By Kathleen Knowles
History of the Lightship
Lightships, simply put are ships that act as a lighthouse. They were used in waters that were too deep or where lighthouses could not otherwise be built. They have been around for more than two centuries. During the 18th century, ships were traveling the entire world. With the permission of King George II, Robert Hamlin built and equipped the first modern lightship. That ship was called the “Nore.” It carried two lanterns high above the deck on a mast and burned flat wicks in oil. The ship’s crew’s main job was to keep the wicks lit, especially during storms.
The United States did not undertake the use of lightships until 1819 when John Pool of Hampton, Virginia won the contract to build the first lightship which was delivered in 1820. The importance of lightships soon became apparent, and more of them were built and put into use.
Unfortunately, due to the lack of funding, lightships in the United States, which numbered about 30, were at a standstill. They were made entirely of wood and were lacking in any type of machine-driven propulsion. Limited to multiple-wick oil lamps, they provided poor visibility and had to be lowered to the deck to be serviced and raised once again. Also, inadequate hull design and ground tackle failed under severe sea conditions, sometimes blowing the small ships adrift for periods of weeks and occasionally for months. The lightships had serious problems, which they did not have the means or the money to correct on their own.
In 1851, Congress sent in inspectors and carried out an investigation. The investigation concluded the ships were rotten, poorly maintained and had lighting equipment that could not do the job adequately. There was also the problem of crew members absent for long periods of time, as well as crew members that were not qualified to do the jobs they were hired to do. The report criticized the positions of the lightship as being poorly selected. This report resulted in a Lighthouse Board being formed in 1852. Nine members of Navy officers, scientists and the Army Corps of Engineers were selected to serve.
Iron and steel were used in other ships, so they began to use them in the lightships. That eventually led to the use of steam and diesel power, and then to self-propelled and electrical light designs.
In the early 20th century, some of the lightships were equipped with bells that could be heard up to a distance of 15 miles. They warned oncoming ships of danger due to low and poor visibility.
Holding these vessels in position was of the utmost importance. Early lightships used fluke anchors. However, they were not very effective for lightships which had to remain stationary in very rough waters, especially during storms. The mushroom anchors, weighing 3-4 tons were used in the early 19th century, but were improved with the introduction of the cast iron anchors chains.
The designs of the ships, their hulls, propulsion systems as well as their warning systems improved and changed over the years. Some used small versions of lanterns used in lighthouses. Some had a second tow mast, which supported a reserve beacon that took over if the main light failed. Fog horns were placed on some ships as well.
The Huron Lightship was built in 1918 by the Consolidated Shipbuilding Company in New York. The cost of the completed ship was $147,428. It weighed 312 tons and was powered by a single reciprocating steam engine, driven by two coal-fired boilers, which put out 174 horsepower. On May 1, 1920, she was launched as Lightship 103 and later renamed U.S. Coast Guard WLV526. She remained in service until August 25, 1970, at which time she was decommissioned.
The ship is 97 feet long with a beam of 24 feet, a draft of 9 feet, 6 inches. She held a crew of 11. The Huron was one of several lightships that were used on the Great Lakes. By 1925 there were ten light ships on Michigan’s Great Lakes.
The Huron operated with one acetylene lens lantern, a steam whistle fog horn and a hand operated bell. In 1948, she received a refitting to diesel power with twin six-cylinder engines.
Over the years, the Huron Lightship was updated. If one tours the ship today they will see twin GM diesel, 6 cylinder engines, each 340 horsepower, which were used to propel the ship. Powering the ships two DC generators were twin GM diesel, 2 cylinder engines, and the compressors were powered by two GM diesel cylinder engines. In the event of fog, at least one of the engines ran continuously in order to run the foghorns, which sounded every 30 seconds. Both engines were 165 horsepower each.
An electrical distribution panel and lead-acid batteries as well as a water purification system are contained in the engine room. There are tanks for storage of lubricating oil, water, compressed air and 3 compartment tanks which holds 7238 gallons of diesel fuel.
