Kate's Corner

Kate’s Corner #38

Early view of East Rigolets Light Station, Louisiana, from the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office

Kate Walker here, keeping the light on Robbins Reef.

“Spirits,” as they were called in the 19th century, caused problems at lighthouses. The second keeper at East Rigolets Lighthouse in Louisiana, built in 1833, was fired for drunkenness.

The 1857 Instructions to Keepers VIII states that inspectors and superintendents are authorized and required to discharge promptly any light-keeper found in a state of intoxication at any lighthouse or on board any light-vessel.

Craney Island Lighthouse, Virginia. National Archives image 26-LG-71-70.

October 7, 1863, Lieutenant Colonel C.W. Thomas in the Quartermaster’s Office at Fort Monroe informed Light-House Board Chairman William Shubrick of a “complaint made of the inattention to his duties by the keeper of the lighthouse at Craney Island. For two nights in succession, viz: on the 3rd and 4th inst., the lamp in the lantern was not lighted, thus rendering the navigation between here and Norfolk dangerous.”

Colonel Thomas enclosed “a communication on the subject, addressed to me by Mr. Thompson, Assistant in the Lighthouse.”

I was detailed about 14 months ago to keep the light at Craney Island, . . . and another man sent from Washington assisting me. On the 2nd inst. I went to Fort Munroe to draw my rations, and while there was taken sick with a fever which delayed my return for two days. While standing on the wharf waiting to return in the Norfolk boat, I heard that the lamp of the lighthouse had not been lighted for the past two nights. I hurried to the lighthouse, . . . and found Mr. Durfey (the man sent from Washington) lying in bed, complaining of sickness. . . . No liquor is kept in the house, but spirits of wine are used for cleaning the lens. Of this on the table in a bowl I found about half a pint. I accused him of drinking the spirits, but he denied it. . . . Mr. Durpley [sic] had every appearance of a crazy man, which I attributed to his having drunk some of the spirits of wine. This also was the cause of his neglect of duty in my opinion.

Assistant Secretary of the Treasury M.A. Field on October 19, 1863, recommended the removal of Thomas Durfey.

Postcard of Pensacola Lighthouse postmarked 1908, from the U.S. Lighthouse Society archives

On November 28, 1866, Acting Engineer Max Bonzano in New Orleans wrote to Captain John Colhoun, Inspector 8th District, Mobile, about the light keeper at Pensacola, Florida, who was a protogée of General Seyman:

On November 28, 1866, Acting Engineer Max Bonzano in New Orleans wrote to Captain John Colhoun, Inspector 8th District, Mobile, about the light keeper at Pensacola, Florida, who was a protogée of General Seyman:

Your letter of the 26th inst., enclosing copy of a letter from Major General Seyman is received. There can be no doubt of the fact that Captain McCormack, late light keeper at Pensacola, was heartily drunk on the evening of the day mentioned in my letter to you from Pensacola. This is sufficient cause to turn him out, and in fact the regulations of the Lighthouse Establishment made it obligatory on the inspector to dismiss him summarily. I have no doubt that McCormack has carefully avoided exhibiting himself in a drunken state to General Seymour, . . . . He is moreover a proper subject for dismissal for violating the express orders of the Board by not keeping watch and watch, as demonstrated by establishing a ‘double’ bedstead in the lantern of the lighthouse.

Point Reyes, California, in 1871.
National Archives image 26-LG-66-51

The San Francisco Chronicle in 1887 noted that “a late . . . keeper, [at Point Reyes Light Station was] notorious for his love of the flowing bowl. It is said that he even regaled himself, when out of whisky, with the alcohol furnished for cleaning lamps, and a familiar sight to the ranchmen was this genial gentleman lying dead drunk by the roadside, while his horse, attached to the lighthouse wagon, grazed at will over the country.”

On March 7, 1905, the district inspector wrote to Master Adams of lightship #71: “Inclosed is sent a copy of a circular letter issued by order of the Light-House Board, regarding employees found under the influence of liquor; and you are directed to muster your crew and read this letter to them, and see that the provisions of the same are complied with.”

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21 Dec 1902 - Times Picayune - Kate Walker copy

Information is from Cipra, p. 112; National Archives Record Group 26, Entry 36 (NC-31), Book 151, Box 70; Entry 32 (NC-31), Box 14 Entry 5 (NC-63), Volume 123; Entry 3 (NC-63), Volume 480, page 02

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