Digest>Archives> December 2000

The Sparkplug

By Richard Clayton

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Sabine Bank Light where E.C. Erickson was ...

The 16-mile journey across the Gulf of Mexico, just after dawn, was smooth sailing for Albert B. Modawell as he sailed the station boat northward to the mainland. Saturday, August 15, 1915 was hot and sultry and the temperature was already in the 80’s. Despite the little effort in sailing the craft to the port, Albert’s shirt was already soaked with sweat. He docked the sailboat at the little town of Sabine Pass, on the Texas side of the Sabine River and went ashore to buy supplies at the general store.

With the supplies safely stowed in the boat, Albert sailed across the river to the Louisiana side to visit his friends at the Sabine Pass Light Station. The keeper’s wife insisted that he stay overnight and spend Sunday with them. The two head-keepers were the best of friends and he so enjoyed the attention shown to him by their children. It was a most enjoyable visit and before he knew it the time had come to return to his station.

Monday morning, just after dawn, Albert was sailing southward, out into the vast reaches of the Gulf of Mexico when slowly the lighthouse began to appear on the distant horizon; his home away from the land. The Sabine Bank Light was a 72-foot, ironclad tower, sitting about fifteen miles out from the mouth of the river, in twenty feet of water on a mud shoal that was approximately 30 miles long and four miles wide-, very dangerous to ships. The local mariners referred to the area as “the shallows.”

The Sabine Bank Light was one of fourteen caisson-type lighthouses that had been built since 1871 along the eastern seaboard. It was first lighted in 1906, and had the distinction of being the only such construction in the southern waters. The local fisherman nicknamed the Sabine Bank Light “The Sparkplug,” because it looked exactly like the ones used in the new gas combustion engines.

As the “sparkplug” seemed to get closer to his sailboat, so did the thunderhead cloud formations that seemed to stretch across the southeastern horizon. A big storm was coming in and he was docking with the light station none too soon. The Keeper blew into the ship’s trumpet to signal his assistant keeper, IC Erickson, of his arrival. No sooner was the boat at the side of the iron caisson, with the sail riffed when the rope block and tackles were lowered for the keeper to latch onto the bow and stern of the boat. Modawell called out “Haul away,” as Erickson turned the winch and hoisted the boat upward to its mooring on the galley level of the tower.

The two men exchanged greetings and began securing the sailboat to the tower. Then they carried the provisions into the galley and stored them in their proper places. As they did so, they noticed the wind had picked up and the temperature was dropping. “I’m sure, it’s gonna’ be a big blow,” said IC “You came back none to soon.”

The head keeper hurried up the circular stairway to the tower and looked at the barometer on the wall. The pressure gauge was dropping toward the “rain-stormy” part of the dial and he could make out lightning flashes all along the front. He began to prepare the lamp for an early lighting as Erickson set about securing doors and closing windows.

By early afternoon, the sky was dark and menacing, the wind was picking up speed and whistling through the cracks in the doors and windows. The sea was running high with waves getting stronger against the sides of the caisson tower. Modawell noticed that the barometer was already reading stormy and still falling, which indicated that a hurricane could be approaching. The lamp was lit and “IC” was setting the clockwork mechanism that revolved the lens around the light.

By mid afternoon, the two men could not hear each other above the noise of the fierce winds, even when they shouted. From time to time, a giant wave would crash over the top of the five-story tower sending water spilling through the seams in the doors. The keepers were already wearing their rubber boots and rainwear. “IC” went below to the galley to check on the doors and windows once again. As he looked out one of the side windows, he saw that the sailboat was gone. It had been ripped from the moorings. The two keepers were stranded. IC Erickson said, “One day this angry sea is gonna’ get me, you betcha’.”

“IC” ran up the stairs to relate the loss of the sailboat to Albert. The Assistant stood close to the Keeper’s ear and shouted the news, using many gestures. Albert slowly shook his head and made a sign that indicated, “Pray!” Then he pointed for Erickson to stay in the tower as he went below to the galley. Storm or no storm, they had to eat.

Early Monday afternoon, the wind was coming out of the southwest. Then toward midnight, the wind was blowing almost due south. Now it seemed to have shifted and was coming out of the southeast. The gale force winds, within a hurricane, move in a counter clockwise motion, so it occurred to Albert that the storm had brushed them and must have made landfall further west in the vicinity of Point Bolivar and Galveston.

Except for the damage already done to them, the storm should begin to abate by Tuesday morning. Suddenly a wave crashed against the side of the tower and two windows crashed open halfway up the tower. Water flooded the galley.

As predicted, in the morning the wind began to decrease, but it was still raining very hard. The swells in the Gulf were at least fifteen feet. The two keepers were eating a cold breakfast and discussing ways to clean up the light station. “The sea is much too rough for a rescue attempt,” said Modawell. “I bet there isn’t anybody even thinking about us out here, right now,” said Erickson. They both agreed that the best thing for the two of them was to clean things up as best they could and keep the lantern in the tower lit.

“I was wondering why in the world the government ever decided to put up a lonely station like this so far out in the Gulf,” said IC.

“Oh, I’m sure it was the oil,” replied Albert.

“Well, there’s always been oil boats coming down the Sabine, right?”

“Not really,” said Albert, “Up until the turn of the century, the cities of Port Arthur and Beaumont were sleepy little towns whose major marketing was rice, cattle and timber. There was some shipping out of Port Arthur, but nothing really. It all changed quite dramatically on January 10, 1901 with the Anthony F. Lucas gusher. His was the first well in the Spindletop Oil Field that blew in. That event marked the beginning of the Texas oil industry.

“The Lighthouse Board had been toying with the idea of erecting a lighthouse on this shoal since 1880, but when the first large freighter loaded down with barrels of oil went aground at about this spot, in 1903, the wheels of the newly formed oil industry screamed bloody murder. And within a year after the accident, work was started on this light.”

“I have cousins that worked on it back in ‘05,” said Erickson, “They said the caisson was made in a foundry in New Jersey and they floated it all the way here from around the tip of the Florida Keys. They sunk it in the mud, and pressurized the inside of it so my cousins got inside of it and were digging out the mud from twenty feet down. It was a hot and dirty way to make a living, that’s for then when they was done digging, the whole thing was filled up with cement. They never put one of these kind of things so far out in the sea before.”

The two keepers were stranded on the Sabin Bank Light for a week, but they never stopped working or gave up hope that help would come. And most important to them, the light in the tower showed brightly every night. The Lighthouse Service awarded both men a gold Medal of Honor and they were cited for initiative and presence of mind during the hurricane of 1915.

Soon thereafter, at their request, both keepers were reassigned to other stations. The head keeper, Albert Modawell, was posted to the Brazos River Light on the north side of the entrance to Freeport, Texas. The light had been built in 1896 and was a 103-foot square skeleton tower, enclosing a stair cylinder. Mr. Modawell had a fairly uneventful tour of duty there until his retirement.

IC Erickson was transferred to the South Pass Jetty Light, two miles from the outer end of the jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. The light was established in 1831 and was a 116-foot square skeleton tower, enclosing a stair cylinder. Both men were reassigned to the same kinds of lighthouse, in what seemed to be risk free settings.

On one warm afternoon, in the spring of 1925, “IC” rowed off in a skiff to start the East Jetty fog bell, two miles downstream. A light fog blew in and he was evidently carried out to Sea by the strong currents in the Pass. IC Erickson vanished without a trace. The Gulf of Mexico missed him at Sabine Bank, but it swallowed him up ten years later in Louisiana.

This story appeared in the December 2000 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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