Category Archives: Research

U.S. Coast Guard Celebrates 225th Birthday

Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price celebrated the U.S. Coast Guard birthday doing research at the National Archives.  Photo by Candace Clifford

Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price celebrated the U.S. Coast Guard birthday doing research at the National Archives. Photo by Candace Clifford

According to Acting U.S. Coast Guard Historian Scott Price, the U.S. Coast Guard considers August 4th, the date the U.S. Revenue Marine Service was created in 1790, as their official birthday not the January 28 date when their name was changed in 1915 (see Scott’s January 28 blog).

The U.S. Coast Guard acquired its new name when the federal government combined the U.S. Life-Saving Service with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service. Originally called the U.S. Revenue Marine Service, this early “U.S. navy” was “tasked with coastal surveys and exploration, saving life and property at sea, defending United States territorial waters, enforcing customs (tariff) and smuggling laws, and collecting the customs duties from international trade and shipping to fund the federal government” (source: United States Coast Guard Leaders and Missions, 1790 to Present by Thomas P. Ostrom and John J. Galluzo, pp. 7-8). A fleet of revenue cutters was constructed to enable performance of these duties. The Revenue Marine Service also aided the early lighthouse service in setting up and servicing buoys, choosing sites for lighthouses, and reporting on the efficiency of the lights and other aids to navigation.

The U.S. Post Office issued this stamp today to commemorate the U.S. Coast Guard. It features the USCG training ship EAGLE

The U.S. Post Office issued this stamp today to commemorate the U.S. Coast Guard. It features the USCG training ship EAGLE and a rescue aircraft. (Photo courtesy of the USPS)

The U.S. Coast Guard mission has expanded greatly in the past 100 years. In addition to lifesaving, enforcing maritime law, and national defense, it oversees aids to navigation, protects the marine environment, supports scientific research at sea, keeps ship channels free of ice, responds to oil spills and other marine disasters, ensures port security, and combats terrorism.

As many of you know, Bob Browning retired as the U.S. Coast Guard Historian earlier this year. Scott is now acting historian. Having been with the office 22 years, Scott has acquired an in-depth knowledge of Coast Guard history and has helped countless researchers (including myself) with a multitude of topics. In his new role as acting historian, Scott is very interested in exploring ways to increase the office’s outreach, promote inter-agency cooperation, and “show the flag” to make the Coast Guard Historian’s Office a more visible entity. He is responsible for the extensive website devoted to Coast Guard history. The site is an invaluable resource for researchers and I regularly visit it for information (and photos) on lighthouses, lifesaving stations, vessels, and other U.S. Coast Guard assets. To reach an even broader audience, Scott has recently started using a twitter account. 

So I am including Scott Price in my “Modern Day Lighthouse Keeper” category for his work in promoting U.S. Coast Guard history and making their records accessible to both researchers and the general public.

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Lighthouse Keeper Records Prison Riot at Alcatraz

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Alcatraz Lighthouse in 1954. Note the cell house in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Harry Davis became keeper of Alcatraz Lighthouse, marking the entrance to San Francisco Bay, in 1938. I was recently copying his logs in the National Archives as part of a research project for the U.S. Lighthouse Society. Davis’s log followed the two-page-for-every-month format, devoting one or two lines to each day’s weather and activities. He and his three assistants spent most of their time maintaining the property and the two fog signals. Then the format changed for May 1946 with a narrative written across two pages:

May 2: 1430 hrs. Convicts on the loose with submachine gun, entire prison held at bay. Shooting is almost continuous. Island surrounded by Coast Guard and Navy boats. C.G. called by the Keeper in charge at 1445 hours.

1815 hrs. The U.S. Marines landed on the north end of island, at this writing. More wounded guards were removed to the city, total of five so far, firing is still heavy.

2115 hrs. Eight more wounded men recovered and sent to hospital. Capt. Weinhold, Lieut. Simpson most seriously wounded, Mr. Stites and Mr. Miller both killed. Total 13 wounded, two deaths.

May 3: 1100 hrs. Fire again raging in cellblocks, Marines lobbing anti-tank bombs through windows into cellblock; hand grenades being dropped through holes broken through the roof. The prison is being reduced to a shambles – numerous aircraft circling around prison all day.

