Friday, August 26, 2011

August 1893: Death & Destruction

After the August 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane. From The State.

As the U.S. eastern seaboard prepares for Hurricane Irene, we are reminded of the horrific storm that hit at this exact time in 1893. Later dubbed the Sea Islands hurricane, it caused widespread death and destruction, especially in the Carolinas and Georgia, which was already reeling from a yellow fever epidemic.

Washington Post, August 22, 1893:
People Flying from Brunswick in Fear of an Epidemic.


Another Man Is Stricken, and Despite the Assurances of the Surgeons that Danger of the Disease Spreading Has Passed, the Mayor Issues a Proclamation Advising People to Leave--Free Transportation for the Poor--Exodus from the Stricken Town.
From the Light-House Board Annual Report for 1893:
The first storm, in August 1893, was preceded by cyclones off the coast on the 15th, 20th, and 23d, and the high seas engendered by them culminated on August 27-28 in a tide in the Sixth light-house district [New River Inlet, NC, to Jupiter Inlet, FL] higher by 2 feet than any which has been recorded. The center of the storm crossed the coast line between Savannah and Charleston leaving desolation in its course and causing, it is estimated, a loss of more than 2,000 lives on the sea islands of South Carolina. Its force was very great as far south as Cape Canaveral, Florida, and as far north as Bull Bay on the South Carolina coast.

On the Savannah River 5 barks were wrecked within a quarter of a mile of Tybee Knoll Cut front light, and in Charleston Harbor the wrecks were numerous. The light-house schooner
Pharos, then at anchor in the bight at Cape Canaveral, narrowly escaped being driven ashore after parting the chains of 3 anchors which she had down at the time. The Wolf Island front beacon was overturned by the force of the sea. The Tybee beacon was undermined and overturned. The structures of the Tybee Knoll Cut front beacon, Elba Island front beacon, Bloody Point front beacon, Daufusikie Island front beacon and the wharf at the rear, Hilton Head front beacon, Paris Island front and rear beacons, Morris Island front beacons, and Fort Sumter and Bull Bay light-stations suffered seriously, small structures being carried some distance from their foundations and larger ones being injured by wind and tide. Boat landings and elevated wooden plank walks, of which there are some miles in this district, suffered especially, and almost all of them required such extensive repairs as to make it economical to rebuild them. This also was the case with the long wharves at Tybee Knoll Cut and Daufuskie Island light-stations, and at the buoy and supply depot at Charleston. The beacons on Morris Island, South Carolina, were swept away to sea so completely that nothing remained even of the sand hills on which they formerly stood....

One light-vessel, No. 37, then on Five-Fathom Bank, in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape May, N. J., foundered not far from her moorings, and was practically destroyed by the cyclone of August 23, 1893, when four out of the six men on board were lost. Another light-vessel, the one then on Rattlesnake Shoals, Atlantic Ocean, off Charleston, S. C., was torn from her moorings and driven ashore. Her crew were saved and it is hoped that the vessel may be hauled off from the beach.

Castle Pinckney, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina.—This depot was wrecked by the cyclone of August 26 and 27, 1893, and most of its contents were destroyed.... Boats stored on the land in rear of the fort, high above the ground, were washed away and lost, and even the keeper's dwelling, which was built several feet above the general level of the site, was in serious danger from the waves.

Cutoff Channel range, Patapsco River, Maryland.—A severe storm on August 28, 1893, carried away the bridge, built of timber and stone, connecting the front beacon with the shore, and washed out the strip of land originally purchased for a means of communication between the beacon and the keeper's dwelling on shore...

Washington Post, August 31, 1893:
Negro Bodies Found in Appalling Numbers Around Beaufort.
The Steamship City of Savannah Wrecked with Scores of Other Craft-Charleston Under Water-Ten Drowned on the Lakes--Tybee and Sullivan Island Villages
Swept Away--Awful Scenes Reported from the South Carolina Marshes.
The Steamship Shattered by the Storm and Driven on the Shoals.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Lighthouse that Never Was: Red Rock, CA

Red Rock Island, for sale at

From the Light-House Board Annual Report of 1904:
Red Rock, upper part of San Francisco Bay, California.—This rock is an island about 169 feet high, and contains about 7½ acres. It stands near the eastern shore of the bay, 9½ miles above Market street, San Francisco, and is passed close to by vessels bound for Port Costa, Benicia, Mare Island, and the rivers emptying into Suisun Bay.

