In the month of December 1917, an unprecedented cold spell hit the East Coast. The telephone rang. It was the Lighthouse Service Office. “Dillon, ice conditions are so bad in the Fifth District, particularly in Chesapeake Bay and in the sounds, that the buoys and lightships are being dragged off station and out to sea. The Cypress has been ordered to Norfolk for rescue work and salvage of the floating equipment.”
I had already received notice of a promotion as Assistant Superintendent in the Fifth Lighthouse District with Headquarters Office in Baltimore at the head of Chesapeake Bay, effective January 1, 1918.
The phone message went on, “If you can get your family and furniture aboard the Cypress by noon tomorrow, you can get free passage for your family and furniture.” This was certainly short notice, but during wartime, transportation for household effects was so restricted that I never would have been able to get my furniture moved except after an indefinite delay and at my own expense.
Our wonderful friends came to the rescue when the news was spread. Miriam and I worked most of the night making ready for the moving van in the morning. I had to go to the Lighthouse Office to close out my desk and receive travel orders for my transfer.
Before noon the next day, Miriam, Scottie, Kathleen and baby Merrill met me on board the Cypress at the lighthouse dock at the foot of Tradd Street. The beautiful mahogany-finished saloon on the upper deck furnished ample quarters for the family and we excitedly watched the tender’s crew stow every last stick of furniture, dishes, cook pots and pictures down the great open hatch on the main busy deck.
After some delay, waiting for ship’s stores, the tender cast off lines and swung out in the harbor past the Battery. The weather was calm, clear and cold. Out to sea we went, past Fort Sumpter, between the jetties on the entrance range. The entrance to Chesapeake Bay was 500 miles away as the Dillon family adjusted itself to the commodious quarters of the tender to enjoy a great new experience for the family.
Steaming up the coast from Charleston with a smooth sea, life aboard the sturdy lighthouse tender Cypress was thrilling and most pleasant for the Dillon family, even in freezing winter weather; no cooking, dishwashing, nor housekeeping, thought Miriam. The mess boys served wonderful meals in the mahogany-finished saloon on the upper deck.
Entering Chesapeake Bay in the afternoon of the second day, trouble began. Fields of broken ice moving in and out with the tides had dragged the lightship off station. The Cypress worked her way carefully to the Portsmouth Lighthouse Depot. The ancient, paddle wheel lighthouse tender, Holly, was snugly tied up there, utterly useless for work in the ice which would tear out her paddle wheels at the first attempt. But she was a floating palace hotel for the Dillon family, spacious, fine quarters, with a fine steward’s department. Here they lived royally until transportation was found to Baltimore.
In a few days, the Norfolk and Washington Line decided to try its first run to Washington. My family managed to get aboard. Only a few crashes were experienced with the ice in the Bay, but when the steamer entered the Potomac River, a real struggle began; crash! – and the whole ship shuddered as it ground to a stop in the solid fields of unbroken ice.
Back up and hit’er again and again. How the steep plates and frames stood the concussions was a mystery. Each encounter seemed sure to tear a hole or split a seam in the shell plating. The steamer slowly gained headway, and after a day’s terrible battle, tied up at its Washington pier. Dillons and Co. finished their journey to Baltimore by train.
This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer—Sixth District: 1911 to 1917” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
2. According to a historic description, “There is on the Holly, on the upper deck, the Inspector’s saloon and state room, the bed being a double one, with a bathroom and water closet communicating.” There were three other staterooms in the lower saloon, so the Dillons truly had a “floating palace hotel” by wartime standards while they awaited their further connections to Baltimore. (National Archives photo)
This story appeared in the
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