Lighthouse service wasn’t a very glamorous occupation, and with few exceptions, most keepers lived a life in relative obscurity. Other than drownings, transfers or murders, they didn’t usually receive much press. But occasionally, good deeds, rescues or awards, such as earning the district efficiency star or the Albert Gallatin Award, might merit a paragraph in a local newspaper; and if keepers retired after many years of service at a single station, they would perhaps get their photo in the paper, accompanied by a short recap of their career.
These were all typical public forms of recognition, but the U.S. Lighthouse Service had its own method to reward keepers for excellent service or going above and beyond the call of duty. The most common way was to receive a letter of official commendation, signed by the District Supervisor, Secretary of Commerce or the Commissioner of Lighthouses in Washington, D.C., in which the keeper was thanked for “services thus rendered which will be noted on the records as part of your official history.”
Write-ups from these commendation letters regularly appeared in almost every issue of the monthly Lighthouse Service Bulletin under the heading of “Saving of Life and Property,” where keepers and other personnel were listed by name for their meritorious services or assistance rendered in upholding “the traditions of Lighthouse Service.”
Sometimes, if the act or rescue had great personal risk involved in saving a life, in recognition of that willingness, a Lighthouse Service employee could receive a more tangible reward of an extra month’s pay. This was particularly appreciated by the recipient since their annual salary was usually considered quite meager by normal societal standards.
But, perhaps the best way to reward keepers was to give them an all-expenses paid vacation – well, sort of a vacation – to serve as a docent for the U.S. Lighthouse Service displays at the various World’s Fairs and Expositions held every few years. It was considered a great honor to be selected for this appointment, and usually reserved for veteran keepers who could talk knowledgably with visitors about the vast array of lighthouse-related components that made up the normal exhibit.
It also gave the keeper a break from the normal monotony of day-to-day lighthouse duty and a chance to be out and about in public. It was especially exciting to be able to participate in such a great event as a World’s Fair, and since the assignment was usually for several months, it really was like taking an extended vacation leave from their isolated lighthouse.
Keepers were usually selected from the district where the exposition was held. There were no set qualifications for expo duty, but it could be expected that they had been awarded the Lighthouse Service’s annual efficiency star at least once, or might be close to retirement after decades of exemplary service. They weren’t always head keepers, however. Sometimes, they would include first assistants who had been in that role for years, having declined transfers to another station that would have promoted them to head keeper.
There were always at least two docents assigned to the fair, so they could alternate shifts during the open hours of the exposition. In addition to being well-versed on lighthouse matters, they had to be able to relate well to the public and give a positive impression of the Service by their knowledge, dress and manners.
In the 1894 Annual Report of the Light-House Board, a very detailed account was given of the participation by the U.S. Light House Establishment in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago that year. It was reported that the keeper docent “was on duty in full uniform in connection with the light-house exhibit in the Government building. He will be pleasantly remembered by many visitors for his courtesy, and especially for the intelligent answers he gave to their many questions. This man was a good specimen of his class.”
One example of this “good specimen” was Frederick A. Samuelson, a Great Lakes keeper, who served for 43 years total at four different lights in District 9. Fred was able to participate in no less than three lighthouse expositions during his long career.
The first time was for the World’s Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago from May 1 to October 30 of 1893. Fred was 21 years old and wasn’t a lighthouse keeper yet, but worked for the 9th Lighthouse District as a laborer. He had been employed to help build a tower on a crib inside the Chicago breakwater, which was likely the new Chicago Harbor Lighthouse being constructed in that location, commencing in March of that year.
Fred’s brother, Albert S. Samuelson, had already been serving as 2nd assistant at the Chicago Harbor station since 1891. It is highly possible that Albert recommended Fred for employment with the Lighthouse Service. Fred was also noted as helping out with the lighthouse displays for the expo during those summer months of 1893.
After the fair finished and was disassembled, Frederick A. Samuelson officially received his first appointment to the new Chicago Harbor Lighthouse in 1894 as 5th assistant. His brother, Albert, had resigned from the Lighthouse Service in Chicago two months earlier, so unfortunately, they never got to actually serve together.
Fred stayed at Chicago Harbor Light until June of 1895 when he transferred to Grosse Point Lighthouse as 1st Assistant for the next three years. In 1898, Frederick was assigned his next “vacation leave” to be in charge of the U.S. Lighthouse Establishment’s exhibit in Omaha, Nebraska at the Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition that was also touted as a world’s fair.
The 1893 Annual Report of the Light-House Board stated that, “During the continuance of the exposition, the Light-House exhibit was in charge of Mr. Frederick Samuelson, assistant keeper of Grosse Point, Ill. light-station, who was detailed for the purpose upon the recommendation of the district light-house inspector as a mark of appreciation of faithful services.”
