Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #33

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Old postcard of Biloxi Lighthouse, from the National Archives (image 26-lg-34-22c)

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

I want to pay tribute to two women keepers who served longer than any other light keeper—male or female—as principal keeper at a single light station: Maria Younghans, who served at Biloxi Light Station in Mississippi from 1867 until 1918, and Catherine Murdock, who kept the light at Roundout Creek on the Hudson River from 1857 until 1907. Both of them served while I was keeping the light on Robbins Reef. Maria Younghans at Biloxi Light stayed 51 years. Murdock retired in 1907 after spending 50 years at her station. These are two of the longest tenures ever at a single station in the United States.

Perry Younghans was appointed keeper at Biloxi in 1866 and died within a year. His wife
Maria succeeded him. A career as extended as Maria’s should have left behind some interesting memorabilia, but a few newspaper clippings provide all that we know of her half-century-long career. An 1893 edition of the New Orleans Picayune reported that Maria, “the plucky woman who was in charge of the Biloxi light, kept a light going all through the storm [hurricane], notwithstanding that there were several feet of water in the room where she lived.”

In the Biloxi and Gulfport Daily Herald of August 22, 1925, her obituary states that “during a 1918 storm, when the heavy glass in the lighthouse tower was broken by a large pelican being blown against it, she and her daughter, mindful of the especial need of the light on such a night, replaced the glass temporarily and made the ‘light to shine’ as before, unimpaired.”

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The extant Rondout Lighthouse was built in 1915. U.S. Lighthouse Society photo by Ralph Eshelman.

In 1856 keeper George Murdock took Catherine and their two small children to a rickety
lighthouse on the Hudson River, already damaged by weather and ice. Catherine was too
preoccupied with producing a third child to give much thought to safe surroundings. Within a year after his appointment, her husband drowned. Catherine continued faithfully to maintain the light.

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Catherine Murdock (Hudson River Maritime Museum)

She spent a decade (including the Civil War years) in the old lighthouse, which was
threatened repeatedly by severe storms and spring flooding. In 1867 a new light station
(referred to as Rondout I) was constructed of bluestone on the south side of the creek entrance—a solid, cozy structure with four rooms on each of its two floors.

Catherine’s worst experience was a flood in 1878. At 3 a.m. the dam at Eddyville upstream gave way.

Catherine could hear the crashing of houses, barns, barges, boats, and tugs torn from their moorings and swept downstream in the
raging current.

In 1880 Catherine’s son James was appointed assistant keeper. He succeeded his mother when she retired in 1907. I would like to have met Maria Younghans and Catherine Murdock. We would have had much in common to talk about.

As for male keepers with the longest tenure at a single station, so far I have found Charles P. Skinner at Marshall Point in Maine Honeywell at Cape Canaveral, FL, 1891 – 1930 [39 years], both of them serving while I was at Robbins Reef. Are there others?

[Editor’s note: William Welch was in charge at Van Wies Point, New York, for 52 years (1858-1910), although he didn’t live on site and it was considered a “laborer” position rather than a true “keeper” position. Joseph Henry Herrick was keeper at Hospital Point in Beverly, Massachusetts for 44 years (1873-1927). If you can find other keeper tenures at single stations that exceed the 45-50 year range, please let us know.

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21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copy

Information is from newspaper articles and a fact sheet supplied by the Hudson River Maritime Museum in Kingston, New York.

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #32

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

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Kate Walker at Robbins Reef

Light keepers do much more than keep the light. The water around Robbins Reef is treacherous. Over the years I rescued 50 people.

One such newsworthy incident was the wreck of a three masted schooner that struck the reef and rolled onto its side. I launched my dingy and took aboard the five crew members plus a small Scottie dog, whose survival pleased me immensely.

I almost lost my life in a sudden storm that came up while I was rowing back from Staten Island, a one mile journey. After three hours of struggling through snow and wind, I was rescued by a ferry that towed me as close as possible to my home. By the time I ascended the ladder, I was covered in ice.

Another time, my rowboat, my only transportation, almost came loose from its mooring in a storm. As I struggled to secure it, the chain holding the boat hit me in the eye, and the wind nearly blew me off the deck.

Other keepers faced similar problems. Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana is an inland lake, but the New Canal Light keepers there were not immune to danger. A hurricane in September 1915 heavily damaged the station with winds estimated at 130 mph. Keeper Caroline Riddle was commended for heroism in showing the light during the storm.

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New Canal Light Station, Louisana (U.S. Lighthouse Society archives)

The barometer fell to 28.11 inches, setting a U.S. record, and Lake Pontchartrain rose to the top of the levees and flooded parts of New Orleans. Riddle was forced to douse the main light and hang a small lantern in the rocking tower.