Where did the water come from for the ship’s crew? It came right out of the lake! Of course, it was chlorinated and filtered first. To make sure it was safe for the crew to use for drinking and cooking, the Port Huron Water Department conducted regular inspection to certify its quality and safety.
Before 1935, the Huron was stationed at several different shoals on Lake Michigan. She spent from 1924-26 lighting Grays Reef. In 1934-35, she was assigned to the North Manitou Shoal. In 1935, she saw duty as a relief ship, having been transferred to the Eleventh District. She was repainted with “Huron” on her sides. The starboard side was painted red and the port side painted black. She was transferred to the Corsica Shoals, and operated about 6 miles north of the Blue Water Bridge which connects Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. She guided ships through the channel of Lake Huron into the St. Clair River.
During World War II, the Huron was the only lightship to remain on station. It aided in the shipment of taconite used to in the production of warships.
In all the years the Huron Lightship was in service, there was only one casualty. On May 7, 1958, Coast Guardsman, SN Robert Gullickson boarded a liberty boat with two other sailors. They were ordered to make a six-mile journey to the Fort Gratiot Coast Guard station in Port Huron, Michigan to pick up groceries, mail and pay checks. However, they were informed the groceries had not yet arrived. Fireman Neil Hamilton suggested Gullickson and Chef Vincent Disch go on ahead and deliver the mail and the paychecks. He would wait and bring the groceries later when they were received.
Gullickson and Disch set out for the Huron at 10:45 am. A storm came up; causing a huge wave to swamp the boat and it sank. They floated for forty-five minutes, holding hands to stay together, and blowing a whistle, hoping to capture the attention of a passing boat or freighter. They were unsuccessful. Another wave separated them, and Gullickson made the decision to try to swim to shore for help. Since the water temperature was only 47 degrees, hypothermia had already set in. He never made it to shore and was assumed drowned.
When Gillickson and Disch failed to arrive by noon, the Lightship radioed the Fort Gratiot station to inquire on their whereabouts. The station immediately dispatched another boat to locate the missing sailors. At 1:04 pm, they found Disch, who at this point was barely conscious; ready to slide out of his life jacket and slip beneath the surface of Lake Huron. Vincent Disch was rescued; he survived, but Robert Gullickson’s body was never recovered.
Today, there is a memorial on the very bunk he slept in on the Huron Lightship. It contains a United States Flag, a history of the event and a memorial to SN Robert Gillickson.
Forty-two years later, having found out about the memorial, Carol VonKampen visited the Huron Lightship to view the memorial to her brother, who died when she was only a child. She brought with her, and presented his dress uniform to the Museum in memory of Robert. It is displayed in a locker next to his bed.
With new technology being developed and cheaper ways to guide ships, the lightships era came to an end. The Huron Lightship was the last ship operating on the Great Lakes when it was decommissioned from active service in 1970.
She was enshrined at Pine Grove Park in 1972. In 1989, the Huron Lightship was designated as a National Historic Landmark. She has the honor of being the only lightship that served on the Great Lakes to be bestowed such an honor.
Nothing embodies the culture of Port Huron more than the Huron Lightship. Don’t miss this opportunity to see this wonderful museum; to be part of its rich history, and share in the lives of those who served on it.
A tour of the Huron Lightship Museum includes:
Hours of Operation
September 4th through October 31 – 10:00 am – 5:00 pm
Closed for the season November 2018 to April 2019
Available for group tours and venue rental in season!
Call 810-984 or 810-982-0891
Hurry! Time is running out for this season!
Thank you to Margaret Aiken, Marcia Haynes, Lynn Secory, Jill Secory Moore and Joe Ann Burgett, who all contributed to this article.
Special Thanks to Jerry Rome whose extensive knowledge was instrumental in making this article possible.
Kathleen Knowles is a life-long resident of Port Huron and a 1973 graduate of Port Huron High School. After attending St. Clair County Community College, she has worked for credit unions all of her life as well as a professional dog show handler, known for handling Pekingese. Kathleen has been writing fiction for years as a hobby, having posted many stories online.
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