John R. Monteiro was a man of integrity and excellence. Never were more glowing personal recommendations recorded of any lighthouse personnel than those given to him by all who knew him and worked with him during his 42-year career in the United States Lighthouse Service. Early on, his sterling character and notable leadership qualities were noted by his superiors. It was his diligent efforts to do his job to the utmost of his abilities that eventually cost him his life.
John de Rocha Monteiro, born in the Azores in 1865, immigrated to the United States in 1882 at age 17. He joined the United States Lighthouse Service as a seaman on the lighthouse tender Verbena in 1887. Over the course of the next 40 years, he rose in the ranks through quartermaster, mate, master, and then Captain as he went on to serve on five other tenders: Azalea, Mayflower, Ivy, Arbutus, and Orchid.
George F. F. Wilde, who later became Naval Secretary to the Lighthouse Board, served as Monteiro’s inspector in the second district in the early 1890s. In two separate letters that he penned to 28 year-old Monteiro in 1893, he spoke of the pleasure in recommending him for a promotion and added, “I am entirely confident that you will not only be a credit to the Lighthouse Service but to yourself as well and justify my confidence in you as a most exemplary and worthy young man and a fine officer. I hope someday to see you master.”
Three months later, after Monteiro had received the promotion to mate, Wilde again noted, “You are thoroughly competent. It gives me great satisfaction to know that I advanced the interests of so worthy and competent a man as you are before leaving the district and I feel very sure that you will always deserve the respect and commendation of all, either above or below you in rank.”
Captain S.J. Howes, the master of the tender Verbena, who Monteiro served under for almost eight years, wrote to him in 1894 and asked him to “tell Mrs. Monteiro that I think very highly of her husband.” Both Howes and Wilde corresponded with Monteiro over the course of many years following their service together, showing that they considered each other more than just work associates.
In 1896, while still a mate, John R. Monteiro was temporarily in command of the lighthouse tender Azalea for 6 months. F.M. Green, second district inspector at that time, wrote a note to him saying, “I take this opportunity to express to you my thorough appreciation of the way you have done your work while in command of the Azalea as well as my high commendation of your zeal, efficiency and attention to duty.”
Two years later in 1898, while yet a mate, but acting as captain of the lighthouse tender Verbena, Monteiro was again praised by the new inspector of the second district, H.G.C. Colby, who commented, “I wish to express to you my appreciation of the manner you performed your duties as master of the Steamer Verbena during the past six months. No one could have done better. You kept the work up to date and were most efficient and handled the steamer perfectly.”
In 1899, John R. Monteiro transferred to the lighthouse tender Sunflower, though still in the second lighthouse district out of Boston. It is assumed he continued in his excellent service, as no documentation exists for the next ten-year period of his career. Then, in 1909, he was finally offered his well-earned promotion to master of the lighthouse tender Orchid, servicing the Puerto Rican waters in the ninth district.
Upon acceptance, Rear-Admiral George F.F. Wilde, then retired, congratulated him and said he should have received the promotion years ago, “if faithful, intelligent service was to be rewarded, had I remained Naval Secretary of the (Lighthouse) Board.”
Monteiro remained in Puerto Rico for the next five years, changing off between the tenders Orchid and Ivy, until he returned back to the States in 1914 to Portsmouth, Virginia, when the Ivy changed places with the lighthouse tender Myrtle. For the next 12 years, Captain Monteiro rotated between the lighthouse tenders Ivy, Arbutus, and Orchid, receiving many official letters of commendation for rendering assistance to vessels in distress.
In October of 1926, Fred P. Dillon, then superintendent of the ninth district in Puerto Rico, was offered the post of General Superintendent of Lighthouses. Captain Monteiro took Dillon’s place and returned to serve in Puerto Rico as District Superintendent. In doing so, Monteiro requested an orientation time of two weeks overlap before Dillon left, so that the transition might be made smoothly. During that time, Dillon acquainted Monteiro with many of the projects and improvements he had envisioned for the immediate future of the district and left them in the care of Monteiro’s capable hands.
Superintendent John R. Monteiro continued to receive commendations during the next two years, most notably during the great hurricane in September of 1928, which, according to Monteiro’s horrific account in the Lighthouse Service Bulletin, “did not seem as if anything would stand its force or any life would survive.”
The roof of the superintendent’s quarters blew off at the height of the storm and doors came off their hinges. Personnel were thrown about by the winds and sustained injuries as they rushed from one building to the next at the depot, securing the quarters by ropes and putting extra battens on doors and windows. As soon as they shored up one area, something else would give way.
The effects of this storm were spread over five lighthouse districts with several lights destroyed or extinguished, requiring a large amount of money to repair. Monteiro and six employees were officially commended by the Secretary of Commerce for saving lighthouse property at the depot.
In October of 1929, General Superintendent Fred P. Dillon came on an official inspection visit of the ninth district. John R. Monteiro was very excited to host Dillon, and they planned a month-long trip to visit many outlying lights, all the way to the Panama Canal. Monteiro wanted to show Dillon all the improvements he had made in realizing the goals Dillon had set for the district two years earlier.
In his last letter to his son on November 13th, Monteiro wrote that he and Dillon were “on our trip to the Caribbean sea lights and the canal. Expect to be at Colon about Nov. 25, and if things turn out ok, should be back by Dec. 15. This trip is quite complicated. We’ve been trying an automatic sea light at Navassa and it’s been satisfactory for the past six months. Will take all keepers off this time and leave the light by itself.”
Many of the locations they visited had difficult climbs to the lights. But it was after this particularly difficult trek to see the Navassa Island Lighthouse that Monteiro came back to the tender feeling unwell. They transported him speedily to the nearest hospital in Colon, Panama, but unfortunately, the doctors found he had suffered a heart attack and he passed away the next day on November 27, 1929.
John R. Monteiro’s son, Charles, inquired of the hospital to find out more details of his death. A doctor replied that “Mr. Dillon of the Lighthouse Service and Captain Kariger, both friends of his, called on the morning of the 27th and asked us to do everything possible for him and Captain Kariger gave us his personal check with which to employ special nurses, as the government does not authorize that additional expense. They left the hospital at 10:00 AM but at 10:30, before the nurse arrived, he passed away quietly.”
Superintendent Fred P. Dillon had to accompany the body back on a United Fruit Company steamer to New Orleans so that Captain John R. Monteiro could be interred in the Metairie Cemetery, near where his son Charles lived. It was a very sad trip for Dillon.
A fitting final commendation was given in the obituary published in the January, 1930 Lighthouse Service Bulletin that summed up Monteiro’s impressive career and excellent character. “Conscientious endeavor in the interest of the lighthouse Service for over 42 years won for Captain Monteiro the high regard and esteem in which he was held by his associates and all with whom he came in contact.”
John R. Monteiro’s death was doubly tragic as he was scheduled to retire on his 65th birthday, only three short months later. He truly gave his all until death.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2017 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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