Digest>Archives> August 2001

Leslie Millar: More Than A Lighthouse Keeper

By Bob Trapani, Jr.


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Leslie Millar, photo courtesy of Helena Cleveland.

Most every lighthouse has a history of a few men and women whose contributions and commitment to keeping a good light outshone their fellow keepers. Their accomplishments ranged from enduring unwavering watches through the fiercest of gales to risking life and limb in tumultuous cold waters for the sake of the mariner trapped in the icy grip of an unforgiving sea. These selfless and heroic acts of humanity performed by many keepers have been well documented and will continue to rightfully live on in our maritime history.

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This recent photo shows the Marcus Hook Rear ...

However, as important as it is to recognize the countless acts of heroism carried out by the lighthouse keeper, it is just as important to recognize the keepers who were proficient at maintaining a wide array of equipment related to the world of aids to navigation. Their passion and expertise in mastering the variety of optics, sound signals and operational equipment in lighthouses made them invaluable as technicians to the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later the U.S. Coast Guard. From their ability to thoroughly understand the mechanics of each piece of equipment to their expert troubleshooting and subsequent solution capabilities, these special keepers enabled the lighthouse to continue as a reliable and sought-after light, serving the mariners who plied our nation’s waterways.

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The old lens from the Marcus Hook Rear Range ...

One such man was Leslie Van Stavern Millar, former lighthouse keeper of Marcus Hook Range Rear Light in Bellefonte, north of Wilmington, Delaware. During Keeper Millar’s long and illustrious career with the Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard, he served as a light keeper and machinist, and eventually was in charge of all the aids to navigation from the Philadelphia Naval Yard south to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Prior to Mr. Millar’s duty in the tri-state area, he also performed similar duties for the lighthouses located on the legendary Great Lakes.

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The Marcus Hook Rear Range Light, photograph ...

According to Keeper Millar’s daughter, Helena Millar Cleveland, in addition to his assignment as keeper of Marcus Hook Range Rear Light, her father also performed mechanical repair work and maintenance on a variety of lighthouses. Ms. Cleveland recalls, “My father would be sent from one lighthouse to another doing work on them. He would be gone weeks at a time. I remember we had an old floor model, battery operated radio and my father would talk to us over the radio almost every night when he was gone.” Ms. Cleveland remembers Harbor of Refuge Lighthouse and Cape May Lighthouse as ones her father would speak about visiting. Keeper Millar would also mention working on buoys and range lights to Helena as well.

Mr. Millar assumed his tour of duty as keeper of Marcus Hook Range Rear Light in the 1930s, says Ms. Cleveland, “when my father was transferred from Philadelphia to Edgemoor, Delaware. At that time, a deal was struck between the U.S. Lighthouse Service and the Coast Guard enabling my father and his family to move into the residence next to Marcus Hook Range Rear Light, under the requirement that the light be manned at all times.” Ms. Cleveland further states, “Since there was a large family of six children, my mother Minnie and grand-pop John William Millar [also a former keeper in the U.S. Lighthouse Service], the lighthouse was well manned. In addition, as the six children moved along in years, five more siblings joined the ranks, so the light was mainly taken care of by the entire Millar family.”

However, Keeper Millar would not be relegated to one lighthouse. His expertise in the world of aids to navigation and their mechanical components would be put to diverse use by the Lighthouse Service and again later by the Coast Guard. Assignments to many of the lighthouses and lightships in the Delaware Bay were common, as he would inspect and troubleshoot the equipment at these offshore guardians of the bay. However, it is quite evident that despite his numerous trips away from home, Keeper Millar kept his family near and dear to his heart. With radio contact and handwritten letters he made sure his wife and children knew he was thinking of them and that he loved them very much.

Helena Millar Cleveland recalls Keeper Millar’s favorite lighthouse to be Harbor of Refuge. She stated that he would take her brothers, and in later years her husband, to the lighthouse to fish. It was from Harbor of Refuge Light that Mr. Millar penned two letters dated September 21, 1948 to his daughter Helena, which she has shared for this feature below:

Harbor of Refuge

0615 — Sept. 21, 1948

Dear Daughter Helena,

Well of all things, can you imagine your dad writing a letter to you at the ungodly hour of a quarter after six in the morning? And without any breakfast at that. Its pretty quiet here just now, only for the pounding of the sea. No fog signal sounding. Hear a ship now and then blow a passing signal. We are overhauling some diesel fog signal engines and checking up on the equipment that rotates the light.

The weather looks as though we were going to have fog but I can still see Cape May’s beacon flashing its warning light some twelve miles to the northeast of us. Daylight is just beginning to break and the keeper here is beginning to get breakfast ready. I’ll have to quit writing for a while as it interferes with his getting breakfast and we couldn’t let that happen as I like something to eat almost as well as you do.

A Navy cruiser, the Worchester, is lying at anchor about one and one-half miles to the north of us and he is sending a message by blinker light. Just a minute — till I see if I can read it. Yep — he just sent a message to the pilot boat to come alongside and take his pilot off. Guess he is getting ready to go to sea. A fleet of eleven trawlers or fishing boats are leaving the harbor now and heading out to sea. Suppose they will come back in a day or two loaded to the gills. They are fishing way off Massachusetts so it takes them a whole day to even get to the fishing grounds.

Well sweetheart, I’ll have to quit this for a while or the cook will be heaving me overboard. I don’t know when I’ll be able to mail this. The pilot boat comes alongside here once in a while and if they do, I’ll put it aboard her. If not, I’ll add some more to it and mail it when we get ashore. Bye-bye until I get a chance to add some more to this.


Here comes the pilot boat and if it stops here I’ll give them this to mail. The wind is picking up so I’ll have to hurry. I’ll try and write some more tonight. Bye-bye.

