|3. Ten Years as a Lighthouse Keeper
In the Fall of 1825 Frederick was appointed Light House Keeper at Little Gull Island by President John Quincy Adams. By this time, he was known as Squire Chase. (Click on the map to see the location of Little Gull Island.)
Light house keepers were political appointments, and one served at the pleasure of the president. Frederick served as light house keeper for ten and a half years, from March 8, 1826 to August 27, 1836 when he resigned. The lighthouse had been built in 1804, and he was its fourth keeper. The original lighthouse rose 61 feet above high water. Eleven years after its masonry tower was completed, it was badly damaged in the hurricane of September 23, 1815. The U.S. Government then expended $30,000 to rebuild the tower which continued to serve mariners until 1869 when the present 91 foot grey granite structure was erected in the place of the tower in which Frederick served.
Henry Thomas (Tom) Dering, son of Henry Packer Dering (a descendant of Nathaniel Sylvester of Shelter Island through his mother), the local collector of customs in Sag Harbor, which rivaled New York as a port of entry at the time, was the supervisor of the repair work following the storm of 1815. He kept a diary. He described the area: “The tides around the [Little Gull] island are rapid and dangerous and the navigation for boats rude and unpleasant. The well water is brakish and rain water is used for drink. The Great [Gull] island contains twelve acres of land but is little improved.”
Dering also described the wall he was building which cost $24,500. “By three commissioners appointed to take a survey of the island it was proposed by them to build a circular wall of 300 feet in circumference and 100 diameter at the top. The foundation sunk on a level with low water mark seven feet thick at the bottom and 3 1/2 at the top. The outside course of stone laid in mortar and bolted with two copper bolts; the height of the wall 22 feet. On top of the wall a railing four feet high.”
The purpose of lighthouses was to assist sailors at sea to know when they were approaching land, to help them know where they were, and to avoid hazardous shores. In the 1820s, the light was created by tubular-wick lamps which provided a bright, smokeless flame as bright as seven candles and further intensified with a parabolic (bowl-shaped), silver reflector behind each lamp. Only about one sixth of the light of each lamp was reflected out to sea. Prior to the 1820s, all seacoast lights were white and did not flash. It made it difficult to know exactly where you were. Efforts were made to produce flashing lights, and some had a devise called an eclipser. It consisted of a screen that revolved around the beacon once every certain number of minutes, causing a flash. This was not ideal and it would take engineering beyond Chase’s time to install a better solution into lighthouse engineering.
In Chase’s time, the fuel used to light the lamps was whale oil. It burned with a bright, even light. Oil from the sperm whale was best, and summer’s strain was thick while winter’s was thinner.
The match used to light the lamps prior to 1833 was one made of a mixture of gum, chlorate of potash, and sulphide of antimony placed on a stick covered over a coat of sulphur. These matches were drawn between a fold of sandpaper to ignite them. They cost a shilling for a box of 84. The lucifer match, the progenitor of the modern match, was invented and made in quantity during the year 1833, and probably reached Little Gull Island that year or soon thereafter. In the lantern there were always on hand a quantity of deftly rolled paper “lamp lighters” to save matches.
Also with Chase on duty at Little Gull Island were his daughter and son-in law, Rebecca and Elisha Beebe. His son Albert spent most of his childhood summers with his father at the lighthouse.
Rebecca Chase stayed on Shelter Island caring for the rest of the family.
The lighthouse at Little Gull Island was a very desolate place. It sits eight miles East by Northeast of Orient Point, east also of Plum Island. Little Gull Island is only a quarter of an acre and is all rock. It has no fresh water or arable land. For access to a well, one had to row over by boat to Big Gull Island where one could also scratch out a small garden. However, meadow mice made farming unprofitable.
Even in good weather, there were few visitors. Frederick could count on regular visits from Captain Edward Merrill who held the government contract to supply the station with whale oil and other essentials, such as cord wood. Regular did not necessarily mean reliable, as they were all dependent upon the weather which, throughout the year, was never predictable.
Supplies for lighthouses at this time were made by appropriation from Congress. In 1832, the total sum for the whole country was $205,778. In the summer of 1833, Captain Merrill left at Little Gull lighthouse, 159 gallons of winter oil and 235 gallons of summer oil. Other supplies left at the same time were 10 pounds of whiting, two buff skins, 28 yards of cotton cloth, a pair of scissors, seven reflectors and five oil butts.
There was on hand at this time 71 long tubs or lamp chimneys and 74 short ones. During a year, it appears, according to Clarence Ashton Wood, that about 75 of these glass tubes were broken and about twice that number of wicks were consumed.
Frederick kept a daily journal throughout his tenure; the diaries for 1833 and 1835 still exist at the Oysterponds Historical Society. Their primary focus is on the weather. The logs describe the days of the week as Solis, (Sunday), Lunae (Monday), Martis (Tuesday), Mercuii (Wednesday), Jovis (Thursday), Veneris (Friday), and Sabatii (Saturday). It is clear from the diaries that Sabatii was the family’s day of rest.
His major duty in his isolated and tiny domain was to keep the 14 lamps filled with whale oil and to see that they burned all night every night. His other duties essentially revolved around keeping himself and his other family members alive.
He maintained a cistern which depended on rain fall to provide fresh water. In times of drought, however, he was forced to row his skiff across to Big Gull. Sometimes they ran low on water and had to ration their supply.
He kept a team of oxen on Big Gull Island in the summer to plow his small garden and to haul drift wood which was their only source of fire wood when cord wood ran low. This seems to have been a nagging problem as their only source of heat for warmth and cooking was the wood burning stove.
Because work on Sabatii was frowned upon it did not mean that work did not get done. The lighthouse had to be maintained daily. During the fishing season the nets had to be maintained. Trips to the well when the cistern was dry were a necessity. Drift wood had to be collected from Big Gull when cord wood was scare, but Chase frowned upon such work on the Sabbath.
Once when wood was very scarce and Frederick was visiting at Shelter Island, a load of ten cords of wood was delivered to Great Gull Island on a Friday. Elisha Beebe and Albert Chase transferred part of the wood to Little Gull where it would be safe and accessible for immediate use before the close of the day. The next day, Sabatii, they completed the job. Squire Chase noted in his diary that it was “not good work for the Sabbath.”
The making of a lobster pot begun on Friday would continue on Sunday. Lobster pots and fishing nets were put out on Sunday. Sheep and hogs were killed on Sunday.
Once when a vessel was stranded on Great Gull Island, the captain and his men remained inactive on Saturday, likely in deference to Keeper Chase.
Trips off and onto the Island were made on Sunday, but never on Saturday.
Keeper Chase spent his leisure time reading the Scriptures and writing poetry.
His good friend Augustus Griffing, attributed the following to him written in the year 1856
As all thy days, I trust have been
Useful and just, to truth and men --
Go on in the same path, dear friend,
Until thy life shall have an end;
So when then they sands shall all have run,
Thou shall have every work well done --
Upon that all-important day,
Salvation shall thy work repay.
Great, then, indeed, is the reward
Received by those who serve the Lord;
It them assures that they shall stand,
From sin set free, at His rigth hand!
Far from all sorrow, pain and woe--
In which they lived while here below --
Nor shall a tear be seen that day!
God’s own right hand wipes them away!