Typical Instances of the Boldness, Skill, and Endurance of the Men Who Erect the Danger Signals on Rocks and Shoals
UPON a dark night, the entire Atlantic coast of the United States from the easternmost point of Maine to Cape Lookout in North Carolina is marked with lights like a city street. Before the watch on a coastwise steamer plying down loses one light over the vessel’s stern, another flashes white or red above the prow. Southward from Cape Lookout to the tip of Florida, around the Gulf of Mexico, and up the Pacific coast, a steamer is never more than two hours’ sailing beyond the range of some one of these signboards of the sea. Every harbor fairway on the entire 25,000 miles of coastline bears its own distinctive lights and buoys, so that even the most blunder-headed skipper cannot go astray. The navigator of fresh water may travel the length of the Great Lakes and up the Mississippi, or up any one of a score of other great rivers, and find a warning light blinking at him from every bar and reef.
In its solicitude for the ships that seek its harbors, the United States Government maintains more than 1,100 lighthouses and lighted beacons; eighty-eight light-vessels and lantern buoys; and nearly 1,800 post lights, most of which mark the shores of navigable rivers. Three hundred and fifty-four siren signals, besides other hundreds operated in connection with the regular lighthouse service, blow a deep bass warning at the rising of a fog. Whistling-buoys, bell-buoys, and shoal-buoys to the number of nearly 5,000 are distributed along the channels of a hundred harbors. In the daytime dangerous bits of coast or river are indicated by 434 day beacons. A fleet of forty-one vessels and more than 4,200 men are required to attend, repair, and supply these aids to navigation; the cost to the people of the country being between $3,000,000 and $4,000,000 a year.
A large proportion of the lighthouses, which are by far the most important governmental works for the protection of the mariner, are built on land well above the wash of the sea, where the construction requires only the ordinary skill of the carpenter, the mason, and the iron-worker. The small remaining residue, the offshore lights, built in the most difficult and dangerous locations that can be selected, have cost more, both in construction and in subsequent maintenance, than all the others put together. The true sea-builder speaks with something akin to contempt for the ordinary shore light. He must have tides, breakers, ice-packs, wrecks, fierce currents, and wind storms to test his mettle and to show what he can do. Not only must he be a skilled engineer and builder, but he has need of the mysterious human elements of courage, executive foresight, resourcefulness in the face of danger, and perseverance in surmounting obstacles.
In lighthouse building, the stone-tower light easily takes precedence both in age and in the difficulties and dangers which attend its construction. A little more than 140 years ago, John Smeaton, a maker of odd and intricate scientific instruments and a .dabbler in mechanical engineering, was called upon to place a light on the bold reefs of Eddystone, near Plymouth, England, and it is to him that the world owes the idea of building a lighthouse in the form of a solid stone tower. In stone-tower lights, as in all other kinds, the first and greatest difficulty which the builder has to meet lies in placing the foundation. For instance, when Captain Alexander began work on Minot’s Ledge, in 1855, he had an apparently impossible problem to solve. A bold, black knob of rock lay in the sea just off the southeastern chop of Massachusetts Bay. At high tide the waters covered it entirely, and its place was indicated by a few restless breakers, or, if the water was very calm, by a smooth, oily, treacherous eddy. At the lowest tide, a glistening head, laced around with a collar of surf, protruded a few feet above the surface of the water. In thirty years’ time forty-three vessels had been dashed to pieces upon it, twenty-seven of which were totally lost, together with their crews. A small light, propped on wrought-iron piles, had already occupied the rock; but on a stormy night in April, 1851, while the bell in the tower was ringing furiously, the waves and the wind twisted it from its moorings, and hurled it more than a hundred feet off into the sea, carrying the keepers with it. Upon this ill-fated rock Captain Alexander agreed to build a stone tower 106 feet high and thirty feet in diameter at the base. On his first visit to the reef, it was so slippery with sea moss, and the waves dashed over it so fiercely, that he could not maintain his footing. Part of the ledge was always covered with water, and the remainder, even at low tide, was never bare more than three or four hours at a time.
