Digest>Archives> April 2004

Tender Tragedy Recounted

By Timothy Harrison


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George Keefus Brown, born Dec. 27, 1890. Brown ...

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A number of members of the U.S. Lighthouse ...

While the lighthouse books abound with stories of the lighthouse keepers and their families, many forget about the crews of lighthouse tenders who serviced the lighthouses all over this country.

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The lighthouses of South Fox Island. The first ...

It was the duty of the lighthouse tenders to bring supplies to the lighthouses, and this included everything from fuel to food as well as news and reading material. As well as providing contact with the outside world, the tenders often brought the lighthouse inspector to make sure the keepers were doing their jobs in the manner the government expected.

Like lighthouse keeping, being a crewman on a lighthouse tender could also be as dangerous, if not in many cases more dangerous. The lighthouse tenders had to contend with all types of weather from bitter cold to extreme heat, high seas, violent storms, and unpredictable waves that would cause the unexpected when delivering supplies.

Such was the case in the late morning of October 24, 1923 when the U. S. Lighthouse Service tender Hyacinth anchored off South Fox Island, which is located in Lake Michigan 30 miles offshore from Charlevoix, Michigan.

Captain Maynard of the Hyacinth stated in his report that he had sent his first officer George K. Brown to deliver a motorboat to the lighthouse and the boat had been taken over by Brown in tow of the launch-boat of the Hyacinth. Two other crewmembers of the Hyacinth accompanied Brown: Engineer Ralph McCauley and Seaman Konkel.

The lake was very rough at the time, and the sudden change in the wind, creating high swirling waves, prevented Brown from landing the craft at the lighthouse. After making several attempts to land, Brown decided it was much too dangerous and turned the launch-boat around and headed back to the lighthouse tender which was anchored quite some distance out. The lighthouse motorboat was still in tow behind the launch at this time.

The captain then reported that in making the turn to come back, out to the tender the launch was steered too close to the breakers, and it suddenly tipped, throwing all of the men into choppy cold water.

The Hyacinth was anchored too far away to offer much assistance. As the crew watched in horror they attempted to throw life rings and other objects to the men who were struggling to keep afloat in the high waves. For some reason or another Brown was at least 30 feet from the others as the launch, which had tipped, was smashed to pieces on the breakers and sank.

Somehow McCauley and Konkel were rescued and treated at the lighthouse. Although several attempts were made at throwing a life ring to Brown, he disappeared in the water and was not seen again.

We thank George Brown’s nephew, George Swain, for sharing this information and photographs with us. We need more of our readers to come forward with this type of information and photos to keep alive the stories of the people who made great sacrifices to make our country the great nation that it is today.

This story appeared in the April 2004 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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