By Bob Trapani, Jr.
History fails to mention many individuals who had just a one-time connection to lighthouses, especially those acquaintances that were more peripheral in nature with the keepers, their families and the duties associated with the lights.
When I received word that Edward R. Hill of Lewes, Delaware, had passed away on February 8, 2010 at the age of 104, it occurred to me that Mr. Hill’s lighthouse experiences were an example of such peripheral moments long forgotten.
Before the ebb tide of time could sweep these memories out to sea, I thought it would be a small but fitting tribute for one of Delaware beaches’ most honored residents to share Mr. Hill’s lighthouse gems with others.
My friend Harry Spencer, Jr. and I had the pleasure of sitting down with Mr. Hill at his home nearly six years ago to talk about lighthouses.
We knew prior to our visit that Mr. Hill was the younger sibling of the legendary lightkeeping brothers – John “Jack” Hill and Fred Hill, but what Harry and I didn’t expect to learn was that Edward had his own lighthouse memories as well.
John and Fred served many years on Delaware lights in the early 1900s and were each commended by the United States Lighthouse Service on numerous occasions for their dedicated service and valor.
On the other hand, Edward’s lighthouse memories were not laced with heroics or recognized in official Government records like those of his older brothers; nonetheless, they too shined with a healthy dose of human interest that revealed a real – and sometimes humorous, side of lightkeeping.
Three Delaware light stations stood out in Edward Hill’s mind as he tussled with age (98 at the time) to recall a few long-faded memories at Delaware Breakwater East End, Baker Range and Reedy Island lights.
As Mr. Hill tried to conjure up the past, he listened to Harry talk about his own father’s 38-year lighthouse service tenure, which was spent at five different light stations.
Harry E. Spencer, Sr. was serving as keeper at Liston Range Front Light during the 1930s when Edward would periodically visit his brother Fred Hill, who was keeper at the nearby Reedy Island Lighthouse.
These conversations shone a light on memories that Mr. Hill had not recalled in many years. He suddenly started reminiscing with a gleam in his eye, as if his lighthouse experiences of over 80 years ago had just occurred the day prior.
The first “stop” along Edward’s road of lighthouse memories was the stout, cast-iron Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse, which was built in 1885.
“I served as a substitute keeper for my brother Jack at East End…I believe the year was 1922. Jack had appendicitis and went to Philadelphia because no one in Lewes performed such an operation.”
At this point, Mr. Hill digressed for a moment and noted, “Incidentally, later Dr. Beebe performed the very first appendicitis operation in Lewes on my brother William Hill.”
Returning his focus to Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse, Mr. Hill went on to say, “I was on the light for two or three weeks. I actually had to take time off from school to serve at the lighthouse.”
“During my time at the light, I liked to open one of the portholes up top at night when it was real windy and stick my head out the opening. You were right up there with the seagulls that were flying around – it was really thrilling. I also remember that ducks would come out to the stone pile (breakwater) and I once shot one for a duck dinner.”
There was then a pause in his conversation as Mr. Hill tried to recall other memories at Delaware Breakwater. It seemed for a moment that his attempt to reach back in time might come up short, but he then chuckled slightly and said that he had a “funny one” for Harry and me.
“When I was out at the Breakwater Light, I was there with keeper Floyd Schmierer. At one point Floyd asked me if I liked pudding. I said, ‘I did.’ He then told me that he would make a batch up.”
Smiling as he went on, Mr. Hill noted, “Floyd liked vanilla and used quite a bit in the pudding. Every time I would take a spoonful, I’d have to drink water to wash it down. Everything in the galley smelled and tasted like vanilla – that’s how much he used in the pudding. I didn’t want to finish the pudding, but I couldn’t say I didn’t like it since he was sitting there with me eating it too.”
“He asked me if I wanted more…I said, ‘no – I had my fill.’”
Mr. Hill’s recollections swiftly departed Delaware Breakwater, and without skipping a beat, he began talking about Baker Range on the Delaware River.