1300 hrs. For the past hour they have been throwing heavy demolition shells without effect. Gen. Stillwell just arrived; they have issued an ultimatum to surrender within 10 minutes otherwise they are going to blast the cellblocks and walls down with TNT; all convicts will then die.

1320 hrs. The warden refused permission to use TNT. All firing stopped at 1330 hrs. Broke out again at 1800 hrs.

1800 hrs. The Marines are dropping hand grenades into the cellblocks through holes in the roof, quit when dark at 1830.

Guards from San Quentin State prison arrived today to assist, they are inside cell houses with Marines. Extra guards from Leavenworth federal prison arrived by plane, all are in cell house. All is quiet inside at 2040 hrs.

2400 hrs. All is still quiet in the prison.

May 4: 0820 hrs. There was a sudden burst of explosions inside, rifle and grenade fire, lasting about five minutes.

1000 hrs. The sudden burst was a cover up for the guards to break through. Three dead convicts were found, had been killed by a hand grenade, they were in C block. D Block will be rushed later to end it for good.

1030 hrs. It ‘s all over. D Block has been taken with 26 live convicts. The end of 44 hours of living hell. The extra guards from McNeils Island & Denver will be here for some time.

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis's Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

Alcatraz Lighthouse Keeper Henry Davis’s Log for the first week of May 1946. Log found in National Archives RG 26 Entry 80. (Click on image for larger view.)

The Alcatraz lighthouse was automated and the prison closed in 1963. Alcatraz Penitentiary is now a unit of the Golden Gate National Recreation area.

Alexander Hamilton and Lighthouses

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

Source: Record Group 26, National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts (Click on image for larger version.)

While working in my digital research library, I recently revisited several letters written by the Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton. As you know, the Secretary of Treasury oversaw lighthouses in the early years of the new republic, with frequent oversight from President Washington.

These letters were written to Benjamin Lincoln, the first customs collector in Boston, who, as the letters indicate, became the first superintendent of lighthouses for the state of Massachusetts. Copied from Record Group 26 during a 2001 visit to the Boston Regional Branch of the National Archives, the first letter is dated March 10, 1790, and the second July 14, 1790. In the March 10th communication Hamilton described Lincoln’s new duties as “keeping in good repair the Light houses, beacons, buoys and public piers in your State, and for the furnishing of same with necessary supplies.”

The letter also instructed Lincoln to confirm the appointments of four keepers who were already keeping the lights at Boston Harbor, Cape Ann, “Plumb” Island, and Nantucket. Hamilton mentioned the “widow of the late General Warren” as keeping the lights at Plymouth. I believe he was actually referring to Hannah Thomas, widow of John Thomas. When General John Thomas went off to fight in the Revolution he left his wife Hannah in charge of the twin lights at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor. Our book Women Who Kept the Lights begins with a chapter on Hannah, the first known female lighthouse keeper in the U.S. The July 14 letter shown here indicates that Hannah’s son John Thomas, Jr., received the appointment at Plymouth. He set their salaries based on what the Colony of Massachusetts had been paying them. The Boston keeper received $400, Plymouth $240, Cape Ann $400, Plumb Island $220, and Nantucket $250.

In his correspondence to Lincoln, Hamilton also touches on Portland Head, then part of Massachusetts. That lighthouse was under construction when the letter was written. Photo copyright Candace Clifford

Here is the March 10th letter in PDF format: Hamilton’s letter of March 10 1790

Candace Clifford, May 9, 2015

Researching Lighthouse Keepers

Keepers generally did not write their superiors in Washington but confined their correspondence to the  local superintendent of lighthouses before 1852 and the district inspector after 1852. This letter from Elizabeth Williams, keeper at Little Traverse Lighthouse, is an exception.  She is thanking the U.S. Light-House Board for a recent commendation. (RG 26 Entry 48 File 8645)

Keepers generally did not write their superiors in Washington but confined their correspondence to the local superintendent of lighthouses (before 1852) and the district inspector (after 1852). This letter from Elizabeth Williams, keeper at Little Traverse Lighthouse, is an exception. She is thanking the U.S. Light-House Board for a recent commendation. (RG 26 Entry 48 File 8645)

I receive a number of queries about researching lighthouse keepers so I’d like to devote a post to some of the resources available in the National Archives. Since it’s still Women’s History Month, I will illustrate this piece with records used in creating Women Who Kept the Lights: An Illustrated History of Female Lighthouse Keepers. (Please note that you can click the images to enlarge them for easier reading.)

