In the month of December 1917, an unprecedented cold spell hit the East Coast. The telephone rang. “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.” Captain Johnson was apprehensive about the task ahead. The Cypress was not designed as an Ice Breaker and the twin screws might be badly damaged in their outboard exposure to ice action.
Entering Chesapeake Bay, in the early afternoon of the second day, trouble began. Fields of broken ice moving in and out with the tides had dragged the lightship off station. All shipping had been stopped in the Bay. Dozens of buoys of all types were promiscuously scattered about among the ice floes. The Cypress soon had a heaping deck load and worked her way carefully to the Portsmouth Lighthouse Depot to unload.
The Cypress and other seagoing tenders had rescued the keepers from the many light stations in Chesapeake Bay and Pamlico Sound besieged by the ice floes, and had gathered in the hundreds of misplaced buoys. It was self-evident from the damage to the light structures that this was the worst ice damage that had occurred to the structures since their first building some forty years previously.
As soon as ice conditions permitted, I boarded the tenders to survey the damage to some 50 screw pile and caisson type structures in the district. What did I find on my survey? More than 20 of the screw pile lighthouses badly damaged; one demolished completely (Choptank); some twisted around; others with the piles broken, but still precariously standing, the butt ends of the breaks half bearing on the stubs below (Old Plantation Flats).
The seven solid caisson type structures, thirty feet in diameter which had been put down by pneumatic process were badly shaken but plowed furrows through the ice fields as they went back and forth by tidal action. The cast iron shell skin plating backed by concrete was in some cases cracked and spalled off.
At Sandy Point where the complement was three keepers, one was ashore on leave. The other two, during the ice run became panicky and decided to abandon the station. They lowered their boat which was promptly crushed by the ice.
In desperation, they ripped all the shelving from the quarters, made a flat bottomed “punt” and miraculously made their way over the ice and through the open water between floes to shore.
They recited how the solid caisson was swayed by the ice shove and they feared they would be toppled into the icy water. I thought they were good “life savers.”
Years later, I attended the graduation of our daughter, Kathleen, from Swarthmore College. As we dined with the faculty and some of Kathleen’s close friend graduates, it was somehow announced to the group that I was a veteran of World War I. One of the faculty showed interest. “In what capacity did you serve?” he inquired.
Modestly and with a straight face I replied, “Oh, I fought in the Battle of Chesapeake Bay.” The statement went over “big” without further explanation that the battle was against the ice.
Editor’s Note: This excerpt is taken from "The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer," the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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