An exciting offer of advancement in the Lighthouse Service came to me September 7, 1920: Superintendent of Lighthouses of the Ninth Lighthouse District in the West Indies, with the district office in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and this offer was received only a few months after our move to the new home in Linthicum Heights.
I made it a principle, concurred by Miriam, “Never turn down an offer of advancement, no matter where.” The obstacles to be overcome in this move were abundant, but the family seemed to thrive in the efforts. The whole office force congratulated me on my good fortune, but the new house had to be sold and I had not time to handle the deal.
Johnson, my very able assistant, offered to act as salesman for the property in my absence which finally netted me a loss of over $1000. We sold our furniture to a second-hand dealer. It was in great demand at the time, even the “knock down” pieces after ten years of use. All netted us a nice profit. I have never bought a house since though I should have done so.
The immediate problem was: how best to get to San Juan? The country and the Lighthouse Service were suffering from the aftereffects and disorganization caused by the War. The Shipping Board with a great mass of surplus war-time freighters on its hands, was starting a freight service from Baltimore to San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The Bureau of Lighthouses secured passage for me and my family on the first run of this freight line to be made by the freighter, Lake Ellerslie (built in the Great Lakes, September 1919, length 254 feet, beam 44 feet, draft loaded 24 feet), a very small ocean vessel indeed. The ship was outfitting for this trip at Curtis Bay, about 10 miles below Baltimore. The sailing date was fixed and the vessel was supposed to carry 10 passengers in addition to cargo.
The lighthouse tender, Laurel, took the Dillons and some of their household effects and the whole Fifth District office force from the Baltimore dock to the Lake Ellerslie on a going-away party. It was a happy, notable affair. The family and furniture were put aboard the Lake Ellerslie. As the tender saluted and backed off amid the waving of goodbyes, I soon had an inkling that something was wrong with the voyage.
The post-War disorganization of the Shipping Board displayed itself at once. The watchman onboard received the family, but knew nothing about the sailing date. No captain nor crew was aboard. No staterooms were designated. Scott and I and three-year old Merrill preempted a stateroom on the upper deck, labeled “Sick Bay” with three bunks in it. Miriam and Kathleen made themselves as comfortable as possible in the captain’s cabin behind the pilot house, with a bathroom adjacent.
Later in the day, a motorboat drew alongside. Captain Johansen and a motley crew, including, (thank goodness), a cook, came aboard. The captain, a very able navigator and level-headed skipper, sensed the situation and took his belongings to the chart room where there was a bunk. The galley was hastily put in commission by the cook, after a fashion.
The next day, provisions and stores appeared. Orders came to the captain to dry dock the vessel to change propellers, but the captain had those orders countermanded. He was a calm and resourceful seaman. A fuel oil barge came alongside to fill the bunkers. The fuel line parted on main deck, making an indescribable mess, before the pump could be stopped.
After a couple more days corralling provisions, fuel, water, some more crew, and sailing orders and remaining passengers, including an American school teacher and a salesman, the razzle-dazzle Lake Ellerslie plowed down Chesapeake Bay on her 1400-mile, ten-day trip to Puerto Rico.
This excerpt is taken from “Lighthouse Engineer: January 9, 1918 to September 7, 1920” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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