Digest>Archives> May 2008

House Calls

By Bill Bleyer


You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
With Race Rock Lighthouse fading in the distance, ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

Like other electricians, Brian Gresham sometimes gets to make house calls by pulling up in a van full of equipment to replace fuses or tweak temperamental wiring.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Brian Gresham gets ready to disembark as the ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

But unlike most electricians, Gresham serves in the Coast Guard, and the houses he services have lights atop them. And some of the lighthouses are located offshore, so his service calls often involve a long, cold boat ride.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
-New York’s Little Gull Island Lighthouse. The ...

Gresham, an electrician’s mate first-class, is the primary maintenance person for the 20 lighthouses from Huntington, NY to the Rhode Island border controlled by the Sector Long Island Sound aids to navigation team in New Haven, CT.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Brian Gresham high above the water fixing the ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

That’s why he was in a small boat bouncing across a rough Block Island Sound on a March morning. The Race Rock Lighthouse, one of the region’s most remote beacons, was due for preventative maintenance while the nearby Little Gull Island Lighthouse had a malfunctioning foghorn.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Fixing the plastic red lens at Race Rock ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

Gresham’s ride was in a 23-foot aluminum workboat operated by bosun’s mate first-class Gerald Eubanks. Approaching Race Rock off the southwest point of Fishers Island through nasty, confused seas, Eubanks circled the stark Gothic-style lighthouse to check the current before pulling alongside the metal ladder leading up the concrete foundation so and Gresham and Seaman Nicole Sands secured dock lines.

You can see an enlarged version of this picture by clicking here.
>> Click to enlarge <<
Getting on and off Little Gull Island Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Bill Bleyer

After climbing the ladder, Gresham, who joined the Coast Guard 11 years ago and took on his current assignment last year, used a rope to lift several waterproof plastic cases full of equipment and spare parts up to the concrete apron. He and Sands unlocked the heavy door of the 1868 structure and carried their gear into a first-floor room. Gresham opened and examined several electrical control boxes mounted on

the wall that control the solar panels, primary and backup lights and fog-

horns and transmit operational data to

New Haven.

Next he used a meter to check the condition of the six lead-acid batteries, each weighing about 200 pounds that power the lights and foghorns. He repeated the process with the bank of 10 smaller NiCad backup batteries.

While he worked, Gresham, 34, explained how he became a modern version of a lighthouse keeper. When he signed on with the Coast Guard, he had no interest in lighthouses. “I’m originally from Montana, where we don’t have lighthouses,” he said. He just wanted to become part of “a force where people are working together and to get to see and do different things.” After serving on small patrol boats out of New Haven, he saw a posting for the electrician’s job and applied, and the Coast Guard trained him.

Besides tuning up lighthouses, which usually takes up about one day a week unless there is a unscheduled problem, he repairs boats and equipment ashore.

Gresham headed outside to check the fog detector that measures visibility by the amount of moisture in the air. It triggers two linked foghorns that look like R2-D2 from “Star Wars” or their single backup unit when the visibility drops below 1.5 miles. Gresham attached a box over the sensor “to trick it into thinking that a fog bank is coming in.”

While waiting for the foghorns to sound off, he climbed the narrow rusting spiral staircase to the glass-enclosed lantern room. He removed the red plastic lens from the rotating airport-style light fixture and checked the six light bulbs that are mounted on a device that rotates a new one into place automatically when one fails.

Gresham squeezed through a trap door out to the balcony where he cranked a winch to lower the backup light mounted on a pole so he could check its bulb changer.

He retraced his steps and went outside to examine the foghorns. He opened their cases to “make sure all the connections are good, everything’s tight and there is no water intrusion.” The last stop was the solar panels that recharge the batteries. Gresham opened the control boxes and looked for corrosion or loose screws.

After more than two hours, they climbed back down to the boat and Eubanks set a course through increasing chop to Little Gull Island to find out why the foghorns were acting up only two months after the last maintenance visit.

Because the lighthouses get preventative maintenance two to four times a year, depending on the severity of the conditions at each one, Gresham said malfunctions are rare. “About every six months we have something going bad,” he said.

With no dock at Little Gull Island, Eubanks brought the bow close to shore just long enough for Gresham to jump off with his equipment cases. He climbed the concrete steps on the edge of the foundation and unlocked a fiberglass shed containing the controls for the foghorns. “Only one of the two is working,” Gresham said, which meant the bleating could only be heard for half of its normal mile range.

Gresham climbed the support frame to check the upper device, the likely culprit because it is more exposed to the weather. After unbolting the cover, the problem was easily diagnosed and fixed — a blown fuse. It’s the result of vibration and cold weather, he explained. After he turned the power back on and the twin horns vibrated the shack, Gresham asked, “Hear the difference?”

He replaced the cover and headed back to the boat after a half hour.

“I love the job,” he said. “It’s good to be part of the history. I like being out on the water. I like to work with my hands. And I like to help out the mariner. I’ll never get bored with it.”

This story appeared in the May 2008 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.

to Lighthouse Digest

USLHS Marker Fund

Lighthouse History
Research Institute

Shop Online

Subscribe   Contact Us   About Us   Copyright Foghorn Publishing, 1994- 2024   Lighthouse Facts     Lighthouse History