Of all the 1000s of personnel who served in the United States Lighthouse Service, perhaps the least recognized for their invaluable service and courage in the face of adverse conditions were those who served on lighthouse tenders. Without the tenders, few lighthouses, particularly those offshore, would have been able to exist. No construction materials would have been delivered to build them, no keepers would have been transported to man them, and no provisions or supplies would have been brought to sustain them.
In the 13th lighthouse district of the Pacific Coast (later renamed the 17th district), the lighthouse tenders were the life blood to isolated stations such as Oregon’s Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, Washington’s Destruction Island Lighthouse, and many of the Alaskan Island lighthouses. The lighthouse keepers came to rely on the tenders provisioning visits for their daily survival. Even many of the onshore stations would not have been able to exist without their help because of the difficulties of the remote land approaches and the geography of rocky precipices where the lighthouses had to be built in order to have the best focal plane for viewing the light from sea.
The arrival of the tender was a much-anticipated event at every lighthouse station. It meant fresh food, letters from home, and the chance for someone to go on liberty for a few weeks. In a letter written from Tillamook Rock Lighthouse head keeper Robert Gerlof to former keeper Orlo E. Hayward who had transferred to a shore station, he reminded him, “You know how it is out here, no excitement, only every month getting stirred up when the tender comes around.”
It was always a great disappointment when the tender was delayed due to inclement weather. Sometimes it became a real worry when food was running short. Orlo Hayward once told his children that the keepers were down to some beef jerky, a can of salmon, and some crackers before the tender could resupply them.
During the construction of Destruction Island Lighthouse, the crew was reduced to digging clams for every meal to have something to eat because the tender had not returned to reprovision them as promised. In their desperation, they had to set up a signal fire to attract the attention of local Indians to come to their rescue so they wouldn’t starve.
When emergencies happened at these isolated lights, such as sickness, accidents, or the occasional case of insanity, the lighthouse tender would brave any seas to get there as quickly as possible to render the vital assistance. The October, 1934 storm and subsequent rescue of sick keepers from Tillamook Rock Lighthouse were good examples of the tender’s response in extremely hazardous conditions. It took a good deal of daring, as well as skill, for the crew to risk their own lives in saving others.
The Oregon-based district lighthouse tenders were also involved in many at-sea rescues of stranded or sinking craft, freeing vessels that were icebound, or providing transport and refuge for people on land during events such as fires. At the time of the great 1936 Bandon fire that annihilated the town, the tender Rose became a transport of escape and refuge as it picked people up off the shore and carried them to the safety of the lighthouse.
In a 1922 fire that destroyed Astoria, Oregon’s business district, it was the tender Manzanita that offered the much-needed assistance. The tender became a movable fire truck along the waterfront in the Columbia River, using their pumping systems and hoses to keep the flames from jumping buildings and destroying the entire waterfront. These hoses were normally used to provide potable water to off-shore lighthouse stations during normal supply runs.
Both of the district lighthouse tenders Rose and Manzanita were used during the severe Columbia river freeze in January and February of 1930 to free icebound ships and deliver mail and other survival supplies to smaller upriver communities, such as Cathlamet and Skamokawa, Washington. Without these tenders acting as ice-breakers and supply ships, all commerce would have stopped and perhaps people would have starved in these small isolated towns that relied so heavily on river transport for their vital necessities in order to exist.
But most of all, the tenders provided the rotational maintenance of the 100s of unmanned aids to navigation, such as the buoys that marked river entrances and channels. The work they performed in maintaining these necessary markers was just as important as the beacons shining from high atop the lighthouses that gave warning to keep mariners safe.
Without the district tenders to service these buoys, repair, position, and replace them, there would have been many more shipwrecks, particularly along the stretch known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific” that extended for many miles in either direction off the Columbia River bar entrance. At times it was dangerous duty for the crews of the tenders to have to go out in rough seas to repair or recover a buoy that had lost its mooring, and in at least one case, it resulted in death.
On March 22, 1916 three members of the lighthouse tender Manzanita’s crew lost their lives when the smaller whaleboat they had launched overturned as they were attaching lines to tow the south channel gas buoy that had broken away in the gale the night before just inside Peacock Spit. The intensity of the breakers in the area made it impossible to save them. Their bodies were never recovered.
The crews of the lighthouse tenders were valiant men, willing to brave any seas in order to get the necessary job done. It is sad that they have been largely ignored in the annals of lighthouse service history. While their captains and officers received notoriety in newspapers and reports, it is rare that names of seamen assigned to these vessels are mentioned at all, or given the credit that they deserve. They had just as much at stake as any who served aboard a tender, and in many cases had the most difficult jobs to do.
A full-page 1904 newspaper article in the Sunday Oregonian lauded the efforts of the 13th district tenders and their crews for their “ceaseless vigilance on the part of the force under the inspector, Commander C.G. Calkins, U.S.N., to keep all aids to navigation on such a great expanse of coast in proper condition.” The 13th district was the largest of the 16 United States Lighthouse Service districts, overseeing a reported 160 lighthouses and beacon lights, two lightships, 48 beacons, 18 fog-signals and 302 buoys. That was an incredible amount of work for just three tenders, the Manzanita, Columbine, and Heather, to service and maintain at that time.
Their captains were all seasoned lighthouse tender career men who ended up serving decades aboard these tenders up to their retirement. In 1904, Captain Patrick Byrne was on the tender Manzanita, Captain Charles Richardson on the tender Columbine, and Captain William Gregory was in charge of the newest tender Heather, built in 1903. All these men were well-known and greatly respected throughout the district.
The article mentioned that these captains were “acquainted with every rock above or below the water, up and down the coast, and they are past masters of the art of managing their craft in choppy or tempestuous seas. To approach a lighthouse which is built upon a dangerous rock or coast, around which the breakers give warning, is a difficult thing to do.” Yet, they moved throughout the district visiting these places many times a year in the performance of their regular duties, regardless of less than ideal conditions.
In addition to the work of the tenders, the article also highlighted the services offered by the 13th district lighthouse depot, located at Tongue Point, just upriver from Astoria, Oregon. “Here all the materials and supplies for the maintenance of this district are kept and the old buoys are taken here to have the barnacles scraped from them and to receive new coats of paint. The oil for the many lights used is stored here also, and lamps and lanterns are kept on hand to supply any which might become deficient.”
It was here that the tenders came whenever they needed maintenance or repairs, as well as to get supplies necessary to service the lighthouses. There is still a buoy depot located at Tongue Point, Oregon today where the current Coast Guard buoy tenders come. Buoys line the piers and storage yards and tenders are docked on the piers. It hasn’t changed all that much in the over 120 years it has been in operation.
As long as there are aids to navigation of any type, there will always be the need for tenders to service them. They are a vital part of the Coast Guard’s continuing efforts to protect mariners and vessels on the rivers, channels, lakes, and seas. Their proud heritage should be recognized more fully, and their vessels and crews should receive more credit for all they have done to service the maritime community, whether 100 years ago or today.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2018 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.
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