Harry and I listened intently as Mr. Hill spoke about Baker Range, for Harry’s father had served at this light station early on during his lightkeeping career. In fact, the United States Lighthouse Service awarded keeper Spencer with a Lighthouse Efficiency Pennant for his fine service record at Baker Range during 1912.
The historic Baker Range consisted of a front and rear light tower, with the front light also serving as the keeper’s house (the navigational light was exhibited from a second floor window at the front light dwelling).
A 110-foot pyramidal skeleton tower served as the rear light, and it was the keeper’s responsibility to keep both lights shining bright each night, which was no easy task.
The lightkeeper had to undertake a walk along a levee northward from the front light, approximately a half-mile in distance, to illuminate the rear range lamp at dusk. This process was repeated again at dawn to extinguish the light.
Unlike most light towers where the optic is placed at or near its peak, this type of pyramidal tower displayed a light from a level just above the halfway point of the structure. The Light Lists of the time listed the tower at 110-feet tall, but its focal plane at just 56 ½ feet.
As unique as the Baker Range Rear Light tower is, its one-time light source apparatus, which used compressed acetylene gas, was just as interesting. This lighting apparatus would be at the center of Mr. Hill’s next lighthouse memory.
A description of the optic and its operating apparatus was found in the 1906 Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, which states: “The lamp house, as originally erected, was intended for the use of the lens lantern. This was altered to receive a headlight reflector lantern and a cage to carry this lantern. A lantern platform was framed and placed on the tower just below the level of the headlight when hoisted to position.”
Noting that this story was humorous to tell now but not so funny when it first occurred, Mr. Hill said, “One time I was visiting with Fred at Baker Range when he needed to leave the station for a little bit. He said that if he wasn’t back before 6:00 pm, that I was supposed to walk up to the rear light and ‘simply pull the string to turn on the light.’”
“Anyway, Fred didn’t make it back home in time so off I went to the tower. I remember walking along the riverbank – maybe three-quarters of a mile or so. When I got to the light I pulled on the ‘string’ like Fred said, but I wasn’t sure if the light was lit after I did this. I then pulled on it two or three more times, but still couldn’t tell if the light was on.”
“I remember thinking, ‘it’s going to be a mess with no light.’
“At this point I had cold sweat running down my back. I looked up at the tower with great anxiety and decided I better climb up and check the light – though I was afraid of heights. This was the first time I had ever climbed something so tall.”
“On the way up the tower I remember asking myself, ‘suppose you don’t have any matches when you reach the top,’ but fortunately I did when I checked my pockets up top at the light. The light’s tube that housed the ladder was just big enough to fit through by the way. In the end, the light was shining when I climbed to the top, but talk about a real scare.”
The last lighthouse memory that Edward Hill was able to recall during our visit occurred at Reedy Island Lighthouse.
The 32-foot lighthouse, which was built in 1879, was once located on Reedy Island in the middle of the Delaware River, near the town of Port Penn and Liston Range Front Light along Bayview Beach.
Mr. Hill recounted, “I used to visit Fred when he was stationed at this light, but though I was inside the lighthouse a number of times, I don’t remember much about it.”
“I do remember leaving shore one evening to go and spend some time with Fred on the island, but boy, it didn’t start off well.”
“Fred would always come out of the lighthouse around 6:00 pm to check to see if anyone was coming to the island, so knowing this, I left shore figuring to arrive at about that time. No sooner did I leave the tide started to run and I was trying to row against it.”
“Working against the tide caused me to be late and darkness set in. I finally got up near the stone wall (Reedy Island’s stone dike that runs parallel with the river) and thought I’d better throw out an anchor...so I hurled the anchor towards the stone pile.”
“I remember it was very cold that night and thinking to myself that no one would know I was out here. I started calling out my brother’s name…’Fred, Fred, Fred,’ though I didn’t expect that he would ever hear me since he would now most certainly be inside the lighthouse.”
“After a little bit as I sat in my boat anchored to the stone pile, I heard a distant sound of ‘putt, putt, putt’ – a sound that grew louder as it closed in near me. Suddenly I realized that my brother Fred was coming toward me in the light station’s boat to where I was at. When he reached me, I quickly jumped into his boat and went back to the lighthouse with him.”