Captain Alexander sent a crew of men to the rock to scrape it clear of weeds and to cut level steps on which they could maintain a firm footing. They worked with desperate haste and energy. When a great wave came rolling in from the sea, the foreman shouted, and they all fell on their faces, clinging together, and held their breath until the rock was bare again. Sometimes when a storm blew up suddenly and the boats dared not approach near enough to effect a landing, the boatswain was accustomed to cast out a line. One of the workmen would seize it, make it fast to his wrist, and plunge boldly into the sea. Then the sailors would pull him in like a great clumsy cod. Working in instant danger of their lives, and continually drenched and suffering from the smarting of salt-water sores, Captain Alexander’s men were able to cut only four or five little foot-holes in the rock during the whole of the first season. But they could console themselves with the fact that it took Winstanley, in building the first Eddystone light, four years to drill twelve foundation holes and fit them with iron rods.
In the second year, the workmen succeeded in building an iron platform twenty feet above low water. Ropes were stretched between the piles on which it rested, and when the waves were high, the men clung to them to prevent being washed into the sea. The next winter a big coast-wise bark, driven in by a storm, swept away the platform, crushed the face of the rock, and ruined the result of two years of hard work in a single night. In the third year, the workmen succeeded in laying four foundation stones; and in the fifth year, the six lower courses of the tower were completed. The work of fitting the stones in place was full of excitement. Stout bags of sand were swung on a crane from a boat to the rock. While they were pitching and tossing in the air, the men caught them, and piled them up in the form of a small pen, and rammed them firmly together. Sometimes it took three or four staggering men, each clinging with one hand to the life ropes, to handle a single bag. The inside of this primitive coffer-dam was then bailed out, and wiped dry with a sponge. Meantime the men on the boat had prepared the stone by laying it on a piece of thin muslin covered with mortar, like a mustard plaster. The edges of the muslin were then drawn up around the top of the stone, and it was lowered into the coffer-dam. Each stone was dovetailed so that it fitted closely into the stone next adjoining it in the course. The difficulty of fitting a stone held aloft on a swinging crane with the waves dashing around the workmen’s legs can well be imagined. Quantities of sledges and drills were swept from the rock and lost. One of the more inventive workmen conceived the idea of wearing a life-belt and fastening his sledge to his wrist. This method was generally adopted, and it worked admirably until a breaker washed one of the men off the rock. Owing to the weight on his wrist, he went down head first, and his legs were left sprawling above the surface of the water. He was rescued with the greatest difficulty.
In five years’ time the light was finished “rising sheer out of the sea,” as Longfellow describes it, “like a huge stone cannon, mouth upward.” It cost the government $300,000. The devotion and the loyalty of the lighthouse builder approach the enthusiasm of the soldier in the heat of battle. When the first of that famous family of engineers, the Stevensons, was building the Bell Rock Light on the Inchcape Reef, his Scotchmen worked with the desperation of despair. Only two could remain on the rock at a time, but they stuck there with the tenacity of leeches, the cold water of the North Sea bearing down every few minutes and whipping entirely over them. In describing the progress of the work, Stevenson tells with quaint humor how the drenched workers were cheered by a sailor on board the work-ship who played sweetly on a German flute. Iron rods were fastened into the reef to hold the courses of the tower. When the first stone was at last swung out on the tipsy crane, the workmen, ragged and chilled, and worn with the hard struggle, clung to the iron rods and cheered madly, like soldiers just over the crest of an enemy’s fort.
Laying a Wall Under the Ice-Cold Waters of Lake Huron
One of the most difficult of all stone-tower lighthouses to build was the Spectacle Reef Light, in the northern end of Lake Huron, near the Straits of Mackinac. Here the problem was to deal not with tides or heavy seas, but with the crushing force of the icepacks that came down out of the North and moved with all of the mighty power of a glacier. The site of the tower was a lone rock lying more than ten miles from land and eleven feet under the surface of the water. At first the engineers declared the work impossible of accomplishment, but the wreck of a number of valuable vessels on the reef spurred them to attempt it. The plans were drawn by General O. M. Poe, who was Sherman’s chief engineer on the famous march to the sea. An enormous wooden crib, ninety-two feet square, twenty-four feet high, and enclosing a space sixty-eight feet square, was built at a harbor twelve miles away, and towed out to the rock. Here it was sunk to the bottom, and weighted with stone, and thus was formed a quiet pond in which the work could be prosecuted. A bottomless tub, thirty-six feet in diameter and having staves fourteen feet long, was now built, and suspended exactly over the site of the tower. A rope of oakum was tacked to its lower edge ; and then when a diver had cleaned off the rock below, the tub was lowered into the water and down to the rock. The staves were mauled down until each pressed close down on the rock. Then the divers, toiling in the icy water, filled all of the openings around the bottom of the tub with hay and Portland cement. The tub being thus made perfectly tight, a huge pump soon emptied it of all the water, and the rock lay clean and bare, ready for the workmen.
