Editor’s Note: On April 2, 1922, the Times Picayune in New Orleans published the following memoir from an interview with Elizabeth McCall that included written excerpts from a book she had authored. Lighthouse keeper Daniel McCall, her husband, had served for a total of 30 years at Ship Island and Cat Island lighthouses in Mississippi.
Today a lonely woman with aching and imperfect body made so by a harrowing experience sits in her little cottage, and as she knits, lives it all over again. A daughter of the old South, she loved the land of her birth and was true to its principles, but she will tell you her story:
Every visitor to the light invariably asked if we did not get very lonely at times. I replied, “No,” and it was true. People seemed to come from all over the world, and we made many friends who often wrote and sent gifts, sometimes long after we had almost forgotten them. Excursion and picnic parties were frequent. Our quarters were very comfortable, and as everyone said, “so neat and clean.” This was of necessity, even though I might have been one of the slipshod variety of housekeepers.
The revenue cutter had what we called a circulating library, and left us books and periodicals on each visit. So, we kept up very well with the world. Often, we were asked if we would not take someone to board for a week or so – someone seeking rest or study. This was impossible, for by a ruling of the Lighthouse Board, a keeper might engage as a carpenter, a plumber, a teacher, a preacher – almost any trade or profession he saw fit – but to take boarders, never. The reason being that a keeper might be careless of his duties while looking to the entertainment of his guests and the oath as taken provided that nothing but death of the keeper himself could be an excuse for not having the light burning.
Another ordinance was that nothing could be given or sold or exchanged, not even a cupful – I might say, a spoonful – of oil could be loaned upon the promise of immediate return. One keeper was peremptorily dismissed from the service for having exchanged some soap for concentrated lye. The dismissal was couched in words to the effect that the government would furnish lye if it were needed.
I said we were never lonely. There was an exception once – when the days seemed an eternity. It was in the great storm of 1893 when Ship Island was swamped by a tidal wave which forced us up into the tower of the light. Here we were marooned twelve days. As we were leaving the quarters, I seized a bucket of biscuits and a large uncooked ham. Why I took the latter I do not know.
Captain McCall was later able to eat some of it – he having learned during the war to eat anything and be thankful. I had only stale biscuits and water. In “Hymns and Legends of the Gulf Coast,” Mrs. Hinsdale speaks of the incident when she says:
Brave Dan McCall, no hurricane with breaking waves of created splendor,
Like mighty armies of the main has ever dared thee to surrender
Firm at thy post, in Duty’s might
Guard thou the old Ship Island Light.
Here, too, we had water. The great splashing and the rain which was torrential would have filled this tower abode of ours had we not bored with an auger, holes all over the floor.
Another time when everything was flooded and we had no fresh water, and could no longer drink the salt water, and the cows had gone dry in consequence and we had no milk, I remembered that the fort, some miles off, had underground cisterns. We went in search, broke the seals of these air-tight compartments, which had been closed since the Civil War and found the water splendid.
Of course, after our long thirst, anything would taste good, but I know this water was exceptionally so and my, how we did drink! It was truly the elixir of life. We took what we could away with us, but found an hour after that it was not drinkable. Neither man nor beast could touch it or be near it, and it could be used in no way. Necessity being the mother of invention, I worked out a way. I boiled some, leaving the kitchen during the process, and found that by letting it stand overnight, it could be used.
This old fort was at the west end of the island, and was the result of Jeff Davis as he then signed himself, there being a Northern man in public life of the same name, and they must not be confused; this was in 1856 when Mr. Davis was Secretary of War. The same year, Congress passed an act for the fortification of Ship Island, to build and maintain such forts, magazines, arsenals, dockyards, wharves and other structures, with their appurtenances, as might be necessary.
Construction soon began. The foundations were carried down by caissons twenty feet, when an enormous bed of quicksand was reached. Further progress seemed impossible, but the work was continued when blue clay was reached.
At the beginning of the War, troops from Mobile blew it up. Federal aid was then sought, and it was ordered rebuilt – but work was delayed when a terrible hurricane wrecked the vessels that were bringing building materials.
In 1864 or 1865, it was completed to its present shape, all material having been brought from Massachusetts – the stone, brick and even the earth to be used on top of the fort, as well as the water that filled the great underground cisterns. These cisterns were sealed up at the end of the war.
I found this old fort a treasure house of information and interest, and from its archives, I learned much that is not chronicled or even known to history – save to those perhaps who may remember it by actual experience. In honor of his native state, Ben Butler named the place Fort Massachusetts, because everything used in its construction came from that state. I gained my knowledge from the records, which were huge bound books stored in a room in the fort.
When I first went to the island, the lighthouse was a round brick tower – painted white – with a black lantern. Every lighthouse in the district is marked differently so as to indicate to mariners exactly which light it is. The dwelling was east of the tower – this was also of brick.
