The Fire Island Lightships

BY ROBERT G. MULLER One aspect of lighthouse history that is often overlooked is the contributions of lightships. These "manned buoys" played an important role in our lighthouse heritage, and duty aboard them was generally ...

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BY ROBERT G. MULLER

One aspect of lighthouse history that is often overlooked is the contributions of lightships. These "manned buoys" played an important role in our lighthouse heritage, and duty aboard them was generally harsher than that at lighthouses. Harsh weather, isolation, and collisions with ships were some of the unsavory aspects of life aboard a lightship. Several have been stationed around the Long Island, New York area, perhaps the most notable of these having been stationed in the Atlantic Ocean off of Fire Island.

The Fire Island lighthouse had been scheduled to receive a first order bivalve lens in the mid-1890s. The lens had been on exhibit in Chicago in 1893. Shortly thereafter, a local Long Island newspaper announced that this powerful "lightning lens" was going to come to Fire Island, and that preparations were underway to electrify the lighthouse. This lens would have made Fire Island the most powerful lighthouse in the nation. The decision was made, in the middle of the preparations, to send the lens to the Twin Lights at Navesink instead. The lens still resides there and has been the subject of a recent restoration.

The importance of the Fire Island light station, which had made it the first consideration for the powerful bivalve lens, still warranted some means of increasing the effectiveness of the station. That increased effectiveness would come in the form of a lightship stationed about 40 miles east of the entrance to New York Harbor.

Light Vessel (LV) 68 was ordered built, to be stationed off of Fire Island. $80,000 was appropriated for the project. There was a delay in the building of LV68, though, so it would not become the first lightship on the new station.

LV58 was put on station at Fire Island in 1896. The Craig Shipbuilding Company of Toledo, Ohio had built the steel-hulled ship in 1893 at a cost of $50,870. It was 121'10" long, with a beam of 28'6" and a draft of 12 feet. Its gross tonnage was 449. LV58's one cylinder steam engine used a four-bladed propeller to a speed of 7.5 knots; it was also rigged for sail. Two steels masts held the lanterns that cast fixed white light from oil lamps out to mariners from 39 feet above sea level. Prior to its Fire Island duty, LV58 had been stationed at Nantucket Shoals from 1894-96. When LV 58 left Fire Island in 1897, it became a relief vessel in Massachusetts until being sunk by a storm December 10, 1905. While at Fire Island, the ship was tended by David H. Caulkins, Master, and Charles E. Acorn, Mate.

LV68 took over the station for which it had been built in 1897. It was built at a cost of $74,750 in Bath, Maine. Its two lanterns, at a height of 57 feet, cast out fixed white light from clusters of three 100-candlepower electric lamps (these would be changed to acetylene in 1920, then back to electric in 1928) for 13 miles. LV68's composite hull (steel frame, wood bottom, steel plate topsides) was 122'10" long, with a beam of 28'6", with a draft of 12'6" and a displacement of 590 tons. Its one-cylinder steam engine moved the ship along at 8.5 knots with a four-bladed propeller - it was also rigged for sail. LV68 was equipped for fog, with a 12" steam chime whistle and a hand operated 1000-pound bell.

On December 5, 1902, LV68 lost its anchor and chain in a storm. It steamed to Staten Island for replacements and was towed back the next day. Four months later the anchor and chain were recovered. On January 14, 1904, 68 once again lost her chain. The ship once again steamed to Staten Island, then was towed back.

While LV68 was at Fire Island, it was twice hit by ships. On May 8, 1916, the SS Philadelphian rammed it and, on March 30, 1924, it was hit by the SS Castillian. Both times, 68 had to be taken off station to be repaired, but it returned to duty when repairs were complete.

In 1921, 68 was equipped with a radio beacon. This most well-known of the Fire Island lightships was stationed at Fire Island until 1930, when it left to be a relief ship for the Third District for the last two years of its working life.

LV68 was manned by the following men during its time at Fire Island: David H. Caulkins, Master (1897-1902), Henry Harrison, Master (1902-1903), Julius Ortman, Mate (?-1918), Samuel J. Mumford, Mate (1918), Arthur Bruggerman, Mate (1918-1922), John Gunderson, Mate (1922-?), Frank F. Seastedt, Master.

In 1930, Fire Island received another brand new lightship. This time, it was the $228,121 steel-hulled LV114. 114 was built in Portland, Oregon, by Albina Marine Works, as a sister ship to LVs 100,113,115,116, and 117. It was 133'3" long, displacing 630 tons with a beam of 30 feet and a draft of 13'3". It could average nine knots using its 350HP diesel electric motor. It cast light from two electric 375mm lanterns at a height of 57 feet. An air diaphone and hand operated bell provided the fog signal.

From 1930 to 1937, Arthur Bruggerman was the ship's Master, and Kolb Skari its Mate. LV114 (also known as WAL-536) served at Fire Island until the lightship station was discontinued in 1942. From 1942-45, it was an Examination Vessel. In 1945, it was stationed at Diamond Shoal, NC. In 1947, LV114 became a relief vessel for offshore lightships in the First Coast Guard District. During 1956-57, Ken Black, of Shore Village Museum fame, was its commander. LV114 spent 1958-69 at Pollock Rip, Massachusetts and 1969-71 at Portland, Maine. It was decommissioned November 5, 1971, after 41 years of service. At that time, the Coast Guard intended to use it as a floating museum, but it ended up as a museum at New Bedford, Massachusetts, with NEW BEDFORD painted in white on the red hull (there has never been a real New Bedford lightship station). LV114 is now one of only fifteen remaining American lightships, and is open to the public.

The Fire Island lightship station was unmarked from 1942 to 1945. A buoy was then stationed at the position of the old lightships.

Although there were three different ships stationed at Fire Island from 1896 to 1942, they were similar in appearance while on station at Fire Island: red hulls with "FIRE ISLAND" in white. LV68 also had the number 68 painted on the hull. And all three had two masts.
Lightships, such as those at Fire Island, may not have gained the notoriety or romance of lighthouses, but they remain an important part of our lighthouse heritage. The technologies, hardships and human efforts involved in building and maintaining them should not be forgotten.

More information about lightships can be found at http://www.MaritimeMan.com/lightships.htm and http://www.uscg.mil/hq/g-cp/history/h_lightships.html

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Robert G. Muller, author of "Long Island's Lighthouses: Past and Present," was the Founding President of the Long Island Chapter of the US Lighthouse Society, and is its current Historian and Preservation Coordinator. He is the creator of the LongIslandLighthouses.com web site and a volunteer at several area lighthouses. Bob conducts lectures on the lighthouse history of Long Island, narrates cruises, leads tours, and has written articles for magazines and newspapers. He has been featured in Newsday and Long Island Boating World, quoted in the New York Times, and appears in the Long Island Lighthouses program that appeared on News12 Long Island.