Owing to the approach of winter, great haste was necessary to secure the preliminary work so that it would not be affected by the ice. Not infrequently the men were called out at three o’clock in the morning, and they were allowed only a few minutes for meals during a day’s work, which often lasted from eighteen to twenty-one hours. During the last days of the season, snow and sleet fell almost constantly, and the waves frequently dashed over the breakwater, keeping the men drenched. The next summer the work was continued with renewed zeal. For the first thirty-four feet, the tower was built of solid masonry, thirty-two feet in diameter, the stones all dovetailed firmly together, and the courses attached one to another with heavy iron rods. In the top of the tower, five keepers’ rooms were built, one above the other, and connected with spiral stairways. Far up at the pinnacle, stands the cylindrical box of iron and glass which protects the light. The cost of the Spectacle Reef tower was $375,000. In the spring after it was finished, the work of the builders was given a remarkable test. The keepers, returning to their sturdy charge, found the hitherto irresistible ice-pack piled to a depth of more than thirty feet around the tower, so that they had to cut their way in to the door. Following General Poe’s plans, a similar lighthouse was afterwards constructed on Stannard Rock, in Lake Superior.
Wintering on a Wave-Swept Rock in the North Pacific
Even more formidable difficulties and dangers were encountered in building Tillamook lighthouse, off the coast of Oregon. While its foundation is not submerged, yet because of its exposed position in the ocean it belongs properly among the off-shore lights. The island rock on which it rests rises a sheer eighty feet above a brawling sea. It is only a mile from the mainland, but the nearest harbor, owing to the precipitous shores, is twenty miles away, at the mouth of the Columbia River. So violent are the waves that break around the ragged edges of the island, that it was only with the utmost difficulty that the surveyors made their first landings. One expedition was headed by an experienced English lighthouse-builder named Trewavas. When he reached the rock, it was edged with surf, although the sea outside was almost wholly calm. When the boat was swept up close to the.rock, he and one of the sailors leaped for shore. Trewavas stumbled, and was carried out to sea, and drowned in sight of his boat’s crew.
One of the earliest and oddest difficulties with which the Tillamook builders had to contend was an immense herd of sea-lions, which defended their ancient citadel with persistent valor. Before the workmen were allowed undisputed possession, they were compelled to arm themselves, and drive the herd repeatedly into the sea.
Owing to the great difficulty in making landings, most of the workmen were sent to the rock in a breeches-buoy. A thick hawser was stretched from the summit of the island to the mast of a ship lying 300 feet away in calm water. Along this traveled the buoy, which consisted of a life-preserver fastened to a stout pair of breeches cut off at the knees. Sometimes when the water was a trifle rough, giving the ship a rolling motion, the hawser would slacken suddenly, let the buoy and its passenger drop with sickening velocity into the sea, and then snatch them out, and hurl them fiercely a hundred feet in air. Only men of seasoned pluck could be persuaded to make this trip at all. A large crew were finally landed, with supplies enough to last them several months, and at the coming of winter and rough weather the ship was compelled to leave them to their fate. One night in January, a tornado drove the waves entirely over the rock, crushing the tent in which the men slept, and washing away most of their provisions and nearly all of their tools, clothing, and equipment. For days at a time, in the coldest weather of a northern winter, they were compelled to lie clinging to the slippery rock, drenched with icy water, exposed to swiftly succeeding storms of snow and sleet, and cut by the sharp sea winds. During all of this time they had no sufficient means of warming themselves, practically no fresh water to drink, and nothing to eat but hard-tack and bacon, soaked in sea water. Few Arctic explorers have had to suffer the perils and privations to which these lighthouse builders were subjected. And yet they lived, and built a great lighthouse on the summit of the rock.
Colonel G. L. Gillespie, the engineer who had charge of this wonderful work, tells an amusing story of the difficulties of the lighthouse establishment in finding a cook who was willing to live on the rock, cut off wholly for months at a time from communication with the outside world. Finally, a portly, good-natured German named Greuber agreed to accept the position. He was promptly sent down to Tillamook, but when he saw the tossing breeches-buoy in which he was expected to make the passage to the rock, he held fast to the rail of the ship. “I’m too fat,” he explained.
