Digest>Archives> October 2003

A Small Slice Of Life

Milwaukee Breakwater Light Station

By Jack Eckert


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“When you stand on the Summerfest Grounds on the Milwaukee lakefront today and look to the east, you will see a white building topped by a light tower located on the North Outer Break-wall. People once lived and worked there year-round. I was one of those people in 1955-1956.”

After my transfer from Pilot Island, Joana and I went to the Milwaukee Coast Guard Base, located behind a large coal pile at the foot of East Greenfield Avenue, and took the lighthouse service boat out to the outer breakwater. That was the only time Joana was on the light station. We had a nice visit with BM1 Pat Gorman, the Officer in Charge, got the grand tour, and went back to the base. I officially reported for duty a few days later and began living a three-days on, three-days off, life. In those days a better job could not be found in the Coast Guard. I wanted to stay on that lighthouse forever.

Milwaukee Breakwater Light is a heavy steel crib structure, four stories high with a lens room on top, located on the end of the North Breakwater sea wall. There was a four-man crew, occasionally five, and two men were required to be aboard at all times, except during crew changes.

We stood watches 12-hours on and 12-hours off. Our main duty was to monitor a radio beacon transmitting station and a foghorn with a distance-finding blast. The difficulty was to keep the foghorn accurate to within two seconds. In those days radio beacons were used by the vessels on the Great Lakes to navigate by. The old Seth Thomas(r) clocks would speed up or slow down. Depending on the weather, and were as accurate as you could get for those times, but they were unreliable at best-thus requiring a live, awake watch to keep the beacon signals on time.

Sleep when the foghorn was sounding was difficult. The problem was that on the third minute, the normal rhythm of the horn was broken by a period of silence, then the distance finding blast went off. About the time you dozed off the third minute arrived. I often just got up and went down to watch TV. After a few days of sounding, it was easy to get “soupy.”

As an Engineman, my life was easy; we had shore-supplied electrical power; an emergency engine/generator and an engine-driven air compressor that I would run once during each three-day tour of duty. Since there wasn’t much equipment running, it was easy to keep the machinery spaces clean.

The lens room was something else entirely. It was a daily task to go up there and clear the cobwebs and kill the spiders, which came in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Spider bites were a way of life.

We measured the lake level and reported in to the Corps of Engineers. Every six hours the weather people called for our latest weather observations. Every once in a while the local TV station would call to chat, but we had very little news to give them.

There were also routine housekeeping and maintenance chores to do. The man on watch was responsible for cooking the meal and cleaning up afterward. Surprisingly, the system worked well. We were given an extra $77.10 a month subsistence payments in lieu of having our meals provided. It was a good deal because we could eat well and still have $35 or $40 left over each month-enough in those days to supply groceries at home also.

Crew Change

Milwaukee Breakwater was a little treacherous to land on. It used a standard single screw wooden lighthouse boat that was rigged out ready to be hoisted onto the deck and into a cradle. There were four cables that connected to the boat, the framework to hold them outwards under load, and a large metal ring connecting all of the cables at the top. When we changed crew, we would launch the boat with the first man aboard and the second running the hoist from the main deck. The boat would be lifted from the cradle with the crane and swung out. The man going on liberty would get into the boat while it was alongside. As the boat was lowered, he would start the engine. As soon as the boat was in the water, he would step out of the cabin momentarily, unhook the ring from the heavy hook and sheave; the man topside would get it out of the way as fast as possible, then the man in the boat would back out as quickly as possible.

The boat would proceed to the Milwaukee Base behind the coal pile at the foot of Greenfield Avenue and tie up. The relief man would get aboard with his gear and return the boat to the light. When he arrived he would either tie it up if it was calm and go through the engine room door or time himself to run the boat into the corner, hook on fast while the man on deck hoisted the boat up to the edge of the deck. The second liberty man would get aboard the boat, then the returning man would lower the boat and the liberty man would take the boat back to the base and meet the second oncoming man, who would bring the boat back to the light, where it would be hoisted and cradled for the next three days. Why nobody lost fingers or was bashed by the sheave and hook is a miracle. We used to start the crew change at 0700 and the last man would be aboard and the boat cradled by 0900. I have stood off the light for as long as two hours waiting for the seas to subside enough to make a run for the corner. Scary!

Another problem was the sports fishermen. At the time the lake levels were very low and there were a lot of lake perch that could be easily caught from the jetty. There is a 100-foot or so gap in the jetty to allow boats to enter and leave from the north end of the harbor. Some of these people would climb the steel ladder onto the light and come in unannounced. Pat was very diplomatic with them; some were exercising their rights as “taxpayers.” Anyway, it was a pain.

On The Dole?

In August my pregnant wife didn’t get our allotment check. There had been a foul up in the pay section at the District Office. We tightened our belts, but it got to the point where I was stealing field corn to provide something to eat, in spite of the left over meal money from the light station.

I started to grumble at the Group Office about going on County Relief. That made me a real hero because you didn’t do things like that in those years. We finally got our pay and back pay, and the crisis was over.

The Good Life

Just before I began duty on the light station, Mr. Erwin C. Uihlein of Schlitz Brewery provided the station with a large black and white TV set which became our main form of entertainment. He also offered to send out a case of beer or two a week, but Pat put the damper on the suds. The TV was in the radio beacon equipment room, which served as our office and day room. The Milwaukee Braves were playing good baseball that year and we watched the All-Star game at County Stadium on our TV.

After TV was turned off about 2 a.m., I usually worked on my correspondence courses until daybreak, and then began cooking breakfast after doing the routine watch-keeping and housekeeping chores.

Correspondence courses helped by giving you additional points for advancing in rate. I was still a third class Engineman and promotions on units like this were rare indeed. At that stage of my life, however, I didn’t care-I had the best job I could possibly get and wanted it to go on forever. All in all it was a good life, except for stormy weather when landing the relief boat was tough. In the winter, when the harbor was full of ice, the McKinley Beach Coast Guard Station would transport us to the base in their copper-clad 36-foot motor lifeboat on crew change day.

My dreams were shattered when Pat Gorman called from the base in mid-January and told me I was being transferred to the MACKINAW and was needed for the ice-breaking season. I went to my room, packed up everything and hailed a passing fishing boat to get a ride ashore. After making the arrangements, I called Pat and received permission to leave immediately, as there were two other men at the station on duty.

That was the last time I tried to dig in anywhere. From that day forward I decided to get ahead in the Coast Guard regardless of the circumstances I found myself in.

The first year of my return to the Coast Guard came to a close; I had the sad duty of going home to tell Joana to pack up as we were leaving for Michigan and duty on the MACKINAW in a few days.

This story appeared in the October 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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