Let's Talk Lighthouses
The official blog of Roland Babineau, lighthouse enthusiast, lecturer, and editor of The Cape Cod Store.com's Lighthouse Encyclopedia. Information and comments about the world of lighthouses, their history, and current news.
Friday, May 22, 2009
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Pemaquid Point Lighthouse
And now the voters have spoken. The town will graciously accept thelighthouse when the US Coast Guard offers it to them. Well, that's not how it works, people. The lighthouse has to be formally excessed, which the National Park Service will then add to their notice of availability list. For a period of time, applications will be accepted. The Park Serivce will then review the applications, and grade them accordingly. At that time, the possible applicants will be asked to submit further documentation. In anywhere from six months to a year, or even longer, the decision will be made. And I strongly suspect the American Lighthouse Foundation will come out ahead. A major renovation was undertaken by ALF on the tower this past summer, and the Town of Bristol contributed not one thin dime. Nor have they ever contributed any monies. In fact, they didn't think the lighthouse needed anything at all as far as maintenance.
What do you think? Should the Town of Bristol "own" this tower, like they think they should, or does this historic and beautiful lighthouse belong to all of America?
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The Battle of Point Judith
The northern Atlantic was a dangerous place to be during WWII. Allied merchant ships were at the mercy of German U-boat submarines and many ships and merchant seamen were lost to the roving U-boat attacks. For most of the war years, merchant vessels were forced to travel in convoys, with U. S. warships deployed as escorts in order to abort attacks.
As with any war, technological advances progressed with great speed due to necessity. WWII was no exception. The emergence of such scientific tools as RADAR, SONAR, and LORAN, a very early form of global positioning, as well as other communication advances, made great strides in helping Allied warships detect and destroy large numbers of German U-boats, making the waters around the North American coast a much safer place for merchant ships to travel.
As the war progressed and technological advances emerged, U-boat attacks within the waters between Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine became so scarce, a complacency emerged among many of the merchant marine's vessels. This complacency was further enhanced on May 4, 1945 when Admiral Dönitz, the successor to Adolph Hitler who committed suicide on April 30, declared a cease-fire. The order was sent out to all of the German armies, air force, and naval fleet. A number of the remaining U-boats, however, were submerged at the time of the communication, and were unable to hear the news of the German surrender. Such was the case of U-853.
One week before Hitler's suicide, U-853 was patrolling near the Gulf of Maine when it discovered a lone vessel, the PE-56. A member of a class of patrol craft known as Eagle Boats, the PE-56 was slow and no match for the modern U-boat. 62 men were on board the PE-56 that day. Only 13 survived the U-boat attack.
Upon a court of inquiry, the reason for the sinking was determined to be a boiler explosion, not a submarine attack. The highly secret U-Boat Tracking Room at Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters knew better, but was unable to give testimony at the court of inquiry for fear that the highly classified program would be discovered by the Germans.
Following the attack on PE-56, U-853 headed south along the New England coast, biding its time in search of another easy target. It was during this time, submerged while eluding detection from patrolling U. S. warships, that the unheard cease-fire order was issued.
On the morning of May 5, 1945, the merchant collier SS Black Point was sailing northwest off of Block Island, RI, en route to Boston. Cargo was 7000 tons of coal to be delivered to the Edison Power Plant in South Boston, MA. These waters had been void of U-boat attacks for quite some time, and the captain and crew of the Black Point had no reason to think that this trip would be any more dangerous than countless others they had made previously in this region. In fact, the captain was so confident of the ship's safe passage, that the U-boat lookouts weren't even posted.
At about 5:40 PM, the Black Point was approximately three miles south of the Point Judith lighthouse, and could be seen quite clearly by the lighthouse's lookout. As the lookout was entering the sighting within the lighthouse's logbook, he heard a large explosion. It was at that moment that the Black Point's stern was blown off by a torpedo fired by the U-853.
It took approximately 15 minutes for the Black Point, or what was left of her, to roll on its side and sink completely. Twelve of the Forty-one merchant seamen aboard the ship were killed. Lonnie Whitson Lloyd, a member of the Black Point's crew, was the last American sailor to die in WWII's Atlantic campaign.