It is believed that with the establishment of a light at Southampton Shoal, Red Rock would be a better place than Quarry Point for a light and fog-signal. With this station vessels bound up the bay could make Southampton Shoal, giving Quarry Point, Angel Island, a wide berth, and from thence shape their course to Red Rock, on either side or which they could pass. This rock, or island, formerly known as Molate Island, is a military reservation, but does not enter into the adopted project for the defenses of San Francisco, and hence no difficulty is expected in obtaining authority to occupy it for light-house purposes.

It is estimated that the cost of a light and fog-signal station at Red Rock will be $30,000, and the Board recommends that an appropriation for that amount be made therefor.
From the Annual Report of 1922 (note how much less money was needed for an unmanned, electric light):
Red Rock Light and Fog Signal, Calif.—Establishing a light and fog signal on Red Rock in the northern part of San Francisco Bay, Calif., $14,000.

Note.—Red Rock is a bold, rocky island in the northern part of San Francisco Bay, rising to a height of 159 feet, with deep water close to its shores. It lies in the path of the very heavy up-bay and up-river traffic, as well as in the path of all craft proceeding to and from the Mare Island Navy Yard, and is also directly in the path of the passenger and automobile ferry steamers plying between Castro Point and Point San Quentin. Requests have been received from the masters of river steamers, of oil tankers, and others to suitably mark this island with a fog signal and light. It is proposed to establish a compressed-air diaphone on the south end of the island and to establish a sixth-order flashing electric light of about 3,200 candlepower.
The lighthouse was never built, though Red Rock remained government property for decades. Now the island is for sale. See more of its history (and the Realtor's website) at

Monday, August 15, 2011

Budget Wrangling at Home, 1919 Edition

It's easy to have romantic fantasies about living at a lighthouse--especially on a sunny summer day at a nicely air-conditioned maritime museum.

Here's the harsh reality, via excerpts from a 1919 hearing by the House Appropriations Committee, chaired by the pennypinching J. Swagar Sherley (D-KY). The other players were first Commissioner of Lighthouses George R. Putnam, Commerce Secretary William C. Redfield and Congressman Frank W. Mondell (R-WY). Poverty Island (photo) was aptly named!

THE CHAIRMAN: The next item is "No. 5, light keepers' dwellings. For light keepers' dwellings and appurtenant structures, including sites therefor, within the limit of cost fixed by the act approved February 26,1907," $75,000.

MR. PUTNAM: The notes here give a list of 25 important light stations now lacking suitable quarters for the light keepers. The furnishing of a dwelling is looked upon as a part of the compensation for the keepers; that is, light keepers are employed with the understanding that they will be furnished with a dwelling if they will live at the station, and there is also a decided advantage to the Government in having the light keeper dwell right where his work is at the station, so he or his family will always be there.

THE CHAIRMAN: What are these people doing now'?

MR. PUTNAM: At most of the stations one or more of the keepers has to live somewhere outside of the reservation. At some of these stations, perhaps, if the keeper is unmarried, he is given a room in the dwelling of some other keeper. Such an arrangement only works satisfactorily if he has not a family. Congress has made appropriations of this character in the past—in 1907 and in 1908, the last one was in 1908—to supply deficiencies of this character in the same amount asked for here, $75,000.

THE CHAIRMAN: Do you think it is advisable to build now; when, as a minimum, it will cost you a third and in many cases a half or twice as much as it would normally?

MR. PUTNAM: Our attitude on that matter, Mr. Chairman, would be to see whether we could get buildings built at a reasonable cost. If we could not, we would postpone the work.

THE CHAIRMAN: You do not need to go into any experimentation in that regard. We know now the facts. We have sat here for months with nothing but that sort of testimony. We have already heard justifications from your department for deficits on the very basis of increased cost.

MR. PUTNAM: I would not be in favor of building these dwellings if we could not get reasonable bids on the construction—if we could not build them for reasonable amounts. We do not know when such costs are going to return to normal, possibly it might be a long time. The stations named here have all been picked out as particularly urgent and as cases where it is a hardship on the keepers.

THE CHAIRMAN: Give us the concrete facts in any particular case that justify building, irrespective of the tremendous increase in cost.

SECRETARY REDFIELD: You will observe, Mr. Chairman, that the limit is not to exceed $6,500, so we do not act irrespective of the limit of cost.

THE CHAIRMAN: I understand. You either do one of two things. You either do not build or you get very much less for your money than you could normally.

SECRETARY REDFIELD: We might build a simpler dwelling in some cases, perhaps. It is true and it should be borne in mind that there are certain kinds of construction where, if there is an increase in cost, it is not as great as it might appear. For instance, concrete construction.

