Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"Over the Bounds of Reason" in the Graveyard of the Atlantic

We're working on a new version of the Southeast Lighthouses map.

Our Publisher, who likes to dig DEEP, unearthed the article below while researching the history of the Diamond Shoal NC light.

From the New York Times, April 9, 1892:

All work on the four-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar lighthouse, which Capt. John F. Anderson of Whitestone, L. I., contracted to build for the Government on Outer Diamond Shoal, off Cape Hatteras, has been abandoned, and there is no prospect of a lighthouse being built on that shoal under the stipulations of the present agreement. Capt. Anderson himself, who has been building the big relief sewer in Brooklyn, has canceled his order for the lighthouse iron work at the Greenpoint foundries, and left Thursday for Havana, where he has a contract to build a line of piers and wharves for several steamship lines.

The principal cause of Capt. Anderson’s failure to build the proposed Hatteras light is said to be the inaccuracy of the Government’s charts furnished him by the Lighthouse Department before bids were made, and represented to him to be authentic. On the strength of the soundings, shoals, and other conditions there represented Anderson made his bid and was awarded the contract, but he has since learned by bitter experience that the charts were unreliable. An old coastwise skipper, who is intimately familiar with the work attempted Capt. Anderson, ventured the opinion yesterday that no accurate soundings had been taken in the neighborhood of the outer Diamond Shoal in twenty years, a statement borne out by the recent experiences of Capt. Anderson’s two surveying parties, neither of which was enabled to reach the shoal, to say nothing of establishing reliable fathom lines. There is no season of the year when the wind and waves off this most dangerous cape in the western hemisphere will permit the careful use of the lead. Added to these tempestuous conditions is a great number of shifting shoals, which have been known to show ten fathoms one day and ten feet the next. None of these things was known by Capt. Anderson, who made his estimates and began the construction of his caisson solely on the representations furnished him by the department. Among other unreliable features these department charts made it appeared to the contractor that the channel leading to Hatteras inlet, below the cape proper, was deep enough to permit the use of the inlet as a depot or base of operations, but it was subsequently learned that the channel would permit the passage of vessels at high tide only. This was the first disappointment, and it proved to be a very serious one, since it forced the contractor to look for a basis of operations at Newport, Va., 130 miles up the coast. This complicated matters seriously, since every block of the many tons of stone, iron, brick, and masonry to be used in the construction would have to be carried down the coast to the scene of operations.

Capt. Anderson, who is a veteran contractor, appeared to be nothing daunted by these adverse conditions, and began his work hopefully, notwithstanding the skepticism of his friends. He built the lighthouse at Fourteen Foot Bank in Delaware Bay, twenty-two miles from land, and he has achieved a national reputation for other engineering works of no less importance, prominent among them being the construction of the Chestnut Street Bridge over the Schuylkill in Philadelphia, the “pilot tunnel” work on the Hudson River Tunnel, the building of the piers for the Washington Bridge across the Harlem, the construction of the new Brooklyn relief sewer, the foundation work on the Cairo (Ill.) Bridge, the Merchants’ Bridge at St. Louis, the Union Pacific Bridge at Omaha, and a host of similar projects. One of the most remarkable of his works is the Hawkesbury Bridge in New South Wales, Australia, a task involving the sinking of piers to a depth of 155 feet below the water line and 108 feet below the bottom of the river bed. No such work has been done before or since, and nearly every text book on engineering contains descriptions of Capt. Anderson’s method of sinking the Hawkesbury piers.

Although Capt. Anderson’s bid for the construction of the Hatteras Light was not the lowest of those submitted, he was awarded the contract because of the superiority of his designs and the excellence of his reputation. He said that he expected to make no money on the job, and he was right. Thus far he has lost something over $100,000, and the most sanguine of his friends are not very hopeful of the loss stopping there, for Anderson says he will go on with the work if a new site, with accurate soundings and carefully-plotted fathom lines, can be secured. His friends feel that the Government should deal leniently with him in the matter, as he is thoroughly in earnest, and would have had the work well in hand by this time but for the inaccuracy of the charts furnished him. No doubt some such arrangement will be made, for the lighthouse on the outer shoals is needed badly and Capt. Anderson appears to be one of the very few engineers who care to undertake the work of construction.

