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Pages of time

Capt. Spear and Lighthouse Service Era Ended at the Same Time

By Timothy Harrison


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The Deepwater Range Front Light where Capt. ...

It may have occurred entirely by coincidence, but the end of Capt. William Spear’s 33 years of service in 1939 came at the same time as the United States Lighthouse Service disappeared into the pages of time.

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Capt. William Spear polishing the lens at the ...

Coming out of three-year stint in the U.S. Navy at the end of the Spanish American War, Capt. Spear was assigned to the Immigration Quarantine Station as an inspector. He then applied to the U.S. Lighthouse Service for the position of keeper and served first at Brandywine Shoals at the extreme end of Delaware Bay until he was transferred to Egg Island Light and finally as keeper of the Deepwater Range Lights where he served for 31 years until his retirement.

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One of the more interesting shipwrecks that he recalled (one of only two near the lighthouse during his career) was that of the Moore and McCormick liner that had a head on collision with a freighter. The vessel was carrying a million dollars in canned goods. In an effort to refloat the ship the crew jettisoned case after case of canned vegetables and fruit. Local residents had free canned goods for several years after that. William Spear Jr., son of Capt. Spear, recalled in later years, “The water had taken the labels off the cans and they provided us with mystery dinners. Mother would open a can, hoping that it would be beans or tomatoes, and we would be delighted to find out that it contained peaches or cherries.

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The Spear family posed for this picture on the ...

Spear recalled that the lighthouse inspectors came once every three months. He said, “They ‘inspected’ carefully, brought new supplies of brooms, mops, etc. and took away all the old equipment. We did not look forward very early to such visits, as our chores and habits were based upon an effort to always be ready for an unexpected visit. Although this practice may have developed desirable habits, we were not too appreciative at the time!”

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Captain William Spear from a photograph made at ...

Spear Jr. also remembered his school days, “Every day, rain or shine, we left home about seven forty-five and walked the Deepwater Canal bank to the Delaware Bridge. This was about a mile. Here we said “hello” to the bridge tender, Mr. Armstrong, and walked over the bridge on Shell Road to Churchtown to a little yellow one room school house. From our house to the school was a distance of about three miles. We enjoyed it in the good weather, as it was an opportunity for us to associate with other children.

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William Spear Jr., pointing to the tower, tells a ...

“On winter days when snow and ice piled high on the river and canal, it was a bitter cold experience to walk along the canal bank and road to school. The bridge tenders were our very best friends at such times. They would welcome us from the bitter cold, into the warmth of the tiny room. Putting more coal on the fire and opening the drafts to make the little stove cherry red, he would help us remove our wraps and gather close to get warm.

“When we were warm once more, he would help us bundle up again and send us on our way.” However, the cold soon penetrated their wraps on their journey the rest of the way to school. When they did arrive at the school the teacher would help them remove their wraps and would plunge their hands into a bucket of cold water. Spear Jr. said, “This kept the returning warmth from being too painful to our frosted finger tips!” I wonder if today’s school children can appreciate a trip to school like that, in the “Good ol’ days?”

He went on to recall that sometimes they were fortunate enough to be offered a ride by a farmer, or by someone going to work at the “Powder Plant,” but the truth of the matter was that travelers were few along the long road home from school. Spear Jr. said, “We arrived home from school about 4:45 where we were happy to gather around the coal range in the kitchen and smell the appetizing odor of supper simmering above the flames.”

Spear Jr. recalled that summer was a pleasant season along the Delaware River. He and his brother and two sisters played on what was then a clean sand beach, with clear blue water where they could swim or wade. He recalled that the water was so clear they could see the clean sandy bottom. “We also picked blueberries, huckleberries and wild strawberries in the sand fields between our home and the road. Many different kinds of birds became familiar to us in the fields and woods.”

Life was much different at the lighthouse after the Spears left as the area developed and rapidly changed.

After being rendered obsolete by the building of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the lighthouses were destroyed in 1956. The lighthouses may be gone, but the photographs, memories and legacy of Capt. William Spear and his family will live on forever in the “pages of time.”

Our sincere thanks goes out to Rosemarie Jones, granddaughter of lighthouse keeper Capt. William Spear for supplying us with a wealth of information and photographs on the Deepwater Range Lights.

This story appeared in the July 2003 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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