In the Fall of 1825 Chase was appointed Light House Keeper at Little Gull Island by President John Quincy Adams. By this time, he was known as Squire Chase. We do not know the reason for the title “Squire.” Light house keepers were political appointments, and one served at the pleasure of the president.
If he farmed his land, how could he go off to tend the light house, leaving his wife and young family on Shelter Island?
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.
Chase 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 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 device 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 produce a better solution.
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 sometimes 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. Sometimes he hired people. An 1835 contract records John Kent’s agreement to work for Chase for a year on Little Gull Island for $120.
Rebecca Chase stayed on Shelter Island caring for the rest of the family.
For access to a well, Chase had to row over by boat to Great Gull Island, about as far from Little Gull Island as North Haven is from Shelter Island (about one-third of a mile). There he could also scratch out a garden. However, meadow mice made farming unprofitable. Live stock also grazed on Great Gull Island.
Even in good weather, there were few visitors. Chase could count on regular visits from Captain Edward Merrill from Sag Harbor 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 were on hand at this time 71 long tubes 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.
Chase kept a daily journal throughout his tenure; the logs for 1833 and 1835 still exist. 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 or employees who assisted him alive. Their major cash crop was lobsters.
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 Great Gull. Sometimes they ran low on water and had to ration their supply.
He kept a team of oxen on Great Gull Island in the summer to plow his 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 Great Gull when cord wood was scarce, but Chase frowned upon such work on the Sabbath.
Once when wood was very scarce and Chase 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.
A display at the East End Seaport Museum in Greenport says that “Frederick Chase enjoyed a successful and prosperous tenure; he built a large house on neighboring Great Gull and even ran a sort of boarding house, fish store and farm stand for passing sailors.”
Keeper Chase spent his leisure time reading the Scriptures and writing poetry.
His good friend Augustus Griffing, from whom he had purchased his farm on Shelter Island in 1811, 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 thy 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 right 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!
Then there were the birds. According to Clarence Ashton Wood, quoting from Frederick Chase’s journals, the most present wild life were the birds. Chase wrote vividly about the terns, the redstart, and the yellow warbler.“One species, however, was distinguishable as the birds flew back and forth -- the yellow warbler. It was, indeed, a pretty sight to see these birds flitting around, their yellow breasts and bellies illuminated by the rays from the lantern.”