishment of the Lighthouse Service in 1789 to the reorganization in 1910. Technical information from Chance Brothers (English lenses), Heap (Lighthouse Board), Reynaud (French lenses), public documents and legislation relating to the Lighthouse Establishment. Here were the “gold nuggets” or a complete education just for the taking.

Mr. Peck took no interest in this find. I did the best job of cataloging and filing and studying in the field of work I was starting to follow. I discovered that nearly all the marvelous lenses used for lighthouses were of the Fresnel design (French); here were the drawings of coastal, cylindrical bay and harbor lighthouses put down by the pneumatic process; wrought-iron screwpile lighthouses for Southern bays and sounds, braced with wrought-iron tie-rods. [I learned] that lightships were constructed of wood, some of steel and some composite, both wood and steel; that cast-iron withstood saltwater corrosion better than steel; that wrought-iron was best, and a host of other facts I never would have learned in any other way.

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 May/Jun 2021 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.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History