Keeper Maggie Norvell, also at New Canal, helped 200 victims ashore from an excursion boat fire in 1926, treating each of them until they could be evacuated. A Navy pilot who
crashed into the lake near the station owed his life to Norvell, who rowed out to his sinking biplane in a two-hour rescue.

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Keeper William C. Williams (Courtesy of William O. Thomson)

Boon Island in Maine was the site of several shipwrecks. Keeper William C. Williams reported the schooner Goldhunter aground in December 1892. The crew in their yawl boat reached the light station after a six-hour row. Their barking dog alerted the keeper, who guided the boat to the landing and then hauled it through the breakers onto the shore. “The crew was frozen to the thwarts and almost helpless. The keepers and their wives had a desperate task for the next few hours to resuscitate the almost lifeless men,” according to Williams.

Probably the most famous rescues by light keepers involved Marcus Hanna, keeper at Cape Elizabeth Light Station in Maine, and Ida Lewis at Lime Rock Light Station in Rhode Island, both of whom won medals for heroic rescues. Details can be found on the Web.

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21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copyInformation is from Lighthouse Friends; New Orleans Tribune, June 26, 1932; Lighthouse Service Bulletin, Vol. I, p. 186; Robert Thayer Sterling, Lighthouses of the Maine Coast and the Men Who Kept Them (Brattleboro, Stephen Daye Press, 1935).

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #31

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Navassa Island Lighthouse and dwelling under construction in 1917. National Archives photo 26-LG-41-6A.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Did you know that the Lighthouse Service built a lighthouse on Navassa Island? Bet you don’t even know where Navassa Island is. I didn’t until I read about it in the newspaper. It was built in 1917, while I was still keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Navassa is an uninhabited, 5 km (about 2 square miles) island in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti and Jamaica, administered by the U.S. Department of Interior. In 1857 the phosphorite on Navassa was mistaken for guano by a U.S. sea captain who laid claim to the island under the Guano Island Act passed by the U.S. Congress in 1855. Between 1865 and 1898 almost a million tons of the phosphorite was strip-mined from the island and shipped to Baltimore by the Navassa Phosphate Company. The island was abandoned during the Spanish American War, but by that time it was firmly established as U.S. territory.

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Recent view of Navassa Island Lighthouse (U.S. Geological Survey)

The opening of the Panama Canal put Navassa in the middle of the traffic lanes between the Atlantic and Caribbean, and the Coast Guard built a lighthouse on the island in 1917 to help guide ships bound for the Panama Canal. Global Positioning Systems eliminated the need for the lighthouse by 1996, and the Coast Guard turned over to U.S. Department of Interior on January 16, 1997.

The 162-foot lighthouse is now endangered by abandonment and lack of maintenance, and the keeper’s house is in ruins. The importance of the light before the advent of GPS was evident in the fact that it has the twelfth-highest tower and fourth-highest focal plane of all U.S. lights.

A National Wildlife Refuge, under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was established on Navassa Island in 1999 to preserve and protect the coral reef ecosystems and the marine environment, to restore and enhance native wildlife and plants, and to provide opportunities for wildlife research. This refuge is closed to the public.

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21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copy

Information is from https://coastal.er.usgs.gov/navassa/history/lighthouse1.html; and https://www.ibiblio.org/lighthouse/nvi.htm; and Wikipedia.

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #30

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The original (1870) Point Arena Lighthouse. National Archives photo 26-LG-63-38-ac.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

Inspector Snow, when he last visited Robbins Reef, told me about the damage done to the tall masonry tower on Point Arena headland north of San Francisco in the 1906 earthquake. He said that a rare earthquake had struck Pensacola, Florida, in 1885, but earthquakes were much more common in California.

The Point Arena keeper described that experience: “A heavy blow first struck the tower from the south . . ., accompanied by a heavy retort. The tower quivered for a few seconds, went far over to the north, came back, and then swung north again, repeating this several times. Immediately after came rapid and violent vibrations, rending the tower apart, the sections grinding upon each other; while the lenses, reflectors, etc., in the lantern were shaken from their settings and fell in a shower upon the iron floor.”

The earthquake struck before dawn. At least one of the keepers would have been in the watch room at the top of the Point Arena tower. Imagine his thoughts as he made his way down the broken tower. The keepers must have gone up the stairs again because they immediately disassembled the lantern and reassembled it on a temporary tower in order to maintain the light.

