The Lighthouse Service is almost as old as the United States itself. Shortly after taking office, President George Washington, in one of his first official duties, wrote to the lighthouse keeper of Sandy Hook Light, requesting him to keep his light operational until Congress could provide for its maintenance. The ninth law passed by Congress was to establish the Lighthouse Service as an administrative unit under the direction of the Treasury Department. Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury, spent a considerable amount of his time and attention in matters pertaining to the Lighthouse Service.

Over the next several decades the Lighthouse Service would remain in the Treasury Department with various forms of oversight. Finally 31 August 1852, Congress created the Lighthouse Board as the governing body. The board was comprised of Army and Navy officers as well as civilian scientists.

The board set to work re-organizing the districts. It divided the Atlantic, Pacific, Gulf and lake coasts into districts. Their mandate was to “discharge all the administrative duties of said office relating to the construction, illumination, inspection, and superintendence of lighthouses, light-vessels, beacons, buoys, seamarks, and their appendages and embracing the security of foundations of works already existing, procuring illuminating and other apparatus, supplies, and materials of all kinds for building and for rebuilding, when necessary, and keeping in good repair, the light-houses, light-vessels, beacons, and buoys of the United States.”1

From 1790 until 1850, the United States went from 12 lights and lightships to 332; it went from 11 fog signals and buoys to 1083, by 1880 those numbers wound increase to 1523 and 3343 respectively.2

When people think of the Lighthouse Service, they think of lighthouses. That is reasonable. But there was another group associated with the service and that was the Tenders, the ships that supplied the lighthouses. The crews on the tenders brought fuel, food, mail, supplies and replacement personnel. They were responsible for the maintenance and repairs to the structures. Without them, the lighthouses could not have continued. They had to be highly skilled sailors to approach some of the treacherous locations yet they were not the glamorous swashbuckling sailors we imagine from the 1800s. Their job was to go from one lighthouse to the next, from one buoy to the next. They might be remodeling a kitchen at a lighthouse one week and fighting a hurricane to get to a stranded lightship the next week. They allowed the lighthouse keepers to do their jobs and they maintained the aids to navigation for the other vessels on the seas. They “tended” to the needs of others. Without this tiny fleet, commerce would have faltered. Immigration would have stumbled. They were unrecognized in their time and forgotten in ours.

David was to captain on these tenders for 25 years. His stories are mundane, heroic, tedious, exciting, but above all, important.

In the Monroe County, Florida 1870 census, David listed his occupation as a Master Mariner,3 which means he would be the captain on the vessels he sailed. Sometime during the 1860s he passed an examination and was certified to captain vessels. In other words, he was Captain Dave. Since that is how he is referred to in his obituary, and that is how my father referred to him, that is what I will call him from this point forward.


Beginning in 1875, the names for the tenders were standardized to flowers and trees. Somehow these macho sailors accepted working on ships with names like Bluebell, Pansy or Dandelion. (Yes these are real names.) Perhaps these names were to compensate for the fact that the vessels were homely. Over time, the black and white paint job became standard too. These rugged vessels were like the men who worked them: tenacious.

Captain Dave’s vessel in the early 1870s was the Spray. His salary was $100 a month. 4 The Spray, a schooner with a wooden hull, was 76’ x 21’ x 6’. Purchased in 1853 by the Lighthouse Service, it was rebuilt in 1868. It transferred between districts finally ending up in the Seventh in April 1876. It was condemned in the Spring of 1878 and sold in 1879.5 Keep this in mind as you read this chapter.

Each year the Lighthouse Board submitted a report to the Secretary of the Treasury detailing the accomplishments and needs of the entire system and each of the individual districts. Key West was included in the seventh district.

The report for the period ending June 30, 1877 reads:

404. Cape Saint George, Saint George’s Sound, Florida. – The materials for the new dwelling have been purchased, and taken to the site, and mechanics are now engaged in its erection.”6

This is what Captain Dave's log book has to say about Cape Saint George.7

"Monday, June 25th
Lay in St. George at 5 a.m. Commence taking out lumber and landed it all by 6 p.m. 17,000 feet. Light breeze from SW 19 men on board.
Tuesday, June 26th
Lay at Cape St. George. All hands working on shore. Got 2 bbl. potatoes and ˝ bb onions from town. Light breeze from SW. 19 men on board.”

The crew continued to work on Cape St. George for another week. On July 2nd Captain Dave went to St. Vincent Island to get some fresh beef. He procured 340 pounds of it. On July 4th they took the day off. They had been working the previous 9 days straight at Cape St. George. Captain Dave went up to town to get a bag of salt. The next day, the crew was back to work. That night a big squall of wind and rain came through, “anchor at 40 fathoms . . lasted 2 hours.”8 The crew continued working at Cape St. George until August 14th. Their only day off was July 4th. During that time they worked on the dwelling, dried out the sails as squalls came through, killed a pig, shingled the kitchen and worked on the dwelling, What was a short 22 word sentence in the report to the Secretary of the Treasury, was 50 days of hard work for these men. How did they do? “In 1878, workers built a keepers’ quarters so well that, soon after completion, it withstood a hurricane without suffering any damage.”9

U.S. Coast Guard


1Weiss, George. The Lighthouse Service, Its History, Activities and Organization. Institute for Government Research, Service Monograph of the United States Government No. 40. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1926), 1 – 12.
2Ibid. 19.
3Ellis household, 1870 U. S. census, Monroe County, Florida, population schedule, Key West post office, page 311, dwelling 1, family 1; National Archives micropublication M593. roll 132.
4Letter from National Archives and Records Administration, 700 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC, 20408 to author dated may 21, 2003 makes reference to David Ellis’ term on the Spray. In addition, “Log book of Captain David Ellis,” (MS June 1877 – November 1878) owned 1994 by his great-granddaughter, Susan Ellis Berghan. References the Spray as his vessel.
5Peterson, Douglas, USCG (Ret.) United States Lighthouse Service Tenders 1840-1939. (Annnapolis: Eastwind Publishing, 2000): 4.
6Annual Report of the Light-House Board to the Secretary of the Treasury for the Fiscal Year Ending June 30, 1877. (Washington Government Printing Office. 1877). Pg. 36.
7“Log book of Captain David Ellis,” (MS June 1877 – November 1878) owned 1994 by his great-granddaughter, Susan Ellis Berghan.
8Ibid July 5th.
9McCarthy, Kevin M. Florida Lighthouses. (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1990), 114.

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