Before 1898, Spanish-American War, the Spanish government had constructed all but two of the light stations in their possessions turned over to the United States in and around Puerto Rico. Much attention was given to structures and equipment. A lighthouse keeper was a person of distinction. Often, retired Spanish Naval officers filled the berth.
The buildings were, for the greater part, standard, rectangular in plan, with rooms having high ceilings around the central tower, the whole built of soft brick masonry, heavily plastered and painted white outside. The dwelling portion had a flat roof with a parapet and heavy cornice. The roof was covered with large tiles plastered, resting directly on heavy beams of tropical timber, (ausubo), exposed underneath.
The roof drained through downspouts to a cistern and often the roof leaked after torrential rains which I had to take into consideration for repair, effected by laying a four-inch, waterproofed, reinforced concrete deck over the old roof (Point Tuna, etc.) One room was reserved exclusively for an office for the keeper where his property records and inspection book were found in his desk.
I was particularly interested to learn how the families lived in these spacious quarters. The kitchen, in place of a stove, had a masonry block on one side, hollowed out for a sink, and the other side mounted a charcoal burner. All water was dipped out of the cistern. There was no refrigeration of any kind. Always, there was a flock of scrubby, little, native chickens to shoo away before one could enter the house from the outside and likewise goats and kids. So, there was goat’s milk and meat in the culinary department, together with eggs and chicken.
Rice and beans were basic in the diet. The native fruits were not over-abundant: four varieties of bananas. Only the commercial bananas as known in the States were eaten without cooking. There were scarce, other native fruits scattered far and wide: pear, small oranges, grapefruit, nisperos (loquat- delicious and rare.) The common mango that had a turpentine taste when cultivated was divine.
In the city, the stringy seeds of the mango littered the streets in season. There were other scarce fruits, all of which I liked very much though they had a foreign taste. The lack of fresh vegetables in the diet was the cause of malnutrition throughout the Island.
The keepers were on the same pay scale as in the States, so, compared with the poor jibaros (farmers of country people), or city-dwellers, they lived liked kings, so favorably that at each station, they hired peons of the locality for a pittance to do the lighthouse work, such as cleaning and painting. They always had one or two little native horses for transportation and to bring in feed, rice and beans and fruits from town, as, in the case of Arecibo, some three miles distant.
I practiced my Spanish on this first inspection. The keepers were shy and kept their families hidden as much as possible not knowing that I was anxious to be sociable and to learn how they lived. I went through the formalities, inspected the incandescent oil vapor light and noted everything in good condition and signed the inspection book. Then, they became friendly and gave me plenty of Spanish practice. The place had been hastily broom-cleaned but there still were traces of goat and chicken “do” at the kitchen entrance, showing the intimate relationship these providers had with the household.
In the course of an hour, I was again underway with the tender, bound west for Point Borinquen, a light station just completed by contract by Felix Benitez Rexach. This able Puerto Rican contractor, with his Cornell engineering education, had completed large dock works for the city of San Juan. The new station had just been put in commission and I made the final inspection for acceptance.
Point Borinquen was on the northwest cape of Puerto Rico. It replaced a former station destroyed by earthquake. The general design differed from the Spanish style in that the tower of reinforced concrete of simple and heavy construction offered maximum resistance to earthquake shocks and was apart from the dwelling. There were quarters for the families of the two keepers in the single-story, reinforced concrete building.
To Be Continued.
This excerpt is taken from “Superintendent of Lighthouses- 9th District: 1920 to 1927” in The Making of a Lighthouse Engineer, the unpublished memoirs of Commodore Frederick P. Dillon.
This story appeared in the
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