Upon his retirement as Senior Assistant Chief of the Cleveland (OH) Fire Department, former U.S. Coast Guardsman Gordon Koscher had a conversation with an old friend who was also a Coast Guard alum, Charles Fitzpatrick. Gordon said, “It would be nice to see if we could get the old crew together...” And “Fitz” replied, “Yeah, lets do that!” And so began the start of a reunion for former Coast Guard members stationed at Galloo Island, New York, that has since blossomed into a bi-annual affair for United States Coast Guard alumni that were stationed from Erie, Pennsylvania, along the New York coast of Lake Ontario, up through the Saint Lawrence River (Seaway).
After starting on the project in 1989, the first reunion was held in 1992. The next was in 1995 and more followed every two years after that, on the odd year. Each was on the same weekend in September, in the same place: Sackets Harbor, New York. (Galloo Island is near Sackets Harbor.) At one time the “North Coast New York Coast Guard Association” boasted a mailing list totaling 300 people, made up of 200 members and 100 contacts. Mr. Koscher says the mailing list is now down to just 100. Gordon states that he has the address of almost every Coast Guard facility, and that when he recently sent out a mailing to see if they wanted to stay on the list, he received only one response back. Koscher solemnly tells me his existing alumni list is dwindling as members “pass on.” The September 2003 reunion had about 40 people in attendance.
The reunion weekend consists of old friends getting back together, swapping stories and looking at photo albums. In addition, there are scheduled speakers brought in and other activities for the conference. One of the highlights, weather permitting, is a Coast Guard (and auxiliary) boat ride out to visit the abandoned Galloo Island Lifeboat Station and an offshore view of Galloo Island Lighthouse.
Gordon Koscher’s stint in the Coast Guard started with his enlistment in 1953 at the age of 19. After boot camp and a week off, he went to Galloo Island. He spent four years out there, two at the lifeboat station and two at the lighthouse. After that, he went to Cleveland and was discharged from there. Koscher was in inactive reserve for four years, but after speaking to his wife, went active again and re-enlisted in the reserve and was sent to the Cleveland unit until his retirement in 1994.
It was around 1955-56 that Gordon was at the light. “At dusk you flipped the switch,” he says. “You dusted the Fresnel lens daily, made sure the windows were clean. Someone was on watch all the time; there were a total of three in the light crew. One was always off — we rotated eight-hour watches, shift change at midnight, check on things every hour, made sure you could see the Galloo Island buoy. If you couldn’t see it, you had to turn the horns on. Shift change was at 8 a.m., went to bed at noon. Got a week off a month.” Koscher continues, “We had two DC generators (for the light), two diesel air compressors for the [fog] horns and a converter for AC for the television — not much of that — and such.”
Mr. Koscher adds, “At the lifeboat station you were busy all the time, at the lighthouse you had a lot of free time... Normally someone spent a year or two with the lifeboat station and they worked their way up a little bit, then they would send them to Aids to Navigation School for a month, and then the next shipping season they would go to the light if they wanted to. So it was sort of a reward for staying out there. After two seasons, you [could] request to go anywhere on the Great Lakes... I enjoyed it so much I opted to go to the lighthouse.”
While visiting the Galloo Lifeboat Station with the alumni, I met Warren and Doris Leifer, who recalled for me some of their time at Galloo Lighthouse. Warren says, “I joined the Coast Guard at the end of World War II. I wanted to enlist for the war but I was a little too young at the time. I was sent to Rochester [NY], met Doris and we got married a year later. Went to Aids to Navigation School in Groton [CT], then was sent out to Galloo Lighthouse for 1948-49... Second night she [Doris] was there, we had a water spout come down the river, took the pier out.” In spite of that they both say, “It was quite a nice experience there. To look at it now doesn’t resemble what was there at that time.” Warren Leifer adds, “Everybody said it was a nasty place to be... I liked it, it was fine. As I look back at it, I wish I could have stayed there forever.”
Doris Leifer recalls, “It had to be clean for inspections. The dwelling [we lived in] itself had tremendously high ceilings, I would ride on his [Warren’s] shoulders to clean around them... It was a real nice house.”
The Leifers had to call the lifeboat station on the crank telephone (in a separate building from theirs) to have somebody buy the supplies on the mainland at Sackets Harbor, and they had to use the Dodge Power Wagon (sometimes it ran, sometimes it didn’t) to get the supplies from the station to the light a few miles away. Whoever was on their week-off leave would get the supplies. Warren states, “We were afraid to drink up our milk for fear of running out so it would spoil.” They both laugh.
Mr. Leifer recalls their calendar schedule, “We closed right after the shipping season which was about mid-December. Take all our stuff, batteries and such and put it on the 55-foot boat, take it to Cape Vincent [NY] to store for the winter, went back to Rochester and ran a radio beacon there — coal shipments ran year-round... Shipping reopened about mid-April, had to be back by the first to have everything back up working, batteries, machinery, etc.”
Galloo Island is about 4.5 miles long and about three miles wide. Doris Leifer had to think about that one night, “...Somebody was knocking on the front door and I had to remember where we were... and it was raining like crazy. I woke him [Warren] up and he says ‘You’re nuts, nobody could be at the door.’ Well, I said ‘Go look,’ and there they were... They ran aground... We had a house that almost floated up off the foundation that night, and they were so wet...”
Now Warren says he has a story. “Another keeper’s wife, a Southern girl you know, and she is scared to death of snakes. We had snakes like crazy out there and we had lots of frogs, almost as big as your foot. We used to use the frogs as bait to catch the black bass. We didn’t have casting rods and all that stuff in those days. We used long cane poles, bait the hook and throw it out there. So she had a frog on her line and she got a bite and pulled it up... and it wasn’t a fish... it was a snake! She held the pole straight up and the snake comes swinging past her head... and she is running off the pier with the snake flying back and forth... She’s running across the yard with the damn snake...” Warren laughs.
Warren and Doris Leifer remember a lady at a farm on the island who would bake and cook everything... “You would be going by and she would hand you something.” They remarked that at the holidays, everybody who was on the island, no matter what they were there for, would go to the farm. Warren said, “She served three holiday meals on Thanksgiving!” He just couldn’t believe it.
Doris, smiling, says, “You made do with what you had... You know you’re there for a while so you might just as well enjoy it!”
Now Warren tells a story that I think you would have to say... well... read it for yourself: “It was foggy one night... We had two Kohler generators for the light and two GM generators for the fog horn... The Kohlers were just about on their last legs, they would quit running whenever they felt like it... so it was really foggy this night, you could tell the light was getting dimmer all the time so I ran down there quick... had NO clothes on... to get the other generator working. Changing sparkplugs, doing everything I can to get it working and then the damn thing would quit. I’d get the other one going and I was transferring back and forth and it was daylight when I was done. So I worked most of the night, bare-naked... So it’s daylight and so here I am coming up from the fog building to the house, which was probably a few hundred feet, and one of the other keeper’s wives — the Southern girl, with the snake — was looking out the window at me!” Now Doris chimes in, “I always told him you’re gonna get caught, you’re gonna get caught and sure ‘nuff.” Warren says, “She [the other keeper’s wife] never said a word.
At the end of the interview, Mrs. Leifer was saddened about today’s offshore view of the Galloo Lighthouse, “What bothers me the most about how it looks now is that the dwelling we lived in is now gone.”
This story appeared in the
Jan/Feb 2004 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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