Recollections of Plum Island Seeing The Light

By David Robb Home Back


Watches on Plum Island were based on a three-day cycle.

One day you were assigned to various cleaning and maintenance chores, one day was spent on the water doing safety patrols both in Lake Michigan and Green Bay and the third, you stood two watches a day in the watch shack on the south side of the island. For those unfamiliar with Navy type watch standing, I will attempt to explain the typical routine. To prevent excessive fatigue and maintain fairness, the twenty four-hour day is divided up into eight four-hour shifts known as watches. Each man stands the same watch twice in a twenty four-hour period and then gets a break. Depending on the type of unit you are assigned to whether floating or not, determines the actual schedule. For example, you may start with the 12 to 4 watch both morning and afternoon. The next time, you would have the 4 to 8 and then the 8 to 12. To prevent monotonous repetition, the 4 to 8 afternoon watch was "dogged" (cut to two hours) to accelerate the schedule to a new rotation and allow the watch standers to eat at 5:30 PM chow call.

At Plum, we modified the routine to allow the men as much sleep time as possible. A full day on the boats was from 8:00 AM to dinner and was usually very fatiguing, particularly in rough weather. Therefore, a man stood watch at the light from 8:00 PM until 7:00 AM the next morning and then was allowed to sleep until noon chow call. It was a long night but it worked pretty well. After chow that day, you joined the work party in routine chores that maintained the station and knocked off at 4:00 PM. This was when you could do laundry or catch a refreshing (diesel) shower or take a pleasant walk around the 5/8ths by mile island that would last about a hour and twenty minutes. After dinner, we played hearts or Rummy, never poker. (Really!) Or we would watch the one clear TV station out of Green Bay.

During the day, the TV was restricted but we could have a radio on and that too, only had one station from Sturgeon Bay. In the morning, it was the exciting Swap Shop where a monotoned announcer would encourage listeners to call in, describe an amazing variety of useless used items they wanted to sell and recite their phone numbers twice for those interested. As I recall, they would mention only the last four digits of the number because in those days, everyone in Door County had the same exchange. I won't attempt to list any of the items they were selling but consider baby strollers, blankets to used photo albums. All I remember is that there was no way you could make that show interesting and that the announcer must have done something pretty awful to be stuck in that particular corner of hell. In the afternoons, there was a complete change of venue for the station. It was then that we were treated to six glorious hours of Romy Gaas and his Polka Party! You can probably see why solitude became such an important part of my life at Plumb Island.

Standing Watch

Duty at the Light Station was not exciting but basic watch standing never is except in time of war. Fifteen minutes before the appointed hour, I would get in the jeep and drive the 5/8 of a mile through the dense deciduous forest that covered 98% of the island. There is a variety of birch, maple, elm, poplar and a couple fruit trees - you guessed it, wild plum trees. The plums are small and scrawny without much flavor and there are only a few trees relative to the rest of the forest. The one outside the back door did the best because it didn't have to compete for the sun amongst the tall, leafy trees. Their size was due to the length of the growing season and the constant coolness of the island. In the hottest month, August, the air temperature would make it to a sizzling 71 degrees on a sunny day at about noon. Our daily outdoor attire generally included our olive green CPO jackets wherever we went.

It would take about seven minutes to bump my way over the dirt road that would emerge into a clearing on the south side of the island and just to the left of the old Cream City brick station that is shown in your pictures of the light. I never went near that building so, I cannot reveal any insights about it except that it had been boarded up for quite some time.

The road curved right or to the west and ended at the backside of the watch shack. This is a little one-story brick structure that is about 16 feet by twenty feet. The door in the back leads into the generator room that had a glossy gray painted concrete floor and unpainted brick walls. The ceiling was at about twelve feet and beamed with a wood floor. In this room were two stationary diesel engines that were 6 cylinders and made by Caterpillar, I believe. There was always one running and provided the electrical power for the entire island as well as the range lights. It was the job of the watch stander to periodically switch the generators to maintain even wear. The engineers would do all the maintenance including oil changes, etc. This room was noisy because the exhaust was "dry stacked" out the side of the building using the same materials that a stack on a semi-trailer truck would have.