On his return to Astoria his friends made much fun of him that he declared he would go to the rock if it killed him. He turned as white as chalk when the buoy was strapped around him, but he made the trip without even wetting his feet. After that, however, nothing would persuade him to venture again in the perilous buoy, and he died recently on the rock after nearly sixteen years of continuous service there.
The builder of Race Rock Light, in Long Island Sound, was Mr. F. Hopkinson Smith, known as the author of “Colonel Carter” and “Caleb West.” Here again the work of constructin was fraught with extraordinary difficulties and dangers. The foundation rock is just off Fisher’s Island Sound, at a point where the water rushes both ways, according to the tide, with great force. A quantity of stone riprap was thrown into the swift water, where it was arranged by divers, and then covered with a circular mass of concrete, on which a tower of solid granite was constructed.
A stone-tower lighthouse bears much the same relation to an iron-pile lighthouse that a sturdy oak bears to a willow twig. One meets the fury of wind and wave by stern resistance, opposing force to force; the other conquers its difficulties by avoiding them. The principles of construction in the two are entirely different, and the builder of the screw-pile or disk-pile light is confronted by his own peculiar problems and dangers. For southern waters, where there is no danger of moving icepacks, iron-pile lighthouses have been found very useful, although the action of the salt water on the iron piling necessitates frequent repairs. More than eighty lights of this description dot the shoals of Florida and the adjoining States. Some of the oldest ones still remain in use in the North, notably the one on Brandywine Shoal, in Delaware Bay, but it has been found necessary to surround them with strongly built ice-breakers.
A Brilliant Waiting Battle Fought on Soldier Key
Two magnificent iron-pile lights are found on Fowey Rocks and American Shoal, off the coast of Florida, the first of which was built with much difficulty. Fowey Reef lies five miles from the low coral island of Soldier Key. Northern storms, sweeping down the Atlantic, brush in wild breakers over the reef and out upon the little key, often burying it entirely under a torrent of water. Even in calm weather the sea is rarely quiet enough to make it safe for a vessel of any size to approach the reef. The builders erected a stout elevated wharf and storehouse on the key, and brought their men and tools to await the opportunity to dart out when the sea was at rest and begin the work of marking the reef. Before shipment, the lighthouse, which was built in the North, was set up complete from foundation to pinnacle and thoroughly tested.
At length the workmen were able to stay on the reef long enough to build a strong working-platform twelve feet above the surface of the water and set on iron-shod mangrove piles. Having established this base of operations in the enemy’s domain, they lowered a heavy iron disk to the reef, and the first pile was driven through the hole at its center. Elaborate tests were made after each blow of the sledge, and the slightest deviation from the vertical was promptly rectified with block and tackle. In two months’ time, nine piles were driven ten feet into the coral rock, the workmen toiling long hours under a blistering sun. When the time came to erect the superstructure, the sea suddenly awakened, and storm followed storm, so that for weeks together no one dared venture out to the reef. The men rusted and grumbled on the narrow docks of the key, and work was finally suspended for an entire winter. At the very first attempt to make a landing in the spring, a tornado drove the vessels far out of their course. But a crew was finally placed on the working-platform, with enough food to last them several weeks, and there they stayed, suspended between the sea and the sky, until the structure was complete. This lighthouse cost $175,000.
Building Firmly Under Water on Shifting Sands
Another class of lighthouse, quite different from either of those already described, consists of a solid iron tower with a core of concrete. This is designed especially to mark sandy shoals lying under some depths of water, at a greater or less distance from shore. It was less than twenty years ago that sea-builders first ventured to grapple with the difficulties presented by these offshore shoals. In 1881, Germany built the first cylinder iron lighthouse, at Rothersand, near the mouth of the Weser River, and three years later the Lighthouse Establishment of the United States planted a similar tower on Fourteen Foot Banks, over three miles from the shores of Delaware Bay, in twenty feet of water. Since then many dangerous shoals have been marked by new lighthouses of this type. A few years ago, W. H. Flaherty of New York built such a lighthouse at Smith Point, in Chesapeake Bay. At the mouth of the Potomac River the opposing tides and currents have built up shoals of sand extending eight or ten miles out into the bay. Here the waves, sweeping in from the open Atlantic, sometimes drown the side lights of the big Boston steamers. The point has a grim story of wrecks and loss of life; last year alone four sea craft were driven in and swamped on the shoals. The Lighthouse Establishment planned to set up the light just at the edge of the channel, about eight miles from shore and 120 miles south of Baltimore. Eighty thousand dollars was appropriated for doing the work. In August, 1896, the contractors formally agreed to build the lighthouse for $56,000, and, more than that, to have the lantern burning within a single year.
