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Conversation With A Man
Who Worked On Our Lighthouses

By JIM HALL, History Archives editor
July, 2009
Portions appeared in the '09 Fall Edition
Alabama LightHouse Assoc. Newsletter

Steve Broun with Sand Island Light lens
Steve Broun, Dallas, Texas, during a visit to Fort Morgan to see the Sand Island Light House lens. The Fresnel lens weighs and estimated three tons. It consists of heavy glass prisms laid up by hand. It flashed signals to ships going into Mobile Bay and outbound to the Gulf of Mexico.
This is a conversation this past July with Steve Fredrick Broun, currently living in Dallas, TX,. Broun, 83 years old, worked for the 8th Coast Guard District, from 1948 thru 1958, with a base of operations at Choctaw Point, in Mobile, AL. Broun, a member of a small team, worked on light and lens, the electrical systems and general maintenance on lighthouses from the Texas coast to Appalacola, FL.

JH : Tell me about Mobile Middle Bay Light.

BROUN: " I would go out, now and then and replace batteries. We had a light on Middle Bay, an electric light. They had removed the lantern room and put a little metal tower out there that we had put a beacon on top. It was an electric beacon and we would go out maybe once a year and change the batteries and the bulbs."

"When the keepers lived there many years ago, they had incandescent oil vapor light. It was kerosene and you pumped it up. It had pressure one it… It operated like a flounder light with a mantle."

JH: Do you know what happened to the original lantern room?

BROUN: "No idea at all."

JH: What did the inside of Middle Bay look like?

BROUN: "When I worked there is was bare. The floor was good and you could see the cross beams and such. We had batteries in there. We kept the door locked. We had a ladder on the light. We would pull up in a boat, climb the ladder. We had lead acid batteries. We would pick them up, take them back to base and charge them and return to the light."

JH : When you worked on Middle Bay, was it sound, did the roof leak?

BROUN: " Oh no, it was pretty sound. The Coast Guard boat, the Shadbush would come out and do maintenance. They painted it several times. They would patch the roof or anything that needed fixing."

JH: How did it make it thru a storm or a hurricane?

BROUN: "It just sat there…"

JH: Did light keep working?

BROUN: "OH, Yea… ran fine. I remember we did do one big project. They manufactured in Mobile, replacement structural iron, that would go under the tower - those cross pieces. They had big turnbuckles on each one; once you got them locked in place, you could tighten 'em. Turn the turnbuckles tight and get good tension. The ones we took out were completely rusted and we replaced them. That was in the early 50's."

JH: The Light House Association replaced some of those in 2002, so those you put in lasted 50 years..

BROUN: "They had galvanized them and they were heavy…I remember loading those things. They had to load them on a flat car… they were heavy!! I think we replaced all of them."

JH: Was Middle Bay a pretty good fishing spot?

BROUN: "Oh Boy, yea! Sheephead. Good fishing."

JH: Any of the ships wander out of the channel and do any damage to the structure?

Broun: "No. They knocked those beacons down all the time, but Middle Bay was far enough away from the channel. You know, Middle Bay was kind of a Range Light. From a distance, they would aim for Middle Bay, then when the vessel got up to a point in the channel they would make the turn. There might have been a front range to Middle Bay, but I never saw it. No, I don't think so."

"There was one Coast Guard Cutter, the Magnolia that was going down the ship channel one time and some

ship was coming in, I forget which one. He was aiming right for that Coast Guard Cutter - I guess the Captain thought it was the Middle Bay light. The Cutter moved over and the ship moved over. Right there at Fort Morgan Point. The ship hit him and sunk it. The Coast Guard Cutter stayed sunk out there of the longest time. You could see the mast sticking up out of the water until I retired and moved to Dallas, it was still there. Finally one of the hurricanes got it."

JH: How do you feel about moving Middle Bay to Battleship Park?

BROUN: "One day, there won't be people around that know about lighthouses. They still have some lighthouse up on the Great Lakes and they got some restored and maintained on the east coast. But there is no screw pile light house like Middle Bay down here in the Gulf. Now, I see three options: you can leave it where it is - in the Bay - and try to rebuild it so it will last; or, you can move it to the beach; or, you can leave it and one day a hurricane is going to take it away. If you leave it out in the bay, very little people can actually see it and nobody can get up on it. Maybe a couple of fishermen can climb up there."

"You got two ways to save Middle Bay Light. Spend a ton of money ever so often and leave it out there middle of the Bay and hope that a hurricane doesn't tear it up; or, you put it over there where it's easy to maintain.. I really hope I will see the day when I can once again visit Mobile Middle Bay light, go inside, look at the lantern room and say "I worked on this beauty when she was active and alive."

