Digest>Archives> September 2002

I Was A Teenage Lighthouse Keeper

By Tom Serres


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Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay was the site of many lighthouses, that were called screwpiles. My lighthouse was located on a sand bar, that extended from Holland Island, a body of land to our north. Holland Island once consisted of over 360 acres and was the home of several hundred individuals called watermen. To date, the island is now comprised of only 80 acres and has broken up into three sections. This was caused by the tides and currents that gnawed at the island over the decades.

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As the sand bar was a menace to shipping in Holland and Kedges Straits it was necessary to build a lighthouse to help shipping and watermen avoid running aground. Thus, Holland Island Bar Light Station was born in 1889. My home for two years died in 1960 when it was demolished and replaced with a beacon by the U. S. Coast Guard. The same screwpiles that supported Holland Island Light remain the foundation for the beacon.

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Screwpile type lighthouses were lightweight and consisted of up to nine rooms including dormers and a cupola, which was accessible by a spiral staircase. The cupola housed the famous Fresnel lenses that increased the range of the fixed light up to 13 miles. The legs, or piles, were equipped with corkscrew flanges, much like augers, and were literally screwed into the soft mud and sandy bottom of certain parts of the massive bay. They were designed to support a structure of this magnitude, and withstood the bay’s sometimes high velocity winds and winter ice floes with the help of a pile of rocks in nine feet of water for decades. The rocks, which we affectionately called simply “The Rock,” helped to break up the ice in the winter. Only one, Thomas Point, still stands in its original site. I believe that Thomas Point is the only screwpile type light that boasts having four dormers. The others, like Holland Island Light, had two. Some had only one.

Here’s my epic tale of the trials and tribulations of an unsung Coast Guardsman’s two-year tour on Holland Island Light. I was only 19. Dammit! Where did the time go? I was one of four poor souls who had manned this lighthouse. The years were 1950 to 1952.

Actually, it was in the spring of 1950 when I arrived at the Crisfield, Maryland dock at the foot of West Main Street. The day was overcast while I waited for the 25-foot, 4500-pound motor launch to pick me up. Also, it was Sunday, and the town was just recovering from a wild Eastern Shore Saturday night. Earlier that morning I attended a local Baptist church, there to meet some decent folks and make my presence felt as a new Coastie on the block, or, if you will, on the bay. Actually, I attended church that day to pray for this new assignment to disappear and allow me to return to Norfolk, Virginia, from whence I came. Any ship or place for that matter would have been better. No! Far better.

As I sat at the dock, the boat arrived, I began to get a little apprehensive. Woe is me, I said to myself, as Bill Smelser, a third class engineman, introduced himself. Being kind of awkward I asked him how the duty was aboard the lighthouse. He told me that I would have to remain out there for 30 days before I’d get to come ashore for my monthly six-day compensatory liberty. Geez! I said to myself. Thirty days. Comp time was time off without being charged with annual leave and gave us 72 days away from the station each year. You didn’t have to be a mathematician to realize that those six days coupled with our monthly two and a half days of authorized leave came to eight and a half days a month. Wow! Off 112 days a year. Now if I could only figure out how to get off those remaining 253 days.

Fortunately for me we were to remain in Crisfield overnight to pick up provisions for the other crewmen. We were each allocated 70 dollars a month on which to subsist. In those days Crisfield had a “blue” law and most businesses were closed on Sunday. Except for the bars.

Most of the time only two of the crew remained on the light. At that time, however, Tom Jones (yes, that was his name), the officer-in-charge, was enjoying his comp time at home in Norfolk, Virginia. Buzz France, a seaman first class who was from Baltimore, Md., remained on the light. Bill was from San Antonio and was a long way from home. And me? I was from Brooklyn, N. Y., about seven hours away. The three of us were 19 and unmarried. I think Jones, who was also single was in his 30’s but appeared older.

