Interview with Bill Muesel Seeing The Light

Conducted on June 2, 2002 Home Back


In late May, 2002, I was contacted by Bill's wife, who informed me that Bill had been stationed at Rock of Ages from 1949 to 1954, and after visiting y website was wondering if I would like to talk with him about his experiences at the station.

Of course, I said yes, and on June 2, I was honored to listen as Bill unfolded his fascinating story while my tape recorder captured the entire conversation for history. The following is an exact transcript of that interview.

Terry - Bill, please tell me about where you grew up, and how you became involved with the lighthouse service.

Bill - I was born in 1918, hard on the shores of Lake Superior on Park Point in Duluth, Minnesota. I was involved in sailing on Lake Superior for many years, and with the Lighthouses in various positions in Lake Superior.

I joined the Lighthouse Service in early spring of 1939, and the Coast Guard took over the former Lighthouse Service in 1940. At that time, I enlisted in the Coast Guard. I remained in the Coast Guard for 34 years, and retired in the fall of 1973, after 34 years and six months of service. When I retired, I was the last person that came in from the Lighthouse Service in enlistment status. I had a Lighthouse pennant that flew from the buoy tenders, and I was in Castle Hill Rhode Island when I retired, and we hoisted the Lighthouse Service pennant at that time, and they hauled it down, and they presented it to me.

When I first made a trip out to Rock of Ages in 1939, I was on the AMARANTH, which was a 180-foot buoy tender which worked out of Duluth. It was a coal burning steam vessel with a crew of 28. We were all civilians, members of the Lighthouse Service. Our main job as a tender was to bring supplies and machinery and maintenance men and workers that might be coming out to the Lighthouses. We mainly worked Lake Superior, however occasionally we would go below the Soo. I was on the AMARANTH from about March of 1939 until November of 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, when I was transferred off, and went other places.

We used to bring the Lighthouse Keepers out in the Spring. On Lake Superior, when she’d freeze up, they closed down all the Lights and navigation would cease, and around December sometime around Christmas, we’d bring the Lighthouse keepers in, and then in the Spring about March or the early part of April we’d take them back out. We’d also bring their supplies at that time. During the summer season the tenders worked buoys and other aids to navigation and lighthouses.

As far as Rock of Ages was concerned, the Keepers were all civilians at that time, and they’d usually have a Keeper and three Assistants, a Third, Second and First Assistant. At that time I never had any suspicion that I would end up stationed on Rock of Ages, After leaving the AMARANTH in 1942, I went to Detroit and other places on the Lakes, and was transferred to the East Coast. After the War, I came back to the Lakes and I went on a buoy tender in Lake Michigan, the TAMARACK. AT that time, she was being used primarily to tend diving bells that the Navy was developing. We had a huge bell that we’d keep in the hold and pick it up with the boom and drop it. They’d put divers down and practice with the diving bell.

I left the TAMARACK in ’46. I was only on it for about a year, and I came back to Group Duluth and went to Outer Island, where I was stationed for about a half the season. The Keeper was a civilian, and I was able to bring my wife out there and one child at the time. We’d go back and forth in the gasoline launch. At Outer Island is on the outside, and there’s not much protection there, and on the backside we had a boathouse and kind of a little harbor. On the front side we just had a dock down there at the foot of the cliff. I made a kind of little fish box that we used to carry our baby in, who was less than a year old at the time, and my wide always said that there were 93 steps coming up from the dock to the Light. We had electricity to run the main light, but in the dwelling there was still kerosene. But we’d run an extension cord from the fog signal so we’d at least have some electricity in them place. We had to clean the mantles in the kerosene lamps. I only stayed at Outer Island through that fall, and returned to Duluth for the winter.

The following Spring, I went out to Passage Island for part of the season until I was assigned to the Aids to Navigation school in Groton Connecticut. I went to Groton in November of ’48, and graduated out of the AN class in April of ’49. Then I came back to Duluth Group and was assigned as the Officer in charge of Rock of Ages. When I went out there to relieve the Keeper, who was a civilian, I had been acquainted with him, since during the War he was made a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard and was Commanding Officer of one of the Tenders I was on Lake Huron. His name was Hubert Veislaw. I don’t know how long he had been at Rock of Ages before I relieved him, but I would think that he was probably there two or three years, after discharge form the Coast Guard after the War. I went out to Rock of Ages in June of 1949.I was a Boatswain’s Mate Chief then with a designator AN, for Aids to Navigation from graduating from the Aids to Navigation school. I was assigned as the Officer In Charge. I remained there until August of 1954, when I was transferred to Kodiak Alaska, to a buoy tender up there.

So I was there a little more than five years. I enjoyed the tour of duty. They had some difficulty in finding people who were willing to stay on this isolated stations for any length of time.

Terry - Especially married people I would think.

Bill - Yes that’s right. You were out for three weeks, and in for one week.

Terry - Where did your wife live when you were stationed out there?