Your Daddy

Harbor of Refuge

Tuesday — Sept. 21, 1948

Hour — 2155

Dear Helena,

Just quit work for today and I’m tired. Bet you have a time figuring out what time it is by that hour up there? Better learn how to tell Navy time cause that’s the way I write it. Anyway, that up there is 9:55 P.M. so you figure it out from there on. Well that cruiser I told you about went out and came back in again about sun down and went to anchor. She is now riding at anchor on an ebb tide. Has all her lights lit and she looks like a small city.

We have an awful lot of big, ugly sharks hanging around this place for some reason. I never saw so many and they keep jumping clear out of the water. Guess they are feeding on some smaller fish. All it takes is a school of porpoises to get rid of them, as they do not like porpoises.

The keepers brought a live chicken out here a week or so ago and the darn thing is so tame it follows us all around in the engine room. Don’t mind that too much but we can’t convince her that the toilet is up on the second floor. She got locked up in the engine room the other night by mistake and the assistant keeper had to clean up the mess the next day. Says the next time he goes ashore, he is going to bring out a load of diapers to put on her. Can’t think of anything else just now so guess I’ll make out some reports and have a cup of coffee. Maybe I’ll think of something else after having a cup of Joe.

1020 Hours. 23 Sept. 48

Well apparently it took me quite a while to drink that cup of coffee. Had some trouble with one of the engines and was just too lazy to write. We fished off the dock here last night. Caught seven trout and five perch. May try it again tonight as the keepers say that conditions should be good for fishing tonight. Bet you have quite a time making out my handwriting. But cheer up cause I expect the picket boat out here sometime today and they may have a typewriter aboard and if they do, I will borrow it. Then watch the feathers fly.

Just received a report via radio phone that one of the deck hands on a fishing trawler, twenty-four miles south, southeast of Five Fathom Bank Lightship has been injured so they have dispatched a picket boat from Hereford Inlet to bring him ashore. The weather sure is nice today. No wind and the sea is smooth. Have to get to work now. Will send this ashore on the picket boat. Be a good girl and I’ll write you soon again. See the back of this sheet for my address:

Leslie V.S. Millar

C/o U.S. Coast Guard Station

Lewes, Delaware

Via radio phone, while I’m writing this, “Picket Boat #36424 to Cape May radio. Have injured seaman aboard from fishing trawler. Anticipated time of arrival 1130. No ambulance required.” Can’t be injured too bad, I hope.



Following are some of Helena Millar Cleveland’s memories of life at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light.

On the Fresnel Lens inside the lantern room of Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “The only thing I remember is that it was a large lens that had prisms. It was round and you opened it up and there was a bulb inside that you replaced. I remember I was shocked at how small the bulb was.”

On bad weather encountered at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “Nothing extremely noteworthy other then the lightning strikes on the rods which would cause the bell to go off in the house telling us the light was out. The bell would ring until the switch was turned off inside the lighthouse. It was very loud like firehouse bells. Of course, all of the interior lights went off as well, so this meant that you had to use a flashlight. The few times I went up with my brother, it was quite scary.”

On the keeper’s house at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “If you look at a front view photo of the house, you will see the upstairs windows. The double windows on the left were the girl’s room and the double windows on the right were the boy’s’ room. Our grandfather’s room was downstairs off the pantry, while our parents had the third bedroom upstairs.”

On her father, Keeper Leslie Millar: “You would have to have known my father to understand that he never went without a hat outside his home. He lost a full thick head of blonde hair when he was in his twenties, therefore, he did not look like the lighthouse keeper that is in the minds of most people. He also wore a tie and white shirts.”

And following are some memories from Ms. Cleveland’s brother, Robert Earl Millar.

On bad weather encountered at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “Can’t say I have many memories worth passing on but one thing that sticks with me is changing the bulb when it would go out. And here is the thing most vivid...it would seemingly always happen late at night and usually in a thunderstorm. The problem was there was a ventilator in the lantern room and as luck would have it, it was located right over the light bulb area. Water would collect in the ventilator and ‘bing,’ off would come a drop — hit the bulb, and out would go the light. Then ‘ringgggg’ would go the alarm in the house at the top of the stairs. Most, if not every time this would happen, I was the only “man” at home, as Don, Len and Richard were off fighting the war and Dad was on a trip to the lighthouses in the Delaware Bay. I would then go climbing the 100 feet to the lantern room, with no flashlight or lantern and put in a new bulb. Of course, thunder and lightning were crashing all around me and some I’m sure hitting the arrestor, which sat on top of the lantern room next to the ventilator! I recall looking at the copper rod where it entered the ground at the bottom of the light and seeing scorch marks from hits gone by.”

On paint used at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “The Lighthouse Service applied a ‘new’ lifetime paint on the steel part of the stairs and on the ladder which took you to the top 15 feet or so of the lantern room. It sure was ‘new’...for the 18 years we lived there, it never dried completely — always leaving marks on clothes and hands.”

On other miscellaneous memories at Marcus Hook Range Rear Light: “I once strung antennas from the light to my bedroom and hooked them into a crystal radio I made...it worked pretty good. Also a friend and I would go up the light with our balsa wood model airplanes and fly them from the top. When the model planes were on their last legs, we’d wind up the propeller and set a match to it and send it to its fiery death in the yard below...pretty spectacular! I also recall playing softball in the yard below the light one balmy summer day in 1937-38 when we heard a noise in the air like a motor running at constant speed. We looked up and from the south saw a dirigible approaching. We ran like the devil to the top of the lighthouse just as it got overhead. The dirigible might have been 500 to 1000 feet in the air. I am pretty certain it was the Hindenberg on maybe one of her last flights and they were using the lighthouse as a navigational aid on their way into Lakehurst, New Jersey.”

This story appeared in the August 2001 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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