Monday morning presented us with a beautiful sunrise. This made the lighthouse assignment a little easier to digest. Gloomy weather made me feel, well, gloomy. We hiked up town to the only sizeable market in town. We passed Crisfield’s only mountain, a pile of oyster shells, which consisted of a million bushels. Next, we passed Kenny Sterling’s bar, which was the favorite watering hole of most of the townspeople. We at the lighthouse liked it too. Then we passed the Crisfield post office, where we picked up our monthly pay and subsistence checks. Our base pay was a mere $120 a month.

The market wasn’t as big as a marginal deli in Brooklyn and a far cry from today’s supermarkets. Here Bill purchased all kinds of foodstuffs, mostly canned goods. I found out later that we would subsist on Velveeta cheese most of the time, because that’s what my new shipmate bought more of. After loading the boat with our new purchases of grub, we got underway and headed west for parts unknown to me.

The boat, which we called “Henrietta,” couldn’t get out of her own way. She was powered by a four-cylinder, 54 horsepower Gray Machine engine, which barely pushed us along at eight knots, if that. Her screw (prop) was large enough to move a dreadnaught. The trip, nearly 15 miles, would take us at least two hours, weather permitting.

It was unusual for this vast and unpredictable bay to remain calm for the entire trip, but it did. Suddenly a silhouette of a lighthouse came into view. I asked Bill whether this was Holland Island Light. He chuckled and said no. Our destination was still five miles away. The lighthouse we were approaching was called Solomon’s Lump. Solomon’s Lump? I asked myself. Who in hell would call a lighthouse Solomon’s Lump?

We were five miles away from the sand bar and Holland Island Bar Light Station. Land seemed so far away and hidden in the haze of a still, mirror-like body of water. It was then I spotted the stilted, spidery-legged lighthouse, which turned out to be a nine-room house, complete with two dormers. The house was mounted atop seven screwpiles all bolted together to form a foundation for this fortress. This place is akin to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana. From here, there is no escape.

We slowly approached the davits and Bill flawlessly hooked up to the boat falls while Buzz operated the four-stroke cycle gasoline engine that lifted us out of the water. My lighthouse adventure was about to begin. But first the three of us pigged out on thickly sliced Velveeta cheese sandwiches. After surviving the first couple of weeks and learning much of the routine of “keeping” a lighthouse, I began to settle down. I wasn’t alone at this Godforsaken place. Bill and Buzz were close to my age and they weren’t complaining. At least to me they weren’t. Bill was more or less in charge of the machinery, e.g., generators, compressors, boat engine and the devices used to lift the boat from the bay. He was also the second ranking man next to Tom. Tom was a second class boatswain’s mate who was a World War II veteran and it showed. He had been in the thick of the war in the Pacific and went through hell. We, Bill, Buzz and 1, were much younger, but we understood what he had gone through. The three of us grew up in America during the war and witnessed the years of rationing, blackouts and air raid drills. Tom was okay, and he allowed us to run things most of the time.

We only utilized the rooms downstairs. The most important was the engine room and we kept it spotlessly clean. It was here that the heart of the lighthouse was located. The engine room housed the bell mechanism and a couple of Hercules generators that provided power for the entire house. The generators were operated daily and were hooked up in series to a group of Edison wet cell batteries. The batteries were easily maintained simply by adding distilled water periodically. Each morning we were required to ascend the spiral staircase to the Fresnel tower to pull down the opaque shades. This prevented the magnifying properties of the lenses from causing a fire and burning the wooden structure. The shades were raised at dusk before the 100-watt incandescent bulb was lit.

The fog signal was used as necessary, and was powered by a couple of Hercules gasoline fired compressors. When the fog rolled in and the light couldn’t be seen by Chesapeake Bay shipping, then we would activate the fog signal. At times the horn would bellow for days on end, as much as five straight days. The noise from the compressors didn’t help much either. When the fog lifted (fog never, ever rolls out) and we turned off the horn, complete silence ensued. Needless to say, it was almost impossible to sleep because of the complete quiet and stillness. We never utilized the bell, which was our third mode and final aid to navigation. The bell was wound, much like a clock, and we only heard it ring during a test period.