She lived in Duluth all this time. While I was on there, we used to run our liberty from Grand Portage, Minnesota, which is up by the Canadian border. There’s a little harbor there and that’s where the mail boat and the fish boat brought us out from, and serviced Isle Royale. It was about nineteen miles across from Rock of Ages to Grand Portage, and we used to run that in a twenty-four foot boat and usually had two guys in the boat. One guy going ashore on liberty and another guy coming back from liberty. While I was at Rock of Ages we were under the Coast Guard Group at Grand Marais, which is maybe fifteen miles from Grand Portage, and that’s where they’d send the truck with our supplies.

Then our supplies would be shipped out on the mail boat, of which there were several. They were gas boats, and ranged from 40 to 60 feet. They would come out and make the whole run around Isle Royale and pick up the fish, trout and herring, and ice it down and then bring it in to Grand Portage. In turn, they’d bring the supplies out to the fishermen and to Rock of Ages and Passage Island, being at the other end of Isle Royale. We would have to take our 24-footer with a four cylinder Gray engine and run into Washington Harbor from Rock of Ages. IF we weren’t there when the fish boat came through, they’d leave our supplies and mail in boxes in a fish shed in the harbor.. It was kind of a derelict fish shed, but it held off the elements, and we’d pick up our stuff there.

At Rock of Ages, there is only a small cement dock, maybe thirty feet in length, and it really doesn’t get any lee, and we’d pick the boat up with a crane and set it on the second deck of the lighthouse. If the weather was such that you couldn’t land at the Rock, for some years there had been a little shack on Booth Island, which is right across from Singers Island in Washington Harbor, where you could tie-up. We kept some supplies and a bed there. I did quite a bit of improving on the cabin. I got a little gas generator so we could generate some electricity, so we had lights, and my wife would come out and stay at the cabin and I’d go out there when I was available. We had two boys at the time. Our daughter was too small to take at the time.

We used to do a lot of trout fishing on the reef at the Rock. The fishing was tremendous there. We got all kinds of lake trout. There were a lot of moose on Isle Royale, there still is. They were taboo, but they’d let the Indians harvest the moose in the fall to thin them out, but they never really got many takers on it. They say the moose got to Isle Royale from the Canadian shore around 1910 when they had a severe winter and the lake iced over. There were no predators on the Island, and so they kept expanding. At Windigo, they had an area a couple of acres fenced off to keep the moose out, so you could see how the vegetation grew where the moose couldn’t get at it. They’re like deer, and eat everything as high as they can reach with their heads.

I always used to tell the crew that when it was foggy, that when coming back from Grand Portage, if you run two hours and you don’t see the Light, then you should stop and shut off the engine and listen for the horn. One time, when I was on a week’s leave, a couple of non rated guys, I think it was a fireman and a seaman, ran were running back to Rock of Ages from Grand Portage and forgot to stop and listen. They just kept motoring along until they ran out of fuel. A steamer came along and put a line on them and towed them as far as the Keweenaw Peninsula and called the Portage Coast Guard Station. The crew from Portage Station came out and escorted them back to the Rock. As I said, I was on leave, and didn’t know this until I got back.

When I was at the station for those five years, you could still see the COX about four feet under water, but she kept sliding down a little more every year. The first couple of years that she was exposed, the fishermen were really in fat city. They were getting furniture in their fishing nets. I even heard a story that one of them pulled up a piano, but I don’t know if that was true or not. At any rate, it was really good picking for them for a coupe, of years.

Terry - When you were stationed on Rock of Ages, what do you remember most about the inside of the structure?

Bill - The first two stories are inside the crib itself. They are steel. Then on top of the second deck, the brick lighthouse itself starts, about eight stories high. In the Spring, when you would go out there after sitting through the winter. It would take about a week to warm the place up. We did have a furnace. It was coal fired to start with, but then they converted it to oil.

Terry - Was that hot water heat?

Bill - Yes, it was hot water radiators. The first floor was the engine room, with the compressors, generators and the radio equipment, and that was where you stood your watch. The radiobeacons and the timers were all there. The next deck up was the galley, and that’s where the officer in charge had his bunk. The third, fourth and fifth decks also had bunks, and as you progressed up, the rooms got smaller. The lantern room was really two floors devoted to the light itself. Originally, they used to have weights that ran down five stories through a tube that ran down through the center of the circular stairs. You would crank it up from the top side and the power to tun the light came from this weight through a clockwork mechanism. The light floated in mercury, and that’s what made the thing run so free and easily. We had shades in the lantern that we pulled every morning, and put a cover over the lens, which we took off every night when we’d light her up. But of course, everything was electrified when I was there, but there was still a lot of the old equipment in there.

Terry - What did you do to pass the time, Did you play a lot of cards or did you have a radio?

Bill - Before I got there, I don’t think there was too much work performed. But down in the lower crib deck there was a lot of block and tackle. They used to paint the Light themselves, but it hadn’t been done for many years before I got there. I had this guy Ed Hinesburg, who’d been there for probably fifteen years before I got there because he was there when the COX went down in ’33. He was a Latvian from Riga, Latvia, and he had been a square rigger sailor, sailing around The Horn many times, and we got the block and tackles out and rigged them up from the lantern room and started scraping and painting on the Light, which was a project that would take years. Down below, the lower two levels were steel and we had to do a lot of chipping because there was a lot of rust. The bricks were not so bad. I found out the best way to keep the crew happy was to keep them busy. However we had a lot of time for trolling, and fishing was really the big thing. We had the radio. I had a couple of Hillbilly kids, and every Saturday night they had to listen to the Grand Old Opry.

