Then End of an Era


This story was written by retired Coast Guard Seaman J. T. Wilson. Mr. Wilson's first assignment after boot camp as a Seaman 1st Class was with the Lifeboat Station at Sabine Pass. His tenure at Sabine Pass started in December of 1951 and he was transfered to New Orleans in May of 1952. The photos on this page were sent in my Mr. Wilson and taken during the time he was stationed at the lighthouse. Clicking on the small image will open another window with a larger view.

Here is Mr. Wilson's story:

My first US Coast Guard assignment was at the Sabine Lifeboat Station in Sabine, Tx, in December of 1951. The station was commanded by CWO R. C. Teiler. Sabine Pass Lighthouse, also located on the Sabine River but in Louisiana, was included in his authority. After a very short time, Teller advised me that I was being sent to the lighthouse for a few days. It was customary for low graded personnel at the lifeboat station to be assigned frequent duty times at the lighthouse.

Steve Purgley, the lighthouse keeper, had started his career during the US Lighthouse Service regime. I was told that his father also had served in the same capacity at a location near the mouth of the Mississippi River. Steve had spent significant time at the Sabine Pass light accompanied by his wife and daughter. Steve's family was no longer living at the lighthouse as Mrs. Purgley was critically ill and they had gone to live with relatives.

When I arrived a seaman, Walter West, appeared elated to see me, his replacement. Steve immediately showed me the facilities, gave me the "do's and don'ts" and advised that "this place can be very lonely---if you ever feel bad about being here, tell me."

For a short time Steve joined me on my assigned watch periods. I was surprised to learn that this station of duty had not only the beacon light but also a radio beacon installation used for long-range navigation purposes.

Steve was adamant on cleanliness. During daylight hours, considerable time was required to maintain his expectations. I enjoyed duties pertaining to the lighthouse, as the view from the tower was spectacular. At sunrise after the beacon light was turned off, canvass curtains were hung in the lantern room to prevent the sun's reflective glare from the lens.
Early mornings in the tower presented a memorable view of the marshland and an abundance of wild life. The dawn horizon provided a backdrop for birds and flying insects. The gulf would be dotted with shrimp boats already at work and others enroute downstream on the Sabine, eager to join them. After a dark night of sure silence, the sounds of birds and shrimp boats churning the water were a welcome introduction to the day.

A two-room building was located between the crew's quarters and the lighthouse. The larger room or generation room had a shelved wall filled with numerous glass-enclosed batteries and a large diesel-powered engine that served as a generator to recharge all the batteries during daylight hours. Each day the batteries were inspected for general condition and need of water. Each battery had an indicator to gauge its charge status, as well as a tag to identify its age.

The smaller room was called the watch room. It contained all necessary equipment to monitor the lighthouse beacon, the radio beacon transmission and the station communication radio. Above the desk two old pendulum clocks were mounted on the wall. One clock was set for local time and the other to Greenwich time. A tall steel antenna on the ground nearby was used to transmit the Sabina Pass radio signal to all ships within range. The radio beacon was set to a repeated "alpha" Morse Code signal for three minutes. The transmission would cease for a specified time, then automatically repeat.

The "trick" was to maintain both clocks in sync with the transmission times. To determine the exact time for both clocks, a radio was tuned to USCG Galveston, which provided exact time to the second for Greenwich and local times. Any adjustment required to the clocks or radio beacon was made promptly.

Purgley had an uncanny sense of knowing when adjustments were needed or would soon be needed. He could tell by sound of our transmission if it was weakening. He would recognize when the generator engine was not performing in the proper manner by the vibration it made on the floor.
The nearby Lighthouse Bayou, as it was called then, rambled around through the Louisiana marsh and eventually emptied into the Sabine River at the lighthouse. It was loaded with gar fish. I loved to catch the big brutes in a wire noose with raw chicken as bait. The bayou also was the source of water used for fire protection. A gasoline-powered bilge pump was available to pump water from the bayou and produced a good stream from the hose. Steve ordered frequent test to insure the bilge pump was in working order.