The tower was cracked and leaning beyond repair the keepers dwellings uninhabitable and the wind too strong to use tents. The keepers constructed four bungalows for their families.

Letters from the 12th district engineer to the Light-House Board dated May 9 and November 30, 1906, stated, “Experience in this city shows that in order to be earthquake-proof, the new tower must be a steel frame construction or else of reinforced concrete. . . . the cost of a cast-steel tower similar to the Cape Fear tower, but 100 feet high, will exceed the cost of a reinforced concrete tower.”

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The new (1908) Point Arena Lighthouse. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A reinforced concrete tower was chosen for Point Arena, the first in the nation, completed and lit with a new first-order lens the largest of the Fresnel lenses in 1908. It was electrified in 1928 and automated in 1977. It is now managed by the Point Arena Lighthouse Keepers, Inc., who provide overnight accommodations in the keepers dwellings.

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The first-order Fresnel lens, now on display on the museum at Point Arena. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

The inspector said that other California lighthouses were damaged by the 1906 earthquake. It s a dramatic story, worth Googling, if you want to learn more about it.

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Information is from National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 80 and Entry 48, File #550; and Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 64.

Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #29

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Sand Island Light Station, Alabama, in 1893. National Archives photo 26-LG-38a-81A.

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

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Danville Leadbetter (Wikimedia Commons)

Third District Inspector A.S. Snow told me the sad story of the Sand Island Light Tower, located three miles south of Mobile Point at the entrance to Mobile Bay, Alabama. Before the Civil War, Mobile was the South’s second-largest cotton exporting port. A lighthouse was built on Sand Island in 1838 to mark the entrance to Mobile Bay. A new, 200-foot-tall Sand Island tower was completed in 1858 by Army Engineer Danville Leadbetter — the tallest lighthouse ever built on the Gulf Coast.

 

In the first months of the Civil War, Confederate States collector T. Sanford hired a contractor to remove the nine-foot-tall, first-order lens for storage, first at Mobile and later at Montgomery. The empty tower was used repeatedly as a lookout post as forces of both sides spied on each other’s strengths from aloft. Union glasses searched for weaknesses at the forts commanding the bay entrance and stood careful watch for the dreaded ram CSS Tennessee. Southern forces occasionally studied movements of the fleet from the tower.

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The CSS Tennessee (Wikimedia Commons)

To keep the tower out of Union hands, Confederate Lieutenant John W. Glenn decided that the tower should be destroyed. On January 31, 1863, he sailed his yawl down the bay and begun a hurried reconnaissance of the island. When his movements were detected and a Union boat approached, “As hurriedly as possible I set fire to the five frame buildings on the island and then returned to my boat and by keeping the island between

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John W. Glenn (Wikimedia Commons)

me and the enemy’s vessel, I managed to get a mile away from her before she discerned my exact position.”

He added that,” The island is now a barren sand waste. Even the grass and brush is burned off and at such a time as I shall judge expedient, I will tumble the lighthouse down in their teeth.” He followed up his threat on February 23. He sapped the lighthouse with 70 pounds of gunpowder buried under its base and lit the fuse. He reported that, “Nothing remains but a narrow shred about fifty feet high.”

Glenn’s gleeful report was addressed to Confederate States Brigadier General Danville Leadbetter, the U.S. Light-House Board engineer who had built the magnificent tower on Sand Island only a few years earlier. How do you suppose General Leadbetter felt about a brash young lieutenant destroying his masterpiece?

The 1872 Annual Report of the Light-House Board noted that “a temporary frame tower, with fourth-order lens, was erected to replace a brick tower destroyed during the war . . .. The island lies three miles south of the mouth of Mobile Bay and is merely a bank of sand, about four hundred acres in extent, constantly changing its outline. . . . The foundation, consisting of a double course of sill timbers resting on one hundred and seventy-one piles and overlaid with a depth of 12 feet of concrete, was put down.”

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(From Thompson Engineering Sand Island Light House Report)

Have you seen pilings supporting a dock or pier? Can you picture 171 piles sunk in a solid circle to hold the concrete base of this lighthouse (Sand Island)? You can see the base of the lighthouse in this drawing. It is surrounded by stone riprap to cut the force of water washing against it. Is riprap a new term to you?

The 1873 Annual Report of the Light-House Board indicated that the total height to the focal plane of the light will be 125 feet, or 132 feet above sea level, and the visibility of the light will extend to a distance of seventeen and one-half nautical miles.

The light was deactivated in 1971. The island has since eroded away, and the tower is exposed to the sea. The Sand Island Lighthouse Preservation Group hopes to restore the lighthouse.