In 1879, a new lighthouse being found necessary, there was much time and thought given to the selection of the site, the old one being unsatisfactory. Experts were sent from Washington, some were in favor of the west, others of the east end of the island, and some favored the center. No decision could be reached, so it was left to Captain McCall to choose.
He selected a site near the former one, where stood the headquarters of Ben Butler during the War, this being from his point of view the most desirable. Southern pine was used for its construction, and unenclosed, as a test to see how long this soft pine would last in this climate. It was inspected regularly, and after a few years, the government being satisfied that it was enduring enough, enclosed it. So much for old pine!
As I said, we had many visitors. When Admiral Dewey was engineer secretary of the Lighthouse Board, he and Captain Schoonmaker, who later lost his life in the Samoan disaster, visited the island and recalled the time during the War, when the fleet was anchored off Ship Island in the early 60s. They found the Confederates had left a keg of powder in the tower where a slow but sure fire would cause an explosion. Both were midshipmen at the time, and they entered and thereby kept the light burning every night.
Do you know who was the original owner of the desk at which you sit? It was made for Ben Butler, for use when on Ship Island, and in it, he kept his valuable papers. It was given Captain McCall, and he treasured it because of its associations, he being a Union man. I treasure it because it was used by my husband during his entire stay on the island. Here he kept his journal, and I do not believe he ever wrote a line except when seated at it.
There is a story about that old dilapidated book [by Jefferson Davis, “Rules and Regulations—Army.”] One day, when Captain McCall and a friend were walking along the beach, the latter picked it up from a marsh, and handing it to my husband, suggested that it might be kept as a souvenir as the government had destroyed and ordered everything burned with the name of Jeff Davis.
Captain McCall said he had no use for it, but that he would bring it to me as I was ‘an Old Confederate.’ I laid it away and forgot all about it, and the other day came across it while going through an old trunk. I believe it is the only book of its kind extant.
When the use for beacons [range lights] was established, two were placed near the island; the south one was red and the north, white. Captain McCall had, as you know, only one leg and no assistant. When this additional duty was assigned him, it was too much as there was no boardwalk over the heavy sand through which he had to walk in order to reach them, as well as to carry oil from the lighthouse, so he asked to be assigned to another post. He was then placed in charge of Cat Island Light and it was here that I found the tragedy of my life.
One afternoon when Captain McCall was at his desk writing, and I busily intent on some needlework, I heard him say in a distinct voice: “Now, no, not now.” Without looking up, I inquired what he meant. Then I went to him, but could not rouse him. No need to call for assistance; there was none. I did not realize the truth, but believed he only needed medical aid. I think I was stunned, but I kept the light burning and for two days we were alone.
Oh, the horror of those days which seemed eternity! It was June and no oyster boats were on the reefs as the season was closed. I went up the tower and flew the United States flag at half-mast, but there was none to see it. On the third day, a boat was sighted – nearer and nearer it came – and I saw it cast anchor. I called but no heed was taken. What was I to do?
Then, I started forth; they would not come to me. I would go to them. I waded up to my shoulders and then I called again. I was hoarse. Finally, I saw a man jump into a skiff and start forward. When he got near enough, I told him to hurry – no time to get to me – but to go to my husband. My skirts were long and I made slow progress, but I returned and he went back to his vessel for assistance. Then I knew my husband was beyond aid, and must be buried.
Was I to stay at my post and do my duty as I saw it – and have strangers lay away all that was dearest to me on earth – in fact my life – for I had only an existence now? No, I would not! I asked of the group if any had ever taken the oath of office. No one had. Then, with my hand on my husband’s body, I asked: “Who is in authority here? Am I not?” “Yes,” each one answered. Then, turning to Mr. Lake, I said: “I press you into service, and if there is a shipwreck or life lost in my absence, I will report you to the Lighthouse Board and to Congress.”
Then I explained to him everything necessary for the work – the revolving light, etc. He made me a cup of coffee, the first thing that had passed my lips for more than twenty-four hours. In the meantime, one of the men had gone to Biloxi where a telegram was sent the chief of customs in New Orleans, and this telegram was relayed to Washington and Washington wired Biloxi giving instructions for a launch to go over to Cat Island, take a coffin and return to Biloxi with the body.
Meanwhile, Gulfport had been reached by wire and Captain J.T. Jones had ordered a handsome casket taken over in his launch. It was in this launch that we left the island, and when only a short way out, the Revenue Cutter Seward was sighted coming from Chandeleur Island, with flag flying.
The cutter signaled to lie-to, and with megaphone asked if the boat had been to Ship Island. When answered in the affirmative, the captain explained that word had been received from Washington to take the body to Biloxi, and that a man on board would keep the light, and that I was to have ten days’ leave. A grave had been prepared in Biloxi and one in Gulfport to receive my husband’s body, but I remembered his expressed wish to lie in Chalmette, and there I took it.
This story appeared in the
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