Unless noted, all of these records are located at the downtown Washington, D.C. facility.

Registers of Keepers

It is fairly easy to compile lists of keepers for lighthouses between 1848 to 1912 by using the Registers of Keepers available on microfilm. M1373 consists of 6 rolls, arranged geographically. All registers include an index; later registers are indexed by both the station and last name of the keeper, so if you know the keeper’s name it is fairly easy to find where he or she served.

Detail of microfilm showing Miss Hiern's approintment as keeper on 18 October 1844. (M1373)

Detail of microfilm showing Miss C.A. Hiern’s approintment as keeper of Pass Christian on 18 October 1844. (M1373)

Note Juliet Nichol's marginal notation about the San Francisco earthquake in her log for April 1906.

Note Juliet Nichol’s marginal notation about the San Francisco earthquake in her log for April 1906. (RG 26 Entry 80 (NC-31) )

Keepers’ Logbooks

Finding keepers after 1912 is more challenging. I look first at any surviving logbooks. (Keepers were required to keep logs starting in 1872.) Logs generally indicate when a keeper reported for duty. Some logs are very detailed, others very cursory. After 1939, when the Coast Guard took over the administration of lighthouses, the log changed from a two-page format for every month to a two-page format for every day so finding personnel changes can be very time consuming. Some commanding officers provided a “crew list” at the front of the monthly log listing all personnel. The commanding officer signed each page so they are easy to spot. (Logs are found in RG 26 Entries 80, 330, P-65 and 159)

1928 Job Description

In 1928 keeper salaries were reclassified. To help facilitate this process, each keeper filled out a two-page form providing their job description. They also provided the date they entered the lighthouse service and the date they were appointed to that station.  (RG 26 Entry 111 (A-1))

Most of the keeper letters in the field records are generally about routine matters--supplies, leaves of absences, requests for transfer, care of station or machinery, etc . (RG 26 Entry 6 (NC-63)

Most of the keeper letters in the field records are generally about routine matters–supplies, leaves of absences, requests for transfer, upkeep of station or machinery, etc . (RG 26 Entry 6 (NC-63))

Field Records

Letters from keepers are rather rare. If your keeper served in the 5th, 7th, 9th, or 12th districts around the turn of the 19th century, there may be letters written by the keeper to his or her boss, the district inspector. These letters were bound into volumes by the district office. Some have an index at the back of the volume; others are indexed in a separate volume. Found in RG 26 Entries 3, 5, 8, and 9 (NC-63). See my RG 26 finding aid for more information on these entries.

USCG Retirement Cards

There are nine boxes of retirement cards organized by the employee’s name. These include all types of employees — keepers, depot workers, lightship and tender crew, and district office staff. Each card gives a summary of the employee’s service. The cards appear to cover the time period between the two world wars. (RG 26 Entry 7 (A-1))

Sample letter from RG 26 Entry 82

Sample letter from RG 26 Entry 82

Nominations and Appointments

The National Archives staff put together a database of lighthouse keepers mentioned in correspondence found in RG 26 Entries 82, 85, 16, 17I and 259. It also includes ship crew, inspectors, and lifesaving service personnel. You can access the database with the help of a maritime archivist in the finding aids room or see a modified version as this searchable PDF.

You can also find letters regarding appointments and personnel changes during the U.S. Light-House Board (USLHB) period in the correspondence from district inspectors in RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31). The original letters were bound into letterbooks, many of which burned in the 1922 fire. There is an index of these letters in RG 26 Entry 38 that provide summaries of each letter received.