Four huge 200-gallon cisterns, one in each room, stored the rainwater that fell on the metal roof and was guided to the reservoirs by a series of gutters. I don’t remember the tanks being completely full or overflowing. And I don’t recollect ever having cleaned them. Each tank had a spigot that was located about a foot from the bottom of the wooden vat. This prevented us from siphoning the sediment from the bottom, e.g., seagull excrement. The rainwater was excellent for washing our hair and for bathing and cooking. bottled water was nonexistent in those days, so before we drank it we had to boil it first.

A great deal of the time was spent in the kitchen with our ears glued to a battery operated portable radio. We listened to shows like Red Skelton, The Great Gildersleeve, Gangbusters and most of the radio shows produced in the early fifties. The Baltimore Group, whose call sign was NAN NUKE NAN, and which was next in our chain of command, provided us with enough dry cell batteries to get us through months of radio entertainment. Heaven forbid should a battery go dead in the middle of one of our favorite radio programs. There were times when we thought of appearing on What’s My Line, a popular show at that time. Who would guess that three skinny, pimply faced, snot nosed kids were lighthouse keepers? We didn’t have an unkempt white beard, or a peg-leg. Shoot! We didn’t even wear yellow oil slicks. And we often wondered how those olden day geezers managed their way up and down that horrid spiral staircase to maintain the light and polish the Fresnel lenses. Our call sign was NAN MIKE NAN 18. I guess we were given that number because we were eighteenth in the chain of lighthouses that dotted the Chesapeake.

After a while I didn’t have time for my life in the lighthouse to fill me with loneliness, boredom and monotony. There was so much to do but no one to push you. You wanted to do your chores to keep from getting bored. There were times when only two of the crew were left on station, and on rare occasions, only one. Bill spent most of his off duty time in Crisfield and much of the time he would cut his comp time in half and return to the light. If you remember, Bill was from San Antonio, Tex., and was a long way from home.

If you’ve ever read about lighthouses that were supposedly haunted, you may have heard about Ulman Owens. Mr. Owens, as we and other keepers called him over the years, served on Holland Island Bar Light Station. He also was assigned to Hoopers Strait Light Station as an assistant keeper around 1924. Not much is known about where he came from or if he was a Crisfielder, Tangier Islander or Smith Islander. The story has it that Owens was murdered there in 1931. Cripes! That’s the year I was born.

It didn’t help much to hear the structure’s moaning and groaning, eager to avoid capsizing during a typical winter storm. It seems as though the noise intensified when we talked about Mr. Owens while we huddled around the Florence oil heater in the dead of winter. It didn’t help much either, when the bay would freeze over and the ice made gnashing, grinding sounds as it passed under the main deck and amplified as the ice pushed against the steel piles. Mr. Owens’ name came up many times and made good conversation. We talked about when and how he died and how they found his nude body in his bedroom. A bloodied knife was found but there were no stab wounds, only a few bruises on the body. During Prohibition lots of keepers would ignore the goings on of the rumrunners. Owens may have come on to something illegal and was terminated by the yeggs who were making deliveries. Most locals still believe that’s what happened.

It was a crisp, clear winter night and the wind felt as if it was blowing a gale. The four of us were marooned on the light due to an unusual accumulation of ice on the bay. We were forbidden to lower the Henrietta or attempt to go ashore when the bay was iced over. It would have been a threat to both the boat and the crew. The boat was not heated and there was always a chance of stalling or being stuck fast in the ice. The crew, without the engine running, could have frozen to death. At that time of the year the bay was void of oystermen and crabbers. The Henrietta had no radio or other method of communication. We were, like I stated, marooned.

