In 1896, writer and author Kirk Munroe (1850-1930), along with noted maritime artist Carlton T. Chapman (1860-1925), spent a number of weeks on board the Lighthouse Tender Armeria as it traversed the Atlantic coast of the United States visiting all of its many lighthouses.
In his story written for Harpers, Kirk Munroe tried hard to impress upon the reader the magnificence of the Armeria by stating, in reference to the great White Fleet of the United States warships of the time, “Not one of the white squadron! Not a warship! What is she then? She is certainly a government vessel of some kind. Such are some of the remarks likely to be overheard at the Maine coast resorts upon the appearance in the harbor of the Armeria. Nor is it any wonder that this big white steamer, with her yellow funnel, many boats, gleaming brass work, and uniformed officers and crew, should be mistaken for a warship. But the Armeria is not a man-of-war, nor does she belong to the Navy.
“She is merely the largest and most important of the great fleet of government vessels . . . devoted to the peaceful service of commerce. She is the lighthouse supply-ship, the only one of her kind owned by the United States, and the finest of her class in the world. Her duty is to pay an annual visit to every light station on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the United States, from Calais, Maine to Point Isabel, Texas and to deliver at each lighthouse a year’s supply of oil and the other articles necessary for the maintenance of its light.
“In addition to visiting the coast lights, she supplies the numerous post lights of Connecticut, Delaware, Potomac, James, Cape Fear, Savannah, St. John’s and Indian Rivers, shipping the required stores by rail, or by river steamers, to those points that her draught, of thirteen feet, will not permit her to reach. In thus making her annual rounds the Armeria visits about 700 and supplies about 850 light stations. – From June 30, 1891, to the same date in 1892 she steamed 14,000 miles, and delivered at light stations 250,00 gallons of mineral oil, 220 tons of paints and paint oils, 3,735 boxes of lamp-chimneys, and 10,735 packages of miscellaneous supplies.”
Munroe also wrote heavily on the extreme difficulties that it often took to off-load the supplies and get them to the lighthouses. “Innumerable are the records of overturned boats and brave swimmers battling with the waves, while painfully pushing the heavy oil-casks through them to the beach.”
By 1896, all but eight of the forty-nine lighthouse tenders is existence were named after a flower. The Armeria was the only one in the floral fleet that had a botanical name, and few persons would recognize the common sea-pink or thrift under its more learned appellation. It was a somewhat unfortunate choice for a name for the ship, especially since Armeria so nearly resembles the word “America” that the ship was often reported with the latter name. To make matters worse, often times, journalists, in their many writings, also referred to the vessel as the “Amelia,” and “Armaria,” all much to the disgust of Willian Wright, the longtime captain of Armeria.
The Armeria had a crew of forty-one officers and men, and the captain’s wife almost always travelled with him. And, from time to time, other dignitaries traveled with them as well as the Lighthouse Inspector. When the Armeria reached a lighthouse, they were greeted by the lighthouse keeper and his assistants, who were always in uniform, and the children would always be dressed in their Sunday best.
During these visits by the Armeria, the Lighthouse Inspector was often on board and would go ashore to give the entire light station a white gloved inspection. It was also a time for the lighthouse keeper and his wife to voice their concerns or complaints about anything that needed to be done to improve the light station or the way of life of the keepers and their families.
As well as delivering the oil, coal, and other items to the light station, this was the time when the lighthouse keeper was required to produce all of his worn-out brooms, brushes, mops, broken tools, decrepit lamps, and even dust pans, which would all be gathered up and taken back to the lighthouse tender. Then new ones would be procured by the storeroom on the tender and delivered to the lighthouse keeper, who would then be required to sign for them. Eventually these worn out items would simply be thrown overboard into the ocean by the crew of Armeria, but not until the lighthouse tender was far enough away from the lighthouse so that there would be no chance of any of them floating back or washing up on the shore by the lighthouse to again be offered back to the lighthouse tender on its next visit.
The captain and the crew of the Armeria always observed Sunday when no work that could be avoided was done. The officers of the ship would wear their newest uniforms and the brown canvas working-suits of the crew were replaced by dapper blue shirts, trousers, hats, and “black silk neckerchiefs of men-of-war’s-men.”
Although each and every light station that the Armeria would visit offered its own set of unique challenges in getting supplies to them, it was reported by Munroe in his writings that the Highland Light on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse in Florida were among the hardest to supply.
At Jupiter Inlet the work needed to be done on an open beach where a heavy surf was always encountered and the freight-boats from the Ameria were often overturned and their contents scattered far and wide. If the inlet was closed, which often happened, the supplies needed to be landed on the beach and hand carried across the loose sand and then shipped into other boats to be taken across the inner lagoon and finally hand-carried again to the top of the high bluff where the lighthouse stood. As well as delivering the supplies for the Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse, the crew had to deliver all the supplies that were needed to operate and maintain the 26 post lights on the Indian River.
The situation at Highland Light on Cape Cod was much different. Here the lighthouse was perched 142-feet above sea level high atop a sheer cliff. Being inaccessible from the sea, supplies were landed on the bay, or inner side of Cape Cod, and carried by locals across the prevailing countryside in horse-drawn carts. Kirk Munroe described the scene as follows: “The price paid for this work is five cents a case, or fifty cents per load. So eager are the locals to obtain this job, that the moment the Armeria is in sight, the two-wheeled Cape carts are to be seen racing toward her landing-place from every direction, and as the deeply laden freight-boat nears the beach, the rival competitors for her cargo drive into the water until their ponies are almost at swimming depth, and urge their claims to be employed with excited gesticulations and a confusion of cries rich in Yankee dialect.”
But the Armeria’s days along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts came to a close, starting first in 1898 with its assigned duties in the Spanish American War and finally when it was transferred in 1907 to the Pacific Coast in Washington State and then in 1911 to the waters of Alaska. On May 20, 1912 when it was going to deliver coal to the Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse in Alaska, it struck a submerged rock and was damaged beyond repair or saving. According to Douglas Peterson in his book United States Lighthouse Service Tenders 1840-1939, at the time of the accident it was considered the most expensive loss in the history of the United States Lighthouse Service.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2016 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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