The attitude of the Government on the matter is seen from the contract made with Anderson. It is a very remarkable document, probably the most severe, in point of its demands on the contractor, ever entered into by the Government. Eminent engineers who are familiar with its terms have ventured the opinion that too much caution in drawing up its specifications has forced the Lighthouse Department over the bounds of reason. It requires that the contractor must make extensive borings and soundings, must give heavy bonds for the faithful performance of his work, must prepare his own plans, assume all risk, furnish all capital and plant, and maintain the completed structure at his own expense, together with lights and lighthouse keepers, for one year, until the expiration of which time he shall receive nothing in the way of payment.

Although these terms are severe, Capt. Anderson says they have been dictated by a wise and conservative policy. He cites as an instance of looseness in such matters the attitude of the German authorities in building the Rothersand Light at the mouth of the River Weser in the North Sea. The lowest bidders, obscure engineers, got the contract at $112,500, while the bid of the famous Harkoort Company, although $35,000 in excess, was rejected. The successful contractors sank the cutting edge of their lower caisson to a depth of 70 feet below the low water mark, when a heavy storm occurred, dashing the masonry to pieces and washing the heavy iron cylinder entirely out of sight. Examinations revealed the fact that the contractors had sacrificed the quality of their construction to a desire to profit by the Government’s partial payments, made according to the quantity rather than the quality of the work. The next year the work was given to the Harkoort Company, and the tower was successfully completed.

This case was the one that furnished the precedent for the Government’s position on the Hatteras contract. Capt. Anderson says that the idea of the Government officers is that poor men should acquire capital by the successful execution of less exposed and hazardous works on which monthly estimates are given before attempting a task of this magnitude, in which lack of judgment or experience may easily lead to total failure and loss of money and life, as in the case of the Rothersand light.

If bidders can be had on these terms, Capt. Anderson is of opinion that for the best interests of both parties the terms should be enforced. He does not complain of the rigidity of his contract, but he protests against being held to a strict accountability until some accurate surveys and soundings may be had. He says he began the work in good faith. He built his first caisson of steel and iron weighing 1,200 tons, at an expense of $60,000, towed it by means of seven tugs from Norfolk, Va., to the shoals, and endeavored, by means of the Government charts, to anchor and sink it according to the Government survey. As was told in THE TIMES of last May, the effort failed. The Government charts did not show the real condition and character of the bottom, nor the depth of the water. The caisson was totally wrecked, the forty men at work narrowly escaped, and the tugs were obliged to put back to Norfolk.

An idea of the difficult nature of the work may be obtained when it is said that had Capt. Anderson succeeded in sinking this preliminary caisson, his labors would have scarcely begun. The next step would have been the building of a rip-rap around the structure. This consists of a solid wall of stones, each one of which, according to the terms of the contract, must weigh a ton and approach the structure at an angle of 45 degrees. Each would have to be brought from Norfolk, 130 miles off.

This is a big job. The practiced eye will see that it is no easy thing to carry one-ton stones 130 miles and drop them overboard into shifting sands until they are piled up 25 feet all around. Moreover, there is a great tower to be built, with a lantern costing $25,000 and a lens costing $13,000. It contains a great deal of mechanism, and its management requires the constant attention of twelve men.

Capt. Anderson says he is not daunted at the prospect, and he believes the light can be built. All he and his friends want is a reliable survey and a knowledge of the character of the bottom.
Apparently the good captain never got his reliable survey and good soundings. Beginning in 1897, a series of lightships served at Diamond Shoals until one was sunk by a German submarine in 1918, and again 1922-42. With German U-boats on the prowl in "Torpedo Alley," the lightship was replaced by a buoy 1942-45.

The Diamond Shoal lighthouse, on a converted Texas oil rig platform, wasn't built until 1966. Automated in 1977 (imagine the poor guys working out there all alone for 11 years!), it was badly damaged by Hurricane Fran in 1996 and decommissioned in 2001.

If you listen closely at Cape Hatteras, you can hear the ghost of Capt. John F. Anderson whispering, "I told you so."

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