I used to do a lot of trout fishing on Isle Royale itself. There were some really dandy trout streams there, and down at the bottom of Washington Harbor itself at Windigo Lodge, they had a little dock, and that’s where I would go trout fishing.

Terry - Were you fly fishing?

Bill - Mostly worms. It was pretty well overgrown, and it they weren’t the type of streams you could get a boat into. Once in awhile, you’d come cross a wide spot, but that was about it. It was very good trout fishing.

Terry - Going back to your time on the AMARANTH, what were the quarters like on that vessel. She’s long gone, and I have often wondered what life was like on board.

Bill - The AMARANTH was the first and last boat I was ever on that had a forecastle. The crew had quarters down in the forecastle, just back of the chain locker. It was maybe twenty-five or thirty feet long, but it wasn’t beamy, because you were up at the forward part of the vessel. Along the starboard and port sides we had six bunks. Three fore and three aft, two deep, so we had a total of twelve bunks there.

We had seven deck hands, and normally carried three coal-passers. Then we had a guy we called "the Flunky," he was the helper in the galley. The second cook also lived in the forecastle. We had a wooden ladder we came down, it was almost vertical, but had a little angle on it. There was a little table in the middle of the cabin. We used to play a lot of poker on it, but you couldn’t seat more than four people at it comfortably.

As I said, as well as the three coal-passers, we normally had three firemen, three oilers and two Engineers, the Chief Engineer and the First Assistant Engineer. That made up the engine room. Then on the Deck division, we had the seven deck hands and three Quartermasters. The Quartermasters would do all the wheeling, they’d go four and eight. Then when we’d stop at a lighthouse or work buoys, they would work the boom, because there’d be nobody in the wheel house, except probably the Old Man or the watch -stander. Then we had the First and Second Mate and the Captain.

We also had a radio operator. In those days it was all "ditty-dot," you know, so we had "Sparky." There was also a Steward who ordered all of the grub and kind of took care of the Officers. Finally there were the First and Second Cook and the Flunky, so there was a total of three guys in the galley.

We didn’t have any yeomen. Like they do now, there were no real administrative guys on board, because we didn’t really go through the paperwork like they do today.

Terry - In reading through various Station logbooks, I have noticed that the AMARANTH and MARIGOLD frequently carried various dignitaries and passengers on board. Were there staterooms on board for visitors?

Bill - Yes. The Captain had his own quarters underneath the wheel house, and the Mate, Second Engineer and Steward slept back on the aft upper deck. They had a salon back there, along with the Officers Mess, and that’s where the Inspector or any visitors would stay.

Terry - I also notice in station logs that the tenders frequently arrived very late and departed early. Is that the way things went when you were on her, was she pretty much sailing all the time?

Bill - The weather would be the big factor. If we got there and the weather forecast looked good, we’d frequently make an early start, around four in the morning. We didn’t really do too much midnight stuff, but we were mostly servicing the Lights outside.

Terry - Are you familiar with the Marigold at all?

Bill - I have read quite a bit about her. She was sold off and converted into a sand-sucker and worked the Saginaw River, and was the last of the old tenders to be scrapped about ten years ago. She worked out of Detroit. We always did our dry-docking in Lake Michigan, Manitowoc mostly, or Sturgeon Bay. When we were out, then the MARIGOLD would come up to Lake Superior, and vice versa.

Terry - Did you work out of the buoy depot on Minnesota Point?

Bill - No. When I was on the AMARANTH, we were on Lake Avenue, just above the Aerial bridge towards town. We had a sand lot that we’d throw the buoys in, and that’s where we’d paint them up in the Spring. We were working with acetylene gas, that was before batteries, and we had those huge lanterns on the buoys.

Terry - How did they transfer the gas from the tenders to the buoys? Did she have a large storage tank on board?

Bill - No, the gas was always in tanks. We’d get the acetylene in tanks, about three or four feet long, and maybe a foot or two in circumference. They’d weigh about 150 to 180 pounds, the big ones. A lot the same as you see oxygen and acetylene in today when you see a guy doing some burning. They had some small tank, but most of the buoys took these large tanks. I think they called them A-300’s or something like that.

Terry - I had read some accounts of tanks being installed in the tenders to hold gas, and transferring by some type of hose. I did not know that you used tanks.

Bill - I think that maybe in the old, old days before they had these portable tanks, they has some buoys that had a big pocket in them, and that they did pump the gas into them.

Terry - I always through that would be a dangerous thing to be doing.

Bill - Yes. Most of our buoys were two-pocket buoys, some of them were three. You’d have to open the dogs on the pocket, and then with the boom, you’d pick the old tank out and drop a new one in. From there the gas was piped up to the lantern. They had a diaphragm in there that would get the different characteristics out, and you could adjust this diaphragm to make them quick flashing or interrupted, slow flashing, or whatever you wanted to do with it.

This page last modified 08/06/2003

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