Walking around the two diesels and forward, I went through another simple wooden door that when closed, cut out an amazing amount of the noise. This part of the shack was actually an annex - a wooded addition that was about 7 feet wide and as long as the building. Running almost the width of the room was a bank of gray electrical cabinets about three feet high that held the various radios and radio beacon equipment. This bank stood out from the back wall by a couple feet to make room for maintenance people. Between the radio bank and the front wall was an angled worktable where the daily log was kept. This is where we would man the watch in a swivel steel case office chair. Directly in front of me was a large picture window that looked across the straight to the mainland. The rule of thumb was that if you couldn't see the mainland, you actuated the fog horns but more about that later.

To the right of the worktable was another smaller table with a large horizontal control panel that reminds me of today's audio mix boards. It wasn't. In fact, it was the landline (telephone.) It had several rows and columns and each toggle would flip up, down or center. There were no labels on the toggles and there didn't need to be. The medallion on the side said Western Electric. Plum Island had but one phone number so why all the toggles? Well, if you look at the close up picture of the watch shack, you will see a sign standing to the right that is obliterated but said, " Do not anchor. Cable Crossing." There was another sign on the opposite side of the island and another one at the entrance to the harbor at Washington Island. Yup! All phone calls went right through our little world and indeed, provided many hours of enjoyable eves dropping on the islander's conversations. Frankly, I don't believe I listened to more than one but the other guys said they thought it passed the time pretty well. It really was pretty harmless because we rarely came in contact with anyone else to pass along any gossip but it was better than the Sturgeon Bay radio station.

The watch routine began by relieving the previous watch, noting the log that the watch had changed and check all the equipment. When satisfied, I would turn to the previous watch-stander and say, "I relieve you." He would reply, " I stand relieved and depart unless he felt like hanging around for a chat. This is standard procedure on all Coast Guard floating units as well as stations and was followed religiously at Plum. There were many opportunities to be lax and careless with protocol but we pretty well stuck to the book that included morning colors, log and radio routines and all maintenance and safety procedures including all scheduled drills.

Besides radio communications and making sure the light was on one half hour before sunset each day, the radio beacons were the next most important job. They would send out a unique radio signal that mariners could use for taking bearings and even determining distance when close in. The radio beacons did have to stay on a critical timing cue and that was done with three pendulum clocks. First, we would tune into the US National Observatory (WWV) in Boulder, Colorado on the AM radio and synchronize the first clock to the precise time ticks. Then, we would synchronize the next one to the first and then third to the second until "all three cats were swinging their tails together." Each time the pendulum crossed the vertical, it would emit a "click" sound. It was fine when all you heard was one click from all three clocks but they would nearly drive you crazy by the end of a four-hour watch when they were all off slightly.

We listened to two main hailing frequencies all the time: 2182 MHz and Channel 16 on the FM radio. All radio calls were received there and then switched to a talking frequency. The calls from our boats were usually on the FM and the general working calls were still mainly on the AM channels.

What did we talk about? Nothing much, actually. Except for the location and status calls from our own boats and an occasional, "Hi, Plum Island. How you doing?" call from the lakers that passed through the straight, there was little to do but listen to everyone else on the frequency. The straight is very deep to the sides and it was a little unnerving for me to have such a large vessel as a 728 foot Great Lakes freighter passing by less than 150 feet away.

There was a lot of cleaning to do on watch such as washing windows, mopping the deck, sometimes painting where ever it needed it but it had to be all inside. Out side work was carried on by the off watch crew.

From your seat in the shack, you could look out the window to my left and see the taller of the two range lights. The front light was obstructed by vegetation and faces the other way. We could usually see the glow of it at night as we came through the woods to go in watch. It was not unusual for a vessel to report the light out once or twice a year but the engineers usually had a new bulb in it within fifteen minutes, even out of a sound sleep. They were good and we certainly didn't want any shipping accidents.

On the late night watches, after your chores were done, there was always time for reading and writing letters. Occasionally, I'd get on the am radio and try calling my buddy at Grand Haven station at the south end of Lake Michigan. If he were there, we'd steel about a two-minute conversation to check up on each other but if we ever got caught, it would have been serious trouble. We never were.



This entire story is copyright by David Robb, and appears here with his permission.

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This page last modified 08/24/2003