Fred was initially supposed to be there for only two months from mid-July until mid-September, but because he did such an excellent job, he received an extension until the close of the fair at the end of October.
The Bureau must have considered Fred’s service at the fair to be first-rate because the month following the end of the exposition, he was transferred to North Manitou Island Lighthouse with a promotion as head keeper. It was here that Fred Samuelson met and married his wife, Augusta “Gustie” Swenson, on October 30, 1905 at the lighthouse.
Fred later reminisced about his time on the island, where only a dozen families of farmers, fishermen and light keepers lived an isolated life, 14 miles from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. There was a 23-foot sailboat at their disposal in the summer and an ice boat for wintertime use that were their only means of contact with the shore. There were no radios, telephones or newspapers on the island and during the first winter he was there, Fred said he had no communication with the mainland for eight weeks.
In 1909, after serving at North Manitou Island Light for eleven years, Fred made a final transfer to Ludington North Breakwater Light, where he was head keeper for the next 28 years until his retirement. In 1915, front page newspaper headlines shouted:
EFFICIENCY STAR WON BY KEEPER OF LOCAL LIGHTHOUSE
Fred Samuelson is Presented With U.S. Badge of Honor by the District Inspector. Local Light Station 100 Per Cent Efficient.
This was the first time a star had been awarded to Ludington since the rating program had begun a few years earlier.
Fred later recalled that when he “first started his career on the lakes, Ludington was a lumber city and had no harbor. Barges loaded with lumber here and served communities all over the Great Lakes . . . Mr. Samuelson remarked he had many close calls while servicing the lights at the end of the breakwaters although he never once capsized in the boats used to reach the end of the piers.”
One of those white-knucklers was in October of 1925. The Ludington Daily News reported that, “Because of a defective switch, the north breakwater light was out Sunday night between 7 and 8 o’clock. Lighthouse Keeper Fred Samuelson and assistant, John L. Paetschow, rowed to the lighthouse in the gale with a skiff and repaired the switch.” Since other articles dubbed it the worst storm of the season, it was undoubtedly an intense and risky venture to undertake the crossing to the darkened light at night.
A few months later in February of 1926, the light went out again due to a ground or short circuit in the marine cable which supplied power to the lighthouse and fog signal. Fred saw the light flicker and go out at 2AM. This time, however, he did not brave an immediate attempt to repair it.
The newspaper later reported that, “A high sea was running and breaking over the tip of the breakwater, making a trip to the lighthouse hazardous. Mr. Samuelson informed Pere Marquette Railway Steamship office with the intention of having car ferries in the lake be notified by wireless. He explained that the sea was too rough to attempt a trip to the lighthouse.
“Saturday afternoon, Mr. Samuelson and his assistant, John Paetschow, secured the assistance of Captain Frank Butler on tug Mercereau and an emergency lamp was taken to the tip of the breakwater. Similar repair was made to the light on the pier, both repairs being sufficient for the time being only.”
The district office in Milwaukee was notified and the Superintendent along with four workmen arrived the next morning to initiate more permanent repairs, which required a new compression motor. They also discovered a short in the cable and by cutting a 12-foot hole in the ice pulled it up to fix it. Both Fred and his assistant received acknowledgement for helping in the operation.
There were probably several other instances where Fred was singled out for notoriety in his duties at Ludington Lighthouse that contributed to his selection to once more be in charge of the Lighthouse Service exhibits at his third world’s fair, A Century of Progress International Exhibition, held in 1933 and 1934. Also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, it marked exactly 40 years since Fred had been in the employ of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, and was a real compliment to his dedication and excellent performance as a keeper to be so honored. It was rare enough for a keeper to be selected once to be in charge, let alone twice.
Fred’s wife, Gustie, was able to go along with him in 1934 for at least part of the time and was furnished an exhibitor’s season pass. The fair had been so successful when it first ran from May to November of 1933, it was decided to reopen it again from May through December the following year. It was estimated that over 40 million people came to see the exhibits.
After the fair, Fred Samuelson returned to Ludington North Breakwater Lighthouse for another three years, retiring on June 30, 1937 after more than four decades of sterling service. If he had served for just a couple of years longer until the consolidation when the Coast Guard took over the Lighthouse Service in 1939, he would surely have qualified to receive the Albert Gallatin Award from the U.S. Treasury Department to honor his lengthy and notable career.
Frederick and Gustie Samuelson retired to a house on Loomis Street in Ludington, very close to the harbor where he could still keep an eye on the breakwater lights. He enjoyed 13 more years visiting with his children and grandchildren and going out fishing with his friends. Keeper Samuelson passed away at the age of 79 on October14, 1950, leaving behind a legacy of excellence in the U.S. Lighthouse Service.
This story appeared in the
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