Word of the Black Point's sinking spread rapidly. Not far away, the Yugoslavian freighter Kamen witnessed the explosion, and within two minutes a radio message was transported from the Kamen. Risking attack from the submarine, the Kamen immediately changed course and sped to the rescue of the surviving Black Point sailors.
Almost immediately after the explosion, a message was transmitted from the Point Judith Light Station to the 1st Naval District headquarters in Boston, which immediately passed the message on to Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters in New York City. The remnants of an anti-submarine task group, TG 60.7, had left New York at noon that day, headed to the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston for a complete overhaul. The remaining force consisted of destroyer Ericcson, destroyer-escorts Amick and Atherton, and the patrol frigate Moberly. All were diverted to the scene of the attack. Far to the southwest at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, two Navy blimps, K-16 and K-58, were ordered to move immediately toward the site of the Black Point sinking and join in the hunt. They were not to arrive at the scene until approximately 5:40 the next morning.
After patrolling the area and searching for the sub, it was determined that the U-853 had most probably headed south toward a steep shoal known as East Ground, which was approximately 12 miles south of Point Judith and 9 miles from the Black Point's sinking. It was here that many U-boats in the past had gone to in order to avoid detection from American sonar.
Just after 8:00PM, only 2 1/2 hours after the Black Point sinking, the sub was located by the Atherton's sonar operator. At 8:30PM, the captain of the Atherton ordered his crew to commence firing upon the sub. Thirteen magnetic depth charges were dropped into the sea. One explosion was detected, complete with air bubble and an oil slick. It was uncertain if the explosion was caused by a hit on the U-853, or had merely hit a wreck on the bottom of the ocean floor. The Atherton conducted two more attacks within the next three hours, and more explosions and oil and air bubbles were observed, along with some life jackets and pieces of wood and other debris.
Just after midnight on the 6th of May, the Atherton let loose one more barrage of depth charges, resulting in more explosions and debris. At just after 1:00AM, the captain of the Atherton radioed headquarters with confirmation of the kill. The reply from headquarters ordered him to continue the attack.
Perhaps no other warship ever took such a beating as U-853 got that day. The Atherton dropped another barrage of depth charges upon the U-boat, then the Moberly took a turn. Each barrage resulted in more explosions and debris, oil and air bubbles. For good measure, the Moberly dropped one more round of depth charges upon the dead sub.
At 5:30 AM, though no movement was detected, the Moberly delivered one more round of depth charges upon the U-boat's hull. Shortly thereafter, one of the blimps arrived from New Jersey. In order to mark the area, the blimp dropped dye markers and a smoke float. It also informed the warships that no movement was detected.
The Atherton moved in and picked up debris from the scene. Among the items collected were, "German escape lungs and life jackets, several life rafts, abandon-ship kits, and an officer's cap which was later judged to belong to the submarine's skipper."
Undeterred by the evidence, the attack continued. The Ericsson delivered another depth charge attack, followed by rocket bombs which were dropped by the two blimps.
At 6:40AM, the Atherton launched first one, then another attack, followed by yet another depth-charge attack by the Moberly. After a short respite, the Moberly dropped one more barrage upon the sub, followed by another by the Atherton.
At 7:45AM, the Atherton lowered a whaleboat in order to collect more of the debris floating to the surface. It was while lowering the whaleboat that the sole American casualty in the Battle of Point Judith occurred. TM3c Robert A. Griep fractured his left arm and was treated by the ship's medical officer.
At 8:00AM, the task group commander, Cdr. Francis C.B. McCune, radioed Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters that he believed that due to the nature and mass of the recovered debris, the U-boat was destroyed. Not receiving any orders from headquarters to cease and desist, McCune ordered the attack to continue.
The morning which ensued consisted of the warships dropping depth charge barrages, then picking up the scattered debris each round produced. Alternating turns, each ship ship was able to keep its crew in high form while waiting for orders from headquarters to stop the attacks.
Finally, at 12:25PM, the ships received a radio message from Eastern Sea Frontier headquarters to cease the bombing. A marker buoy was placed at a point bearing approximately 099° True, 14,000 yards east of Sandy Point Light on Block Island. The three ships which remained at the scene, the Atherton, the Ericcson, and the Mobley then departed the scene and headed to Boston, reverting back to their earlier mission. The blimps were also redeployed.
