Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2018

Did He Really Say That?

By Timothy Harrison

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In late 1962, Judith L. Light, a reporter for Chicago Life, an insert supplement of the now defunct Chicago Daily News, did a story about automation creeping up on the men who kept the lighthouses. In doing so, she interviewed Chief Boatswain Robert C. Ashdon of the U.S. Coast Guard, who told her at the time that soon there would be no more lighthouse keepers, but perhaps that was all for the best because “lighthouse tending is not romantic, as landlubbers believe.”

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Robert Ashton, who, at the time, had been with the Coast Guard for 26 years, went on to say that most lighthouse keepers of the old pre-Coast Guard era were “not particularly nice people.”

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Wow, talk about a slam against the old time dedicated lighthouse keepers of the U.S. Lighthouse Service that operated our nation’s lighthouses from 1789 until 1939 when the Coast Guard took over. Nothing could have been further from the truth! While there may have been a few crusty keepers in the annals of time, for the most part these were men and women who loved their jobs and were highly dedicated keepers. All one needs to do is read the hundreds of stories written about them. Chief Ashdon couldn’t have been more wrong.

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To make matters worse, Chief Robert Ashdon went on to say, “Take any kid 18 years old and put him in a lighthouse and he’ll be in an insane asylum in three weeks. It’s a terrible life. They see the same faces all the time, do nothing but cook, wash, clean and climb those winding stairs.”

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We can only wonder what Chief Ashdon’s superiors had to say when they read his interview. It certainly couldn’t help their enlistment goals in the Coast Guard. The reporter decided to find out if Chief Ashdon was correct in his assessment of lighthouse life. So, she went and visited the keepers at the Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, an off-shore lighthouse in Lake Michigan off the big city of Chicago, Illinois. What she found was that life at the lighthouse may have been monotonous, but none of the young Coast Guardsmen were distraught by life there. They all made the best of it and didn’t particularly mind their jobs, and none of them was about to go to an insane asylum.

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Both of these lighthouse keepers had smiles on ...

Life at Chicago Harbor Light

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1st assistant keeper James N. Brotherson at ...

The reporter, Judith Light, wrote that there were times when the isolation for the Coast Guardsmen did became lonely. Thirty-one year old Boatswain’s Mate First Class Roger G. Gilliver, a 14 year Coast Guard veteran stationed at Chicago Harbor, said, “When you’re sitting watch after midnight – that’s when you get bugged.” But he was somewhat used to it; he previously served at a lighthouse in Virginia and for a while was stationed at Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in North Carolina.

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The men who were living at Chicago Harbor ...

The other keepers stationed there at the time were 22 year olds Kenneth Young, a seaman, and Joseph Woodall, an engineman 3rd class. All three of the keepers were single. Kenneth Young was described as a quiet man who enjoyed playing his guitar in his spare time.

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Chicago Harbor Lighthouse head keeper Robert A. ...

The three men were not alone on the lighthouse. Their constant companion was the station’s mascot, a dog name Budgie. It was unclear if Budgie was ever allowed to leave the lighthouse for shore leave.

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John “Jack” J. Short climbing the stairs at ...

The reporter wrote, “The swish of the waves, the gentle rock of the lighthouse, the monotonous undertone of the television and the syncopated beep-beep of the radio beacon should act as a tranquilizer. However, there was an unignorable factor – the foghorn.” In complaining about the foghorn, Roger Gilliver said, “You don’t really sleep. You just lay there and roll back and forth.”

Interestingly, photos of life at the lighthouse during earlier times, as published at the end of this story, show the old time keepers who were happy and smiling at Chicago Harbor Lighthouse, but to Chief Robert Ashdon’s credit, photos that were published by the Chicago Daily News did not show the modern era keepers smiling, but showed them as if they were bored going about their daily duties.

In her story, Judith Light wrote, “Visitors climbing to the top of the lighthouse by the narrow, circular iron staircase to see the light and foghorn get a glimpse of the crescent- shaped rooms on each landing. Three of these are used for bedrooms and two others are unoccupied.” One good thing that the three Coastguardsmen experienced was that they had new furniture delivered in time for Christmas in December of 1962. Some of the pieces that were replaced were pre-World War I.

Nine years later, Bruce Berman, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, went out to visit the lighthouse and interview the Coast Guard keepers of the time. Fireman Apprentice Bruce Craig told the reporter that you have to learn to pace yourself at the lighthouse. “There are little ways that you have to adjust to living on the light. One finds himself rationing his actions. My first impulse to take a walk on the outside walkway was soon dissuaded by reason. Would I have anything left to do if I took a walk now? After fighting off the impulse four times, I succumbed. The walk takes five minutes.”

Was Chief Ashdon Right?

Was Chief Ashton right in the remarks he made to reporter Judith Light, or were some of these new breed of Coast Guardsmen not able to adapt to lighthouse life the way the old timers could, and did.

In 1971, Coast Guard Seaman Glenn Foreman told the Chicago Tribune reporter that he loved the lonely duty at the lighthouse, which was two weeks on and one week off. But that was not always true with previous Coast Guard keepers. The year before, one Coast Guard keeper suddenly started to eat newspapers and tried to jump off the tower. “He just went nuts.”

Editor’s Note: The 1962 photos from the Chicago Daily News are of a poor quality because we do not have the original photos and they were taken directly from old faded newspaper print of Chicago Life that was an insert publication to the newspaper. The Chicago Daily News, founded in 1876, went out of business and ceased publishing in 1978.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 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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