"I think the greater good is to move it over to Battleship Park. People from now on can see it. For those folks who don't want to move it, you could put a big photograph out there in the bay and let 'em see it. People should know about lighthouses and there is a lot of history."

JH: Let's talk about Sand Island Light House. What kind of work do you do down there?

BROUN: "At one time they had incandescent oil vapor light using kerosene and a mantle. I'm not sure when they first put electricity out there. In little building right up against the light, originally built as a fuel storage area, we housed the diesel engine generators. We moved them out.. That's when we put generators and batteries in the base of the tower. Two Kohler generators on the first floor.. with a switchboard… I think they were 15 KW generators. We build the switchboard in Mobile."

"We had two generators, each one ran every other day. If something happened to one and it wouldn't start, the batteries lost their charge in a few hours and the light would go out later that night. The next night with the other generator running and the batteries charged, the light would operate all night." Eventually we would get the word that the light was out and we would go straight away and fix it."

"The light turned on automatically when the visibility got low. It operated on a "sun" relay. They also had an astronomical timer clock. The mechanism had a cam that operated the switch causing the light to flash on and off. I think it was on for five second, and off for ten seconds, or something like that, I forget what the code was…. It also had a mercury switch, not like a contact, because you know they burn out… This was like a rocker switch - the cam would move the switch to one side and the light would come on and then the cam would move the switch to the other side, the mercury would flow over and the light would turn off."

"The big four bulb light changer had four 1,000 watt bulbs. It was manufactured by a company called Wallace and Tierman, up east somewhere. The bulb on top was used until it burnt out. The devise would rotate to the next, and then the next. When they all four burnt out, there was no light until some ship Captain would call us and say that damn light ain't working."

JH: How long would those bulbs last?

BROUN: "Different times, but usually four bulbs would last about a year. They were big bulbs with heavy-duty filaments. They were about 18 to 20 inches tall. About 12 inches around."

JH: You helped install the fuel tank on the side of Sand Island Light tower. How'd you do it?

BROUN: "The Coast Guard had to drill the holes for the brackets. We drilled the holes thru the tower for the fuel line. We used star drills. We had about 10 different star drills. We started out with a drill, and then we added some steel, as we got deeper. We had to run it with a wrench and dig the mortar and brick particles out. Back then, we didn't have cement drills. We wouldn't use a regular drill because we were afraid we would break one off in the hole and have no way to get it out. The tower was 10 foot thick at the base. I know cause I made the hole for the fuel line."

"The Coast Guard boat, Shadbush, would lay off the rocks. This 1000-gallon tank was on the deck. They put a big block and tackle way up on the lighthouse. They lifted the tank, set it in the saddle brackets, and strapped it across the top. After that the boats would come out and run a hose over to fill the tank with fresh diesel."

JH: When you worked on Sand Island, how long would you stay at a time, and how about bad weather?

BROUN: "We had to pick the weather. When it was bad, you couldn't land out there. Many times we would go out to Mobile Point and wait until the weather let up." "When we were working, we would spend three or four nights out there. We would take a kerosene stove and a kerosene refrigerator. And our food. Also a ship to shore radio, so we could call the Coast Guard in case we had a problem. We'd call them to come and get us or call them to bring us something." "When I first started working out there those ballast rocks were there, we had a walkway with a boat house out away from the rocks. The boats would just pull up to the boathouse. When a hurricane washed that away, the Shadbush whet out there and made some forms in the middle of those rocks and poured some concrete on the west side of the site. That way they could ease a boat up to it and jump off."

JH: You stayed in the keeper's house?

BROUN: "Yea, we stayed there several times. There was one big room where we had the generators, (JH, later they were moved into the tower) a kitchen and two bedrooms. We had a shower, using water from the cistern under the shed… we had wash basin … The water was pumped up."

Broun: "You know how lighthouses got started hundreds of years ago.. The men over in the Mediterranean
would go fishing. Sometimes they would not get back before dark. Their wives would get up on a hill and light
big fires, so the men could find the channel to come home. That was the beginning of the lighthouse service."

"When this country had prohibition in the 1920s and early 1930s, the Coast Guard mostly was chasing and catching rum runners. That's about all they did. People were smuggling whiskey into the United States. The Coast Guard was doing more of that than anything else.

Well, Franklin Roosevelt didn't want to get rid of the Coast Guard when they did away with prohibition, so he took the Lighthouse Department and turned it over and gave it to the Coast Guard. The Lighthouse Department used to be a very proud segment of the government. All those people who worked for the Lighthouse Department was mad as hell, but they went to work for the Coast Guard."

JH: Thank you Mr. Broun. See you next year.
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