As time went on, I received excellent assistance in the construction work by Walter G. Will, who came into the district by transfer from the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey as a Junior Engineer. The engineers had “stabilized” the channels in the Cape Fear River as we designed a complete system of range lights from Wilmington, N.C. to the entrance, some 25 miles distant.
The work of construction was contracted to the Skinner Salvage and Wrecking Company, a very capable outfit. Mr. Will inspected the work. I inspected the latter part just for the experience. Mr. Skinner’s plant consisted of a floating pile driver, a scow for carrying the concrete piles and a houseboat for feeding the working party and inspector. The meals were certainly monotonous, beans and navy bean soup being ever present.
A great expansion of the buoyage system took place with the great increase of shipping along the coast and through long-dredged channels to inland cities, such as Wilmington and Jacksonville. When I first came on the scene, there were only a few lighted sea buoys at important points. I recall being aboard the Cypress, anchored alongside a ten-ton acetylene gas buoy of the day, which the crew serviced. Waterproofed bags of calcium carbide were brought along.
The buoy, while anchored, was lifted to the buoy port and carefully set on the pad, the cover of the pocket removed and the mass of caked, used, calcium carbide dug out of the buoy, the pocket cleaned out, and new, dry, calcium carbide carefully filled in the pocket and the buoy lowered to its station.
The sea valve was opened, gas was generated (carbide to water) and the lantern lighted after a time. This was a most cumbersome process and required skill and patience on the part of all the tender personnel. It is self-evident that the Skipper had to pick the weather in an open sea.
There were, at the same time, several Pintsch gas buoys in the district. Pintsch gas had been used for lighting on railroad passenger cars. These buoys were recharged on station in the following manner. The tender carried an enormous steel drum of Pintsch gas charged to about 100 atmospheres (1500 pounds). The pear-shaped bodies of the Pintsch buoys were gas tight. When exhausted, the tender came alongside, anchored, and connected the buoy body with the drum of gas aboard and allowed about 10 atmospheres of gas to recharge the buoy, all controlled by valves, of course.
Pintsch buoys burned with a mantle. The crude flasher gave a characteristic of 10 seconds light and 10 seconds eclipse (darkness). This extravagant one-half-time burning period called for much servicing by the tender.
Soon, these lighted buoys were all replaced by the A.G.A. system licensed from a Swedish concern together with a very ingenious flashing device, capable of making many economical characteristics. Acetylene gas was used, compressed in accumulators (tanks) filled with a porous material with about 80% porosity. The gas had to be finely divided to prevent explosion and required great care in handling.
This system was a tremendous improvement for lights on fixed and floating structures (buoys). All range lights and post lights in the Inside Passage were converted from oil to acetylene gas and the same for other minor lights on fixed structures. The accumulators were charged to net over 20 atmospheres (300 pounds).
When I came in the service, the spare buoy storages and supply depot for the district was on Castle Pinckney, an old engineer’s base, on an island in Charleston Harbor, most inconvenient and cramping for the developing of the Lighthouse Service. A special appropriation was obtained for the building of a new depot at the abandoned Chisolm’s Rice Mill site, foot of Tradd Street, where the Ashley River emptied into the Charleston Harbor.
It was my job to supervise the conversion of the Rice Mill property to a lighthouse depot. Facetiously, the property should have been preserved as a museum to illustrate a bygone industry – rice culture in South Carolina. The immense three-story rice storehouse was connected to an adjoining two-story powerhouse containing a Walking Beam engine, big enough for a New York ferry boat.
The storehouse was converted to a lighthouse depot and office for handling supplies of the Service. Contractors disposed of the engine house and sold the engine for junk. An ell-shaped creosoted pile wharf was constructed by contract, facing the Ashley River for the docking of the four tenders of the district and for cleaning and repairing buoys. I had the help of a draftsman (Robinson) in this work.
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
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