The Penguin, a submarine rescue vessel, arrived shortly thereafter to the marked area. Divers from the Penguin determined that the U-583 was indeed lying at the bottom of the ocean, and showed no signs of life. It was also determined that of the 465 depth charges, hedgehog projectiles, and rocket bombs which were launched at the sub, only two were direct hits.
The U-853 remains at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and is a popular site for divers. The crew, with one exception, remains on the boat. The body of one of the German sailors was found floating near the Rhode Island coast and was buried at the Rhode Island Cemetery Annex. On the third Sunday of November 2001, the traditional day upon which German military dead are honored, several German and American naval personnel gathered at the grave site to pay respects to the unknown sailor.
The Battle of Point Judith was the final incident of WWII in the Atlantic. In retrospect, it is a shame that so many lives were lost, including their own, due to the sole fact that a cease-fire radio message was unheard by the crew of the U-853.
*Most of the info for this article was obtained from "The Battle of Point Judith" by Ralph DiCarpio, which appears on the website DE History and Stories.
Sunday, March 9, 2008
Martha's Vineyard Lighthouse Challenge
Gay Head (Acquinnah) Lighthouse:
Sunday, February 24, 2008
It is with great pleasure that I am able to announce our partnership with the American Lighthouse Foundation in their May 16-18 fund raiser, "Spring Spectacular, 2008", taking place in Portsmouth, NH.
The ALF has a fantastic fun and educational weekend planned that has us really excited! Anyone who has even the slightest interest in lighthouses will undoubtedly enjoy the festivities over this weekend!
It all kicks off on Friday, May 16th when, for the first time ever, the ALF will conduct what it hopes to be an annual event, the "Lighthouse Trivia Challenge". Styled after the popular TV game show "Jeopardy" and hosted by ALF's executive director Bob Trapani, Jr and vice-president Jeremy D'Entremont, ALF's resident lighthouse historian, the Trivia Challenge invites players to test their lighthouse knowledge in exchange for great prizes. (Many retailers, including The Cape Cod Store.com, have donated items to the ALF to be given out as prizes.) Prizes for the Trivia Challenge include a stay at The Lighthouse Inn in West Dennis, MA. on Cape Cod. The inn is the site of the historic Bass River Lighthouse.
On Saturday, climb aboard the Isles of Shoals Steamship Company's M/V Thomas Laighton for an unforgettable lighthouse viewing cruise. The ship leaves Portsmouth Harbor at 9:25 AM and cruises past Portsmouth Harbor and White Island lighthouses in New Hampshire, and Whaleback, Boon Island, and Cape Neddick (“Nubble”) in Maine. Also on the agenda will be a number of other historic sites around Portsmouth Harbor. Narrated by Jeremy D'Entremont, this cruise is sure to be informative, as well as scenic, providing for numerous great photo opportunities. Numerous items will be raffled off on the cruise as well, (that's where we come in again!).
On Saturday evening, enjoy a wonderful dinner, then join former lighthouse keeper, broadcast journalist, and author Chris Mills in what should be a very fascinating program detailing his life as a lighthouse keeper and preservationist in Nova Scotia. This should be a fantastic evening as Chris is a wonderful, entertaining speaker whose perspective on the world of lighthouses is different from most lighthouse lecturers.
Also included on Saturday evening will be an overview of the American Lighthouse Foundation and its many chapters. The audience will be able to see exactly what the ALF does for lighthouse preservation, including their current efforts on some of the country's best and least known lighthouses.
The festivities wind down on Sunday with a free tour to all who attend the ALF events of the Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse in Newcastle, NH. Tours of the lighthouse will be conducted by volunteers of the Friends of Portsmouth Harbor Lighthouse, a chapter of ALF.
For more information, or to purchase tickets for one or more of these events, visit the ALF website at
or call the ALF at 207-594-4174.
Don't miss out on what will be a thoroughly enjoying weekend, as well as a chance to support one of the best lighthouse preservation organizations around! See you there!