THE CHAIRMAN: We have not found very much evidence of it at this table. We get an experience here that is pretty wide.

MR. PUTNAM: We have not asked for any increase in the limit of cost over what it was in the old laws, years ago.

THE CHAIRMAN: That may show just how much leeway you had rather than anything else. I should like to have a concrete case that represents a real hardship?

MR. PUTNAM: I can not give you the details.

MR. MONDEL: The need cannot possibly be the same in all cases. There must be some of these cases where there is more real need and emergency than others.

MR. PUTNAM: That is perfectly true. There are other cases where the keepers have not dwellings, which we have not even mentioned. These have been picked out from many. I shall be glad to put in the record some more details as to the urgency of some of these stations. I can not do so offhand.

THE CHAIRMAN: Very well.

Dry Tortugas, Fla.: There are three keepers with families in an eight-room house, which is very undesirable on account of crowded condition of the quarters.

Port Eads. La.: A dwelling is needed here for the keepers of South Pass Ranee Rear and Port Eads Depot, as the present quarters are entirely inadequate. There are five keepers for the depot and lights, with quarters but for three.

Port San Juan, P. R.: There are no dwellings for the keepers, and they should be provided, as it is very difficult for the keepers to obtain quarters near the lighthouse.

Poverty Island. Mich.: There are three keepers here in a dwelling which was built for one. In winter a laborer is employed who must also be housed in the dwelling. In summer time when their families are at the station they are housed in shacks. It is proposed to build quarters for two families.

Tawas, Mich.: There are three keepers at this station, with quarters but for one. The two assistants are living in improvised quarters constructed from former outbuildings. It is proposed to build a double dwelling for them.

Cove Point, Md.: There are two keepers at this station, with quarters but for one, wholly unsuited for housing two. An additional dwelling is urgent and an immediate necessity in order to take care of the assistant keeper, who is necessary to look after the compressed-air fog signal.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fire Island Lighthouse

Although the Hudson Valley of New York, where Bella Terra world headquarters are located, is beautiful, and we even have lighthouses nearby in the river, it's not the same as the ocean. It was time for a beach day. I chose to visit a beach I had frequented in my youth, Robert Moses State Park.

As it turns out, if you park in Field 5, you are just a half-mile walk, along a pleasant boardwalk with signs interpreting the dunes and marshes, from Fire Island Lighthouse.

The first lighthouse at this location was lit in 1827. It was replaced by the current taller tower in 1858 to serve as a key aid for ships approaching New York Harbor. Having been decommissioned by the Coast Guard, it was preserved and relit thanks to the efforts of the Fire Island Lighthouse Preservation Society.

It's worth climbing the 192 steps of the tower to get great views of Fire Island and the surrounding ocean and bay. Buy a ticket at the gift shop.

The Society recently recovered the lighthouse's original first order Fresnel Lens from the Franklin Institute, and last month opened a new building to display it.

Foundation of the original tower

First order Fresnel lens

View West - when the lighthouse was first built it was at the west end of the island. Fire Island now extends five miles further west.

View East

Monday, August 8, 2011

Budget Wrangling over Guantanamo Bay, 1919 Edition

From a 1919 hearing of the House Appropriations Committee. The micromanaging chairman was the marvelously named J. Swagar Sherley (D-KY; 1918 photo at left). Committee members were James F. Byrnes (D-SC) and Frank W. Mondell (R-WY).

Note that they're haggling over the cost of new housing--authorized 7 years previously--for a poor (literally!) keeper and his even poorer assistants, who'd been living in sheds for 20 years.



THE CHAIRMAN: Your first item is "Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, aids to navigation: For dwelling for keepers of the lights in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and improving the lighting. $14,000."

MR. PUTNAM: This item was authorized by the act of July 27, 1912, and it is made necessary by the destruction of the former keeper's dwelling at this station in the insurrection of 1898. Since that time the keepers have been housed in sheds, very unfit and insanitary, as you will see by these photographs. In addition to the dwelling this item provides for making certain improvements to the lights there which will result in reducing the number of keepers from three to two, so that the saving in a keeper's pay would more than offset the interest on the appropriation asked for here.

THE CHAIRMAN: What are you paying these keepers now?

MR. PUTNAM: The keeper is paid $960 and the assistants $672 and $552 a year.

THE CHAIRMAN: Are they natives or white men?

MR. PUTNAM: The keeper is a white man, as is also one assistant, a native of Spain from Porto Rico. The other assistant is a Filipino.

THE CHAIRMAN: What sort of a house do you propose to put up there?

MR. PUTNAM: We will probably put up a reinforced concrete house, something more permanent than a wooden house.