By the last of September a huge, unwieldy foundation caisson was framing in a Baltimore shipyard. It was made in the form of a bottomless box, thirty-two feet square and twelve feet high, with the top nearly as thick as a man is high, so that it would easily sustain the weight of the great iron cylinder soon to be placed upon it. It was lined and caulked, painted inside and out, to make it air tight and water tight. When finished, it was dragged out into the bay, together with half an acre of mud and dock timbers. Here the workmen crowned it with the first two courses of the iron cylinder—a collar thirty feet in diameter and about twelve feet high. Inside of this, a second cylinder, a steel airshaft, five feet in diameter, rose from a hole in the centre of the caisson, thus providing a means of entrance and exit when the structure should reach the shoal. Upon the addition of this vast weight of iron and steel, the wooden caisson, although it weighed nearly a hundred tons, disappeared completely under the water, leaving in view only the great black rim of the iron cylinder and the top of the air-shaft.
On April 7th of the next year, the fleet was ready to start on its voyage of conquest. The whole country had contributed to the expedition. Cleveland, Ohio, furnished the iron plates for the tower; Pittsburg sent steel and machinery; South Carolina supplied the enormous yellow pine timbers for the caisson; Washington provided two great barge loads of stone; and New York City contributed hundreds of tons of Portland cement and sand and gravel.
Everything necessary to the completion of the lighthouse and the maintenance of eighty-eight men was loaded on boats ; and quite a fleet they made as they lay out in the bay in the warm spring sunshine. The flag-ship was a big, double-deck steamer, 200 feet over all, once used in the coast-wise trade. She was loaded close down to her white lines, and men lay over her rails in double rows. She led the fleet down the bay, and two tugs and seven barges followed in her wake. The steamer towed the caisson at the end of a long hawser. In three days the fleet reached the lighthouse site.
During all of this time the sea had been calm, with only occasional puffs of wind, and the builders planned, somewhat exultantly, to drop the caisson the moment they arrived. But before they were well in sight of their destination the sea awakened suddenly, as if conscious of the planned surprise. A storm blew up in the north, and at sunset on the 10th of April, the waves were washing over the top of the iron cylinder and slapping it about like a boy’s raft. A few tons of water inside the structure would sink it entirely, and the builder would lose months of work and thousands of dollars. From a rude platform on top of the cylinder two men were working at the pumps to keep the water out. When the edge of the great iron rim heaved up with the waves, they pumped and shouted ; and when it went down, they strangled and clung for their lives.
The builder saw the necessity of immediate assistance. Twelve men scrambled into a lifeboat, and three waves later they were dashed against the rim of the cylinder. Here half of the number, clinging like cats to the iron plates, spread out a sail canvas, and drew it over the windward half of the cylinder, while the other men pulled it down with their hands and teeth, and lashed it firmly into place. In this way the cylinder shed most of the wash, although the larger waves still scuttled down within its iron sides. Half of the crew were now hurried down the rope ladders inside of the cylinder, where the water was nearly three feet deep and swashing about like a whirlpool. They all knew that one more than ordinarily large wave would send the whole structure to the bottom; but they dipped swiftly, and passed up the water without a word. It was nothing short of a battle for life. They must keep the water down or drown like rats in a hole. They began work at sunset, and at sunrise the next morning, when the fury of the storm was somewhat abated, they were still at work—and the cylinder was saved.