Form letter from district inspector informing the USLHB of the transfer of Margaret Norvell from Head of Passes to Port Ponchartrain.  (RG 26 Entry 24)

Form letter from district inspector informing the USLHB of the transfer of Margaret Norvell from Head of Passes to Port Ponchartrain. (RG 26 Entry 24 (NC-31))

RG 26 Entry 32 (NC-31) “Letters Sent by Treasury Dept. & USLHB, 1851-1907” also include correspondence regarding nominations and appointments. Some volumes contain press copies of appointment letters. Note there is a gap between 1877 and 1905.

There are notices of appointment for the 1849-1873 time period in RG 26 Entry 99 (NC-31).

Keepers before 1848

For keeper appointments before 1848, I rely on RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31) “Letters Sent Regarding the Light-House Service, 1792 – 1852.”  These volumes record every outgoing letter sent by the administrator of lighthouses, starting with the Commissioner of the Revenue. He would correspond with the local collector of customs who served as superintendent of lighthouses for his region. The collector would be notified whenever a new keeper was appointed. The volumes are indexed.

Stephen Pleasonton notifies the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the appointment of Ann Davis as keeper of Point Lookout Lighthouse has been approved.

Stephen Pleasonton notified the local Superintendent of Lighthouses that the appointment of Ann Davis as keeper of Point Lookout Lighthouse has been approved. (RG 26 Entry 18 (NC-31))

Conversely, the collector would send letters to the lighthouse establishment in Washington notifying them of the need for a keeper, suggesting keepers to be considered for appointment, or any other issues concerning the keepers under their employ. Occasionally the collector would forward a request or report from an individual keeper as attachments. The collector would also submit accounts for paying the keepers. These original letters are organized by the port at which the collector served in RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31).

The local superintendent reports a fire at Point aux Barques Lighthouse where Catherine Shook was keeper. (RG 26 Entry 17C)

The local superintendent reported a fire at Point aux Barques Lighthouse where Catherine Shook was keeper. (RG 26 Entry 17C (NC-31))

You can also find keepers in the Federal Registers of Employees that were issued every two years for most of the 19th century.  Look under the section for the Treasury Department. It also lists the collectors of customs and USLHB members, engineers, and inspectors. Those volumes belonging to the National Archives can be found in the library at the Archives II facility in College Park, Maryland. I understand that some of these volumes are available online.

Letters to the Secretary of the Treasury

Early on, appointments had to be approved by the Secretary of the Treasury. Gradually it appears that he was merely informed of changes in keepers. Entry 31 (NC-31) “Letters Sent to the Secretary of the Treasury, 1852-1908” confirm appointments made during most of the U.S. Light-House Board period, 1852-1908.

Oath of Office for Mary Reynolds, keeper at Pass Christian. (RG 217 Entry 282)

Oath of Office for Mary Reynolds, keeper at Pass Christian Lighthouse. (RG 217 Entry 282)

Oaths of Offices

Every keeper was required to sign an oath of office during the U.S. Light-House Board period. RG 217 Entry 282 includes oaths of offices for all types of Treasury Department personnel, including keepers from 1865 – 1894.

Personnel File

If the keeper served after the Lighthouse Service became part of the Civil Service in 1896, there should be a personnel file at National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis. See <http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/archival-programs/civilian-personnel-archival/> for more information.

Online Resources

Kraig Anderson includes lists of keepers for each lighthouse on his comprehensize webiste <www.lighthousefriends.com>.

Jeremy D’Entremont does the same on his website <www.newenglandlighthouses.net> for New England Lighthouses and Terry Pepper for western Great Lakes lighthouses at <www.terrypepper.com/lights/index.htm>.

~ Created by Candace Clifford, March 2015

Letters from the First District Lighthouse Inspector, 1884 – 1885

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna's application for a lifesaving medal.

Letter submitting Marcus Hanna’s application for a lifesaving medal.

Many lighthouse “letterbooks” were damaged in a fire in the basement of the Department of Commerce in 1921. (This same fire destroyed the 1890 census.) I’ve heard that 40% of the lighthouse records that existed at that time were destroyed. Many surviving volumes were damaged and are too fragile to handle. In order to make them accessible to the general public I have started a digitization project to capture the damaged volumes.