Sunday, February 3, 2008
Nuclear Powered Lighthouse
The recent developments in North Korea and Iran, as well as other countries throughout the world, have put nuclear reactors and the threat of nuclear war on the front burner.
Just think what could happen if any of these entities were to get their hands on a nuclear powered lighthouse! Think that's far-fetched? Never heard of a nuclear powered lighthouse? Believe it or not, nuclear powered lighthouses have existed in what is now the former Soviet Union. Even the U. S. had, for a time, a nuclear powered lighthouse, as well as a few buoys.
Surprising? Maybe, but during the mid-1960's, the world was a much different place.
Baltimore Lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay was built to mark the entrance to the Baltimore channel at the mouth of the Magothy River. Begun in 1894, the lighthouse wasn't completed and lit until 1908, a full 14 years later!
This became one of the most difficult and challenging aids to navigation the U. S. Government ever undertook. The desired site probes found that there was a full fifty-five feet of soft mud on the floor of the ocean. On top of that, the lighthouse had to be able to withstand 30,000 pounds of ice pressure per square foot during the winter months, 100 MPH winds, and a constant 3MPH current.
The 1894 allotment for this project was for $60,000, and in 1899 tests were conducted to see if a screwpile foundation, common on the Chesepeake with the likes of Thomas Point Shoals, Drum Point, and others, was a feasible option. The test failed miserably and the original allotment was found to be extremely lacking. In 1902, after much haggling and debate, Congress approved an allotment of another $60,000 in order to build a caisson-type "sparkplug" lighthouse.
Bidding for the project was conducted in 1903, and only one bid was received, a full $80,000 more than the budget allowed! The bid was rejected.
The request for more money was sent back to Congress, and another $60,000 was alloted to the project. The original allotment of $60,000 had now tripled to $180,000!
Once again the lighthouse was put out to bid, and once again it received only one bid. This time, the new bid received came in under the alloted budget and was approved.
Construction of the lighthouse was finally begun in 1904. The first section of the 30-foot diameter base was towed to the site from the Lazaretto Lighthouse Depot near Baltimore, MD. Predictions of this being one of the most difficult lighthouse projects to ever be attempted in the country rang true, and very quickly, at that.
Two days after the base piece arrived on scene, high seas filled the inside and tilted it about seven feet. It only had been sunk 8 feet into the ground at that point. Before the base could be righted, a major storm struck the area and caused the base to turn on its side. Exasperated, the contractor abandoned the scene, never to return.
The government sued the contractor, and the insurance company which had bonded him was forced to step in and complete the job. For three years, they attempted to right the base, and finally succeeded in getting it into its proper position and sunk into the shoal the required 82 feet below the high water mark. The remainder of the lighthouse was then built on top of the caisson and completed in 1908.
The lighthouse lived a "normal" life for the next 56 years until 1964, when an experimental nuclear reactor was installed. The strontium-90, (a radioactive isotope), reactor was described as being "smaller than a 55-gallon drum" and was expected to power the lighthouse for ten years without maintenance or refueling. It was activated on May 21, 1964.
Perhaps the reason why the nuclear reactor was installed was the fact that the government was given it, at no cost. A company which was researching and developing nuclear reactors for various applications paid for the reactor and installation, with the stipulation that it could conduct tests on the feasability of its use. The same company also paid for reactors in a number of buoys, oil rigs, and on an Antarctic weather station.
By 1966, the reactor had been removed from the lighthouse. Citing "environmental impact issues", (more likely cost was the major factor for discontinuing the reactor, as the issuing company stipulated that at the end of the test period, the government would have to buy the reactor and assume all costs). The lighthouse then reverted back to a conventional power source.
Can you imagine what the impact would be in today's world if the Baltimore Lighthouse remained nuclear powered? Also, what damage to the environment would have occured? Also noteworthy would be the fact that if the Baltimore Lighthouse was successful as a nuclear powered structure, would that mean that others would also be converted to nuclear power? If lighthouses were successfully powered by nuclear reactors, would that lead to other type structures? (Don't forget, there were a few buoys which were nuclear powered as well at that time. Thankfully, those were only test sites as well and now have more conventional and safer power sources). Makes one wonder what almost was......