The swells were now too high to think of planting the caisson, and the fleet ran into the mouth of the Great Wicomico River, to await a more favorable opportunity. Here the party lay for a week. On April 17th, the weather being calmer, the fleet ventured out stealthily. A buoy marked the spot where the lighthouse was to stand. When the cylinder was exactly over the chosen site, the valves of two of the compartments into which it was divided were quickly opened, and the water poured in. The weight of the water carried it downward, and the moment the lower edge touched the shoal, the men began working with feverish haste. Large stones were rolled from the barges around the outside of the caisson to prevent the water from eating away the sand and tipping the structure over. In the meantime a gang of twenty men had taken their places in the compartments of the cylinder that were still unfilled with water. A chute from the steamer vomited a steady stream of dusty concrete down upon their heads. A pump drenched them with an unceasing cataract of salt water. In this terrible hole they wallowed and struggled, shoveling the concrete mortar into place and ramming it down. The whole crew, even the cooks and the stokers, were called upon at this supreme moment to take a hand in the work. Unless the structure could be sufficiently ballasted while the water was calm, the first wave would brush it over and pound it to pieces on the shoals.
Work and Workmen Nearly Destroyed By a Sudden Storm
After this exhausting labor had continued nearly two hours, the captain of the steamer suddenly shouted the command to cast away. The sky had turned black, and the waves ran high. All of the cranes were whipped in, and up from the cylinder poured the shovellers, looking as if they had been freshly rolled in a mortar bed. There was a confused babel of voices and a wild flight for the steamer. In the midst of the excitement one of the barges snapped a hawser, and being now lightened of its load, it all but turned over in a trough of the sea. The men aboard her went down on their faces, clung fast, and shouted for help, and it was only with difficulty that they were rescued. One of the life-boats, venturing too near the cylinder, was crushed like an egg-shell, but a tug was ready to pick up the men who manned it. So terrified were the workmen by the dangers and difficulties of the task, that twelve of them ran away that night without asking for their pay.
On the following morning, the builders were appalled to see that the cylinder was inclined more than four feet from the perpendicular. In spite of the stone piled around the caisson, the water had washed the sand from under one edge of it, and it had tipped part way over. Now was the supreme crisis in the whole enterprise. A little lack of courage or skill, and the work was doomed.
The waves still ran high, and the freshet currents from the Potomac River poured past the shoals at the rate of six or seven miles an hour. But one of the tugs ran out daringly, dragging a barge load of stone. The barge was made fast, and although it pitched so that every wave threatened to swamp it, and every man aboard was seasick, they managed to throw off 200 tons more of stone around the base of the caisson on the side toward which it was inclined. In this way further tipping in that direction was prevented, and the action of the water on the sand under the opposite side soon righted the structure.
Beginning on the morning of April 21st, the entire crew worked for forty-eight hours without sleeping, or even stopping for meals more than fifteen minutes at a time. When at last they were relieved, they came up out of the cylinder shouting and cheering because the foundation was at last secure.
The structure was now about thirty feet high, and was filled nearly to the top with concrete. The next step was to force it down fifteen and one-half feet into the hard sand at the bottom of the bay, thus securing it forever against the power of the waves and the tide. An air-lock, which is a strongly built steel chamber about the size of a hogshead, was placed on the top of the air-shaft, the water in the big box-like caisson at the bottom of the cylinder was forced out with compressed air, and the men prepared to enter the caisson.
No toil can compare in its severity and danger with that of a caisson-worker. He is first sent into the air-lock, and the air pressure is gradually increased around him until it equals that of the caisson below; then he may descend. New men often shout and beg pitifully to be liberated from the torture. Frequently they bleed at the ears and nose, terrible clutching comes at the throat, and for a time their heads throb as if about to burst open.
In a few minutes these pains pass away, the workers crawl down the long ladder of the air-shaft, and begin to dig away the sand of the sea bottom. It is washed high around the bottom of a four-inch pipe which leads up the air-shaft and reaches out over the sea. A valve in the pipe is opened, and the sand and stones are driven upward by the compressed air of the caisson and blown out into the water with tremendous force. As the sand is mined away the great tower above it sinks slowly downward. In prosecuting the work the marine toilers often grow sallow-faced, yellow-eyed, become half deaf, and lose all appetite.
Almost Smothered to Death in a Caisson
When the Smith Point tower was within two feet of being down deep enough, the workmen had a strange and terrible adventure. Thirty-five men were in the caisson at the time. They noticed that the candles stuck along the wall were burning a lambent green. Black streaks, that widened swiftly, formed along the white-painted walls. One man after another began staggering dizzily, with eyes blinded and a terrible burning in the throat. Orders were instantly given to ascend, and the crew with the help of ropes succeeded in escaping. All that night the men lay moaning and sleepless in their bunks. In the morning only a few of them could open their eyes, and they all experienced the keenest torture in the presence of light.