“Later I sat there at the lighthouse and thought, ‘wow, if I didn’t throw out my anchor, I could have floated down river, into the bay and out to the ocean.’ That was a bit of a scary thought.”
Mr. Hill’s recollections of lighthouse life would conclude with his account of being rescued by his brother near Reedy Island Light, but what Edward didn’t realize at the time was how he himself helped save another small slice of lighthouse history by sharing his memories on that February day in 2004.
Keepers John Hill and Fred Hill will remain important figures in Delaware lighthouse history, but thankfully, their younger brother Edward was able to share a few gems of his own that we can add to the treasure-trove of this heritage before the chance of doing so passed us all by.
February 1918 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “On December 28, 1917, F.C. Hill, keeper of Baker Range Light Station, Del., rendered assistance to two hunters who had been in an open boat for more than 12 hours, exposed to the cold.”
June 1923 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “On May 12 George A. Holston, skilled laborer at Lewes Lighthouse Depot, and John W. Hill, keeper of Delaware Breakwater Light Station, Del., rendered valuable and efficient service in fighting the fire which destroyed the outer end of Lewes iron pier and in saving equipment.”
December 1923 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper of Baker Range Light Station, Del., on September 26, rescued a man who had sunk in mud up to his armpits in the marshes near the light station.”
June 1925 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “John W. Hill, keeper of Delaware Breakwater Lighthouse, Del., on May 4 rendered assistance to the occupants of the sailing yacht Swordfish, which went aground outside of the capes during a heavy sea.”
May 1927 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “Freddie C. Hill, keeper of Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., rendered assistance to motor boat No. L452, which had been adrift and disabled for 18 hours in a northeast gale and snowstorm.”
August 1927 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper of Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., on June 26 rendered assistance to three boats in distress in the vicinity of his station. In the last instance he rescued two soldiers who were clinging to their capsized canoe about three-quarters of a mile from the station.”
August 1929 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper, Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., on July 25, 1929, during a northwest squall and electric storm, rescued a boy in a canoe, and picked up two men in a rowboat going to the rescue of the boy, who had become disabled owing to the rowboat sockets pulling out of the 10-foot bateau. The three persons, rowboat and canoe were safely landed on Delaware beach.”
June 1930 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper of Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., on April 26, assisted Capt. William Bell by towing his disabled speed boat to the lee side of Reddy Island Dike, supplying him with gasoline and assembling the distributor of his engine. The speed boat had been adrift for several hours.”
September 1930 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper, Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., went to the rescue of a sinking cabin cruiser, which had struck the Reedy Island Dike, on July 17. The three occupants of this boat succeeded in reaching the light station during the night, and asked for assistance, as their boat had struck the dike. When the keeper located the boat it was awash. He towed it to the nearest shoal, where it sank in 9 feet of water. The following morning, with some assistance, he floated it and towed it to the light station where a temporary patch was put on the damaged bow.”
November 1930 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “F.C. Hill, keeper, Old Reedy Island Light Station, Del., assisted a motor boat which had become disabled, on September 22, while having two other disabled motor boats in tow.”
March 1934 – Lighthouse Service Bulletin: “John W. Hill, laborer, Lewes Lighthouse Depot, Lewes, Del., on the night of December 18, went to the rescue of a fisherman who had been adrift southeast of Cape Henlopen in a disabled boat since that morning. In company with a local fisherman, he conducted a search for the missing man and brought him safely into port. Mr. Hill has been commended by the Commissioner.”
Fred Hill – Baker Range Light Station, DE (early as 1917 to 1925) and Old Reedy Island Light Station, DE (1926 to as late as 1940)
John Hill – Ship John Shoal Lighthouse, NJ (1917), Fourteen Foot Bank Lighthouse, DE (1917), Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse, NJ (1918), Delaware Breakwater East End Lighthouse, DE (1918-26), New Castle Range Rear Light, DE (1926-33), Lewes Lighthouse Depot, DE (1933-1941)
Posted: March 7, 2010