The volume of letters from the first district Inspector to the U.S. Light-House Board, 1884 – 1885, was more than 500 pages–too large to create a PDF for web use so for this volume, I have created an image gallery.

Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse Keeper Marcus Hanna.  Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Keeper Marcus Hanna. Image courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard

Most of the letters are routine but I noticed that this volume covers the January 28, 1885, rescue of crew from the shipwrecked schooner Australia (see p. 188).  Cape Elizabeth lighthouse keeper Marcus Hanna went on to receive a gold lifesaving medal for his role in the rescue. On page 418, you find First District Inspector A.S. Crowninshield’s letter:

I have the honor to forward herewith an application from Mr. Marcus A. Hanna, Principal Keeper of Cape Elizabeth Light Station for a medal of honor for rescuing the lives of two persons from the wreck of the Schooner “Australia” on the morning of Jan. 28th ’85: together with sworn statements from several of the eye witnesses of the circumstances, and others.

In referring this application of Mr. Hanna’s to the Board, I would respectfully state, without hesitation, that Mr. Hanna’s exposure to danger on the occasion in question, was made under great peril to himself; and in my opinion, I believe him entitled to the reward he is now seeking.

The wreck of the Australia drew support for a lifesaving station that was established at Cape Elizabeth in 1888. More on Keeper Hanna can be found in Maine Lighthouses: Documentation of Their Past.

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine.  Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Cape Elizabeth Lifesaving Station, Maine. Note one of the twin lighthouse towers in the background. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Bodie Island Keepers: Oral and Family Histories

Bodie book

Cheryl Shelton-Roberts and Sandra MacLean Clunies have produced a unique book based on the genealogical research they did for the Bodie Island Keeper Descendants Reunion that took place at Bodie Island Light Station last October. Published by the Outer Banks Lighthouse Society, the book features short essays on the keepers with lots of photos of them and their families. The reunion attendees must have been delighted to learn so much about their ancestors. There may still be copies available for purchase through the Society.  Email Diana Chappell –diandmanda at aol.com — for more information.DSCN1123

Record Group 26 in the National Archives includes only a few sources for letters from keepers. You can sometimes find them as attachments to letters written by custom collectors and district inspectors and engineers to their superiors in Washington.  A few letters from keepers also survive in field records.  The letter pictured above is part of the “K Series letters” in Entry 3 (NC-63) “Records of Fifth Light-House District (Baltimore), 1851-1912.”  Keeper Gallop is writing his supervisor, the 5th district inspector. Note the inspector’s notation at the bottom left that he has written the U.S. Light-House Board.

Archivist Mark Mollan — Keeper of Lighthouse Records

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Archivist  Mark Mollan assists researchers doing maritime and navy research at the National Archives in downtown Washington, D.C. He’s made working with Record Group 26 a whole lot easier in recent years by creating box lists for some of the more extensive entries. You can access these lists, many in the volumes pictured below, in the finding aids room on the first floor of the National Archives. (The same place you fill out pull slips to retrieve the records.) He or someone else is always on duty to assist you with your search.

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Some of the finding aids for Record Group 26. RG 26 includes records of the Lighthouse Service, Lifesaving Service, Revenue Cutter Service, and the U.S. Coast Guard.

Mark has kindly shared many of these box lists with me in a digital format and I have included them in my finding aid for Record Group 26.

One of the most helpful is the box list for the USCG general correspondence in RG 26 Entry 82. This correspondence is organized into three time periods and a fourth segment devoted to site files for stations (primarily lifesaving/lifeboat stations).  The files are organized according to USCG file manual, for example, 600 designates “Operations”, 601 “Scope of Operations”, etc.  So before Mark’s list, one had to pull everything under a file number and hope you found what you needed. Now with the box list you can search for a specific topic, station, or vessel within the list. Here is one segment as a WORD document. Notice it is in two parts because it is a long list!

USCG General Correspondence 1936-41 Part 1

USCG General Correspondence 1936-41 Part 2

Mark has also identified all the WWII logbooks when the U.S. Coast Guard under the administration of the U.S. Navy. Those for 1942 and 1943 are available in my finding aid.

My sincere thanks to Mark for creating these useful research tools.  He has made my job a lot easier!