THE CHAIRMAN: What sort of lights are there?

MR. PUTNAM: There is a principal light

SECRETARY REDFIELD (interposing): Wooden structures are not practicable in that climate.

MR. PUTNAM: The main light in Guantanamo Bay is on Windward Point, at the east side of the entrance to Guantanamo Bay: there are small range lights on each side of the harbor: there are five, lights there all together.

THE CHAIRMAN: They are attended to by three keepers?

MR. PUTNAM: Yes, sir; they are now attended to by three keepers, and if this change is made we will reduce the number to two. This picture shows the kind of a lighthouse there is on Windward Point [indicating].

THE CHAIRMAN: What sort of a structure is it?

MR. PUTNAM: I have not been to Guantanamo Bay. but from this picture it appears to be a metal tower.

SECRETARY REDFIELD: It is an old Spanish tower, is it not?

MR. PUTNAM: Yes; I think so. It was taken over from the Spanish.

THE CHAIRMAN: It can not be automatically lighted?

MR. PUTNAM: No, sir: I do not think that kind of a light should properly be without a keeper: the other lights will be automatic lights, so that the keepers will only have to go to them occasionally.

THE CHAIRMAN: Why would not that be true of this light, because it is very close to these other lights?

MR. PUTNAM: We think we ought to have keepers for such an important light as that—the light that is at the entrance to Guantanamo Bay.

THE CHAIRMAN: That might be true if the automatic light would not work.

MR. PUTNAM: They can not be absolutely depended upon.

THE CHAIRMAN: How near is that to any settlement?

MR. PUTNAM: The American naval station is within a couple of miles.

THE CHAIRMAN: I was wondering whether or not, that being so, you could within that distance be sure of taking care of the lights without the necessity of having a keeper right at the light.

MR. PUTNAM: I think for five lights like that and one main entrance light we could not properly do without keepers. We are maintaining many unimportant lights without having a resident keeper by simply having men go to the lights once a day or once a week, but it would not do in a place like this, in my opinion.

THE CHAIRMAN: Have you thought about that at all?

MR. PUTNAM: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: You are only 2 miles away from the naval station?

MR. PUTNAM: We could not call on the naval station. We could not do that without having some one with the definite responsibility of looking after the lights. We have sometimes attempted to have Army and Navy posts take care of lights, but on account of the changes in duty, etc., it has not proved satisfactory.

THE CHAIRMAN: How much of this $14,000 is intended for the dwelling, and how much for improving the lighting?

MR. PUTNAM: The dwelling for the two keepers is estimated to cost $8,000; four acetylene lights, $5,600, and contingencies $400, making a total of $14,000.

THE CHAIRMAN: When did you get those estimates?

MR. PUTNAM: Those estimates were submitted about October.

THE CHAIRMAN: You have had the same estimates since 1915?

MR. PUTNAM: Yes, sir.

THE CHAIRMAN: The reason I am asking you that is to determine whether your estimates are modern enough to be reliable.

MR. PUTNAM: Yes, sir; if anything there will be an increase.

THE CHAIRMAN: That is just what I had in mind. If we should give you $14,000 now, and then have you coming back within a few months asking for $4,000, $5.000, or $10,000 more.

MR. PUTNAM (interposing): We revised all of our estimates at the time these were submitted, and it was not considered necessary to make any revision in this particular estimate. In a number of cases we have had to increase the figures that were submitted last year.

MR. BYRNES: This is in charge of the naval officer at that station, is it not?

THE CHAIRMAN: A naval officer at Guantanamo acts as local inspector, but the station is under the general supervision of the lighthouse inspector stationed at San Juan, Porto Rico. The naval officer pays the keepers, purchases supplies, etc.

MR. BYRNES: If you put in that automatic light, can you make out with one keeper?

MR. PUTNAM: We propose to do away with one keeper. We have three keepers now, and propose to have only two.

THE CHAIRMAN: Where do the keepers live?

MR. PUTNAM: We have three keepers, and these three photographs [indicating] show their present dwellings. One of them lives in a shed which was formerly a stable. This one [indicating] is out on the wharf, and it must have been for storage of some kind. The original dwelling was destroyed in 1898.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Poetics of Research

We're hard at work digging up fascinating facts for our California & Hawaii lighthouses map, to be published this fall. Naturally we turned to Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 48 (Dec. 1873-May 1874). Wouldn't you?

We had bookmarked an article on the Lighthouses of the United States, from March 1874, but we decided to see what else was there. So we searched for "California" and look what we found:

Read the rest of the poem here, or in Whitman's Leaves of Grass.