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Information is from David Cipra, Lighthouses, Lightships, and the Gulf of Mexico, p. 72, and this web page.

Education · Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #27

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

If I don’t write English too good, you’re probably wondering how I write these blog posts. Voice recognition software. It’s wonderful. I just say what I want to and the computer records it. Then my son Jacob goes through what I’ve said and straightens out my awkward sentences. I rely constantly on Jacob and don’t know what I would do without him. He was also my postman, marketman, and general courier.

Jacob was officially appointed assistant keeper in 1896. He married and brought his bride to Robbins Reef to live, using the second bedroom. When I retired in 1919, Jacob became principal keeper. He was in charge when the Lighthouse Service began experimenting with radio.

The first radio beacons, installed after 1921 to allow navigators to pinpoint their position, must have seemed almost miraculous. Marine radio beacons were non-directional; the signal was sent to the whole horizon. The first signals used were short and distinctive for each station. Sending minutes were alternated and frequencies varied so that signals would not interfere with each other. Ships needed only a simple direction-finder or radio compass to pick up the signals.

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Circa 1930s postcard of Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod with radio beacons. (Collection of Jeremy D’Entremont)

The navigator on the bridge of the transatlantic steamer, when he was 200 miles or so off the coast, began to take radio bearings on Nantucket lightship. For most of the vessels crossing the Atlantic this was the first radio outpost of America. When he picked up the signal four dashes (—-) repeated continuously, he knew he had the lightship, and in a few seconds by rotating the coil first from one side and then from the other, until the signal fades away, he obtained accurately the direction of the Nantucket Beacon. After passing Nantucket safely, the navigator could at once pick up the two dash (- -) radio signal of Fire Island Light ship, and later the continuous dot ( . . . . . . ) signal of Ambrose Lightship, anchored off the entrance to the Ambrose Channel into New York Harbor.

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The Ambrose Lightship (WAL-512), now a tourist attraction at the South Street Seaport in New York City, received one of the earliest radio beacons in the U.S. in 1921, greatly assisting navigation of the congested channel in dense fog. Photo by Jeremy D’Entremont.

A vessel equipped with a radio direction-finder could take a bearing on another ship sending radio signals, and thus determine its direction at sea by the same method it would use with the radio beacon on shore. This taking of bearings between ship and ship diminished the risk of collision and fog and it also helped one ship to find another which may be in distress.

Introduction of the radio was an enormous boon to mariners. With the ability to communicate with land and other vessels, mariners could send distress calls and share weather forecasts and notices of moved buoys or defects in aids to navigation. Jacob enjoyed experimenting with his radio beacon.

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Information is from Annual Reports of the Light-House Board and George R. Putnam, Sentinel of the Coasts (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1937), pp. 199 – 215.

Education · Kate's Corner · News

Kate’s Corner #26

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef. It may surprise you to know that I spent part of every day on paperwork. John taught me how to keep the records and make the reports, but after he died, I relied on my son Jacob to put my words onto the report forms because writing in English was difficult for me. I always signed them.

I had to submit a monthly report on the condition of the station and make explicit specifications for any needed repairs. Expenditures of oil, etc., and salary vouchers were to be submitted quarterly. Property returns were submitted annually along with receipts for extra supplies and for their delivery. I signed a receipt for all the station property when I took charge.

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From National Archives RG 26 Entry 1 (NC-63)

The 1880 Laws and Regulations Relating to the Light-House Establishment of the United States listed 68 different types of forms used in managing the Lighthouse Service. I was to forward to District Inspector Commander A.S. Snow reports of shipwrecks, any damage to station apparatus, and any unusual occurrence. I kept a daily expenditure book, a general account book, and a journal in which I recorded the work I’d done that day, any visit of the Inspector or Engineer or of the lampist or machinist, or any delivery of stores.

Also any item of interest occurring in the vicinity, such as the state of the weather, or other similar matter. Although it wasn’t specified, I recorded every visitor who came to the lighthouse, because there weren’t many.

Among my unexpected visitors was a box containing a dead baby, which I rowed to the coroner on Staten Island. On another day a young couple out rowing were carried onto the reef by the tide and stove a hole in the bow of their rowboat. The girl was frantic because she couldn’t get home that night. Fortunately a friend of my daughter Mamie rowed out to the lighthouse that evening to pay a call. He agreed to take them ashore, where they promptly got married and avoided a scandal.

didn’t report these to the Light-House Board.

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Information is from the 1881 Instructions to Lightkeepers, National Archives Record Group 26 Entry 1, Volume 753; and the New York Times, March 5, 1906.