That afternoon. Major E. H. Ruffiner, of Baltimore, the government inspector of the district, appeared with two physicians. An examination of the caisson showed that the men had struck a vein of sulphureted hydrogen gas. When the air-lock was opened, the stench became almost unendurable even at a steamer’s length from the cylinder.
For three days the force lay idle. There seemed no way of completing the foundation. On the fourth day, after another flooding of the caisson, Mr. Flaherty called for volunteers to go down the air-shaft, agreeing to accompany them himself—all this in the face of the spectacle of thirty-five men moaning in their bunks, with their eyes burning and blinded and their throats raw. Fourteen men stepped forward, and offered to “see the work through.”
Upon reaching the bottom of the tower, they found that the flow of gas was less rapid, and they worked with almost frantic energy, expecting every moment to feel the gas griping in their throats. In half an hour another shift came on, and before night the lighthouse was down to within an inch or two of its final resting-place. The last shift was headed by an old caisson-man named Griffin, who bore the record of having stood seventy-five pounds of air pressure in the famous Long Island gas tunnel. Just as the men were ready to leave the caisson, the gas suddenly burst up again, with something of explosive violence. Instantly the workmen threw down their tools and made a dash for the air-shaft. Here a terrible struggle followed. Only one man could go up the ladder at a time, and they scrambled and fought, pulling down by main force every man who succeeded in reaching the rounds. A moment later they began to stagger apart, blinded by gas, some of them even striking at the solid walls of the caisson with their bare fists. Then one after another they dropped in the sand unconscious. A few of the stronger ones scrambled up the ladder.
Griffin, remaining below, had signaled for a rope. When it came down, he groped for the nearest workman, fastened it around his body, and sent him aloft. Then he crawled around and pulled the unconscious workmen under the air-shaft. One by one he sent them up. The last was a powerfully built Irishman named Howard. Griffin’s eyes were blinded, and he was so dizzy that he reeled like a drunken man, but he managed to get the rope around Howard’s body and start him up. At the eighteen-inch door of the lock the unconscious Irishman wedged fast, and those outside could not pull him through. Griffin climbed painfully up the thirty feet of ladder, and pushed and pulled until Howard’s limp body went through. Griffin tried to follow him, but his numbed fingers slipped on the steel rim and he slid backward into the death-hole below. They dropped the rope again, but there was no response. One of the men called Griffin by name. The half-conscious caisson-man aroused himself, and managed to tie the rope under his arms. Then he, too, was hoisted aloft, and when he was dragged from the caisson, more dead than alive, the half-blinded men on the steamer’s deck set up a shout of applause— all the reward that he ever received.
Two of the men prostrated by the gas had to go into a hospital, and were months recovering. Another went insane. Griffin was blind for six weeks. Four others came out with the malady known as “bends,” which attacks those who work long under high air pressure: the victim of it cannot straighten his back, and often his legs and arms are cramped and contorted.
Nor were the men who ran the engine and air-compressor on the top of the cylinder exempt from peril. Twice while the work was in progress great waves dashed entirely over them, so that they had to cling for their lives to the air-pipes. These sudden inundations of cold water also had the effect of cooling the boiler and reducing steam, so that the air compressor barely moved. If the pressure once failed entirely, the men below would suffer instant death; and the stokers and engineman were compelled to make fire when they could hardly keep their places on the boiler platform.
Having sunk the caisson deep enough, the workmen filled it full of concrete, and sealed the top of the air-shaft. In the meantime a storm had come up, and before the steamer could free itself from its moorings, the waves drove it bodily against the cylinder. Eight of the heavy iron plates in the sixth course, each of which was over an inch thick and weighed a ton, were crushed in like so many panes of window-glass. For three weeks, in May and June, the men lay idle again, waiting the coming of new plates. It seemed impossible that the tower could be completed within the year, but so thoroughly had the builder prepared for emergencies, that within twenty-four days after the new plates were in place, the light-keeper’s quarters had been completed, and the lantern was ready for lighting. Three days within the contract year the tower was formally turned over to the government. And thus the builders, besides providing a warning to countless vessels, had erected a lasting monument of their own skill, courage, and perseverance.
(Source: UNZ.org, http://unz.org/Pub/McClures-1900jul-00193)