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The "American Army of Two"
Approximately 15 miles north of the historic settlement of Plymouth, the town of Scituate, Ma. was settled in 1627 by members of Plymouth Colony. By the late 1700's, Scituate had a thriving fishing fleet and a growing population.
By the early 1800's, the local mariners petitioned the town selectmen for a lighthouse to mark the entrance of Scituate Harbor. Due to shallow areas and mud flats, the harbor could be treacherous to enter, especially in foul weather, without the aid of a lighthouse to show the way. The selectmen referred the problem to their local congressional representative, and federal funds were appropriated in 1810 to build a lighthouse at the entrance to the harbor.
The Scituate Lighthouse, pictured above, was completed in 1811 and put into service in April of 1812. Simeon Bates, a local ship captain, was assigned the job of keeper, and moved into the adjacent keeper's house with his wife and nine children.
These were treacherous times in America. The War of 1812 had broken out, and many towns along the coast were plundered and burned by British warships. In early June of 1814, the harbor of Scituate was attacked, and although they didn't make landfall, ten fishing vessels were burned by the British.
Upon the British attack, the local militia was called out to stand guard over the town in the event of another Redcoat visit. Sentinels were placed at the lighthouse, as well as other strategic spots within town, with the expectation that the British would soon return.
As summer wore on, there was no sign of the British. The lighthouse sentinels befriended the Bates family, especially daughters Rebecca, (age 21), and Abigail, (conflicting sources place her age somewhere between 15 and 17). Abigail was taught how to play the drums, and could replicate the different military signals, and Rebecca was taught four different military songs on the fife, of which "Yankee Doodle" was the one she felt she did especially well.
After months of no British activity, the militia was slowly called back from their posts. By late summer, all of the sentinels, including the ones at the lighthouse, were no longer posted.
It was on one of these late summer days, when Simeon Bates was away from the lighthouse, during one of his frequent trips to town, that the British returned. Remaining at the lighthouse were only Rebecca, Abigail, and their mother. As Rebecca was beginning to prepare the evening meal, she spotted through the kitchen window the British frigate HMS Bulwark anchored outside the harbor. Running to the top of the lighthouse to get a better look, she and Abigail saw first one, then a second barge filled with Redcoats being lowered from the ship and headed toward the harbor.
Memories of the earlier British attack were still in the girls' memories. Knowing that once again what was left of the town's fishing vessels were in danger of being destroyed, let alone the town itself, brought great trepidation to the Bates girls. Also to consider were the two cargo ships which lay anchor in the harbor, their holds filled with flour. Food was scarce at this juncture of the war, and the flour would be just as coveted by the British soldiers as it was by the townfolk.
Knowing that the girls could never get to town quick enough to warn the citizens, Rebecca had to think fast to try to save the town. The girls ran back down the stairs of the tower and to a storeroom, where the sentinels had left their muskets. Considering the action of using the muskets to fire upon the British, Rebecca quickly dismissed the idea because she knew that not only were they outnumbered greatly by the soldiers, but that would also draw cannon fire to the lighthouse from the warship. Quickly considering other plans of action, she came upon another idea.
Rebecca and Abigail grabbed their drum and fife from the storeroom, and ran as quickly as they could to the water's edge. Hiding behind a grove of trees near the beach, Rebecca instructed Abigail to play "Roll Call" on her drums, while she fervently belted out "Yankee Doodle" on her fife. The girls played as loudly as they could, and the sound drifted upon the approaching British.
Looking through the thickets and trees, the girls could see that the British in both barges had stopped rowing. "Could it be that they've heard us?", Rebecca thought to herself, and played her fife with even more spirit than before. Indeed, not only the sailors in the barges heard the girls, but those on the frigate as well. Not able to see who was actually playing the instruments, the British assumed that the local militia had been alerted to their arrival and was gathering to meet them. A signal appeared from the frigate, and the men on the barges turned around and returned to the ship. It wasn't long afterwards that the frigate raised its anchor and left Scituate for the open sea.
Recounting the story years later, Rebecca was adamant that the story was true, despite the fact that there were a number of "naysayers" which scoffed at the idea. Upon review by many local historians, although the story hasn't been 100% corroborated, many believe it to be the truth.