As we finished listening to our favorite programs on our Philco radio, we decided to bring our bunks into the kitchen to be nearer the space heater. The wind was still howling outside and the structure moaned and groaned even more. We turned off the kitchen light and proceeded to go to sleep, confident that the harsh winds would keep the fog away. During the wee hours of the morning I felt my blanket being pulled down to the foot of my bunk. It was dark, and at first I thought one of the guys was pulling a prank. I pulled the covers, which were pure wool and had the USLHS logo woven into them, back up around my neck. The same thing happened. Someone was playing a trick on me. Slowly I made my way out of my bunk and edged my way across the room towards the light switch. I flicked on the switch and quickly checked on the three other bunks. The others were fast asleep. I woke each of them and told them what had happened. No one disputed me because strange things happened to them in the past as well. Could it have been that the blanket I was trying to wrest away from that stranger in the night belonged to the ghost of Mr. Owens? The following morning brought a gleaming sunlight through the windows. The winds were calm. My nerves weren’t. While making up my bunk I noticed a name stenciled on the bottom right comer of the blanket. Although the name was faded it was still legible. It read: U. Owens.

My kid brother, Mack, was only 11 years of age when he visited me on the lighthouse and quickly adapted himself to the daily routines of a keeper. It was his job to lower the shades in the Fresnel tower and he would raise them at dusk.

Mack was really a delight to have aboard and he soon became second banana to the cruel punishment we subjected him to. Like the time we pre-set the bell to go off at a time we were all gathered in the kitchen. It was adjusted to go off just after telling him about the demise of Mr. Owens, the keeper in 1931. The story about Mr. Owens is true.

Another hilarious time, for us, not for him, is when we hung him over the side only inches from the water. Just beneath the surface was a giant drum fish feasting on the marine growth that covered the piles. The night was eerie, with little or no moonlight, and the fish gave off a phosphorescence effect and glowed beneath the water. He saw the lighted fish and it really didn’t faze him, that is, until we told him it was a great white shark. We always hauled him back up before his pre-teen heart gave out.

Still another time we locked him in a closet leading to the spiral staircase. He easily escaped by carving his way around the secured latch with his trusty Boy Scout knife. Perhaps the cruelest thing we had ever put him through is when we tied him to the officer in charge’s bunk. At the time the OIC was home on leave. Eventually we untied Mack, but only after he promised to do the dishes that night. And, oh, did I forget to tell you? We convinced him that the bunk to which he was tied was also the bunk in which Mr. Owens was found murdered.

Mack matured a great deal that summer, that’s for sure. When he came of age, he too, enlisted in what he terms “the real Coast Guard.” He earned the rate of boatswain’s mate third class and served four years. In a recent E-mail from Mack, he remarked that he always smelled fresh paint on the light. “I don’t know why that comes to mind,” he said, “because I never saw anyone turn to (work) while I was out there.” He also told me that allowing me to take the Henrietta to Crisfield was like giving Geronimo a Gatling gun. I wonder what he meant by that remark.

Personnel at each lighthouse anywhere were required to keep a daily log and we were no different. The only communication we had with the mainland was by way of a radiotelephone. Each day we would transcribe notices to mariners that covered an area from Block Island, Rhode Island to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. A great deal of time was spent trying to hear our messages over the static. Most of the time we would relay our messages through Point Lookout, which was across the bay. Our log included who was on comp liberty and who was manning the light. Sometimes we exaggerated a little. Our log was the greatest piece of fiction you ever read. I’m sure the Group office in Baltimore knew this but they always looked the other way, mainly because of our semi-isolation.

While spending some off time in Crisfield, a visiting keeper from a nearby lighthouse would often approach us and had a premonition that we, too, were keepers. Naturally he would blink his light’s characteristics and we’d answer him back with ours. We never, ever, embarrassed each other by asking which lighthouse we were from. For example, we were an occulting light and his was flashing. No, he was not an exhibitionist. Of course this is an old lighthouse tale and was only meant to be amusing.

Disclaimer: The story about someone tugging on my blanket during the wee hours is true. It really happened. However, the part about the stenciled name, U. Owens, was added for effect. There was a faded stencil on the right comer of the blanket but it read: Made in America.

This story appeared in the September 2002 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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