A small boat capable of handling two passengers was available to us for recreation. It was equipped with canoe paddles but it provided a method to explore the marsh.
Maritime traffic at Sabine Pass was primarily tankers and shrimp fleets. We seldom saw pleasure boats. Large oil refineries in Port Arthur, TX, produced the tanker cargo. The petroleum industry was just stating exploration and testing for offshore drilling platforms. Numerous boats were seen daily en route to testing sites. Sabine Pass also was used as an entrance to the inter-coastal canal and occasionally freighters were noted on the log of marine traffic at the Lifeboat station.

A long narrow boardwalk was used to connect the lighthouse facility to the Sabine River. The dock on the river included a small steel barge and boathouse for the lighthouse boat. A two-wheeled cart was used to transport bulky items from the dock. The Lifeboat Station delivered supplies frequently. When heavy or bulky supplied were included, they also in sent help along with the boat crew. The dock was well posted to prevent use by unauthorized boats. The Lifeboat Station monitored the dock and advised us of any unauthorized boats at the lighthouse dock. We would usually find a shrimper at the dock claiming to need assistance or repairs. Steve would usually permit them to remain at the dock for repairs in exchange for a generous supply of fresh fish, which would be a menu favorite for a few days.
Steve prepared all our meals and took special pride in his "Cajun cooking." He was a splendid cook. I quickly adapted to his gumbo and crab bakes. His coffee required more time. I found thinning with water or canned milk the only way I could tolerate his coffee. His huge coffee pot was always hot and available with his brew.

After a few assignments of duty at the light, Steve told me one morning he would be absent for a short period of time and when he returned he would have a treat for me. When he returned he was carrying a small bag of oysters. He indicated he had his own private oyster bed just downstream and he only tonged them out for himself and close friends. It was my first experience eating raw oysters from the shell. It took a little encouragement for me to take the first taste. That evening we fried up a batch that was more to my delight and more to my Hoosier heritage. Steve had worked hard to provide me the opportunity to share one of his favorite foods---fresh oysters. I truly appreciated his efforts and hospitality.

While on watch late one night, Steve informed me that he was reasonably, certain that Sabine Lighthouse soon would be decommissioned. He indicated that the need for it was diminishing and the Lifeboat Station was assuming more of his responsibilities. After nearly ninety-six years of continuous operation he felt that the Sabine Light, like other similar lights, would cease to be a manned aid to navigation. He seemed depressed to anticipate a transfer to another lighthouse with probable closure to soon follow.

I consider my very short time with Steve Purgley a rare experience and one I'll remember for my lifetime. It is seldom a person from a small Indiana community can claim to have served on a lighthouse and to have been befriended by a true Lighthouse Keeper.

Shortly after our long discussion, I was ordered back to the lifeboat station for a meeting with CWO Teller. When I reported to the office, I was introduced to an officer from the Eighth District Headquarters. He informed me that I would soon be transferred to New Orleans. I only talked with Steve one time before I departed for my new assignment, but at his request I promised to keep in touch.

After I arrived in New Orleans I soon learned that Steve had been appointed the Keeper at Mobile Point Light at Mobile Bay. While I was in New Orleans I would mail him a short letter and at Christmas I would send him a holiday greeting. I seldom received a response.

I was released from service in 1954 and six years later I was married. We honeymooned in various places in the South. When we left New Orleans, I drove to Mobile Point Light for an unannounced surprise visit. Steve had remarried and was doing what he enjoyed as a Keeper of the Mobile Point Light. Steve was pleased to us and immediately served us coffee. I didn't ask but I'd swear it was from the same pot he'd used at Sabine Pass.

My wife had heard my descriptions of Steve's coffee and I was not surprised that she made more that one attempt to thin his brew with canned milk. I was proud that she consumed a nearly full cup. Our visit was very short but both Steve and Mrs. Purgley appeared to be truly pleased that I had brought my new bride to their home for a visit.

During the early 1980's while living in Arlington, Tx, Sarah and I vacationed in a beach cottage near Galveston. I finally had my chance to return to Sabine Pass. The old lifeboat station remained but it was in deplorable condition. From that location I could hardly see the lighthouse by my vision was good enough to tell that it was probably in shambles. The once bright three black and two white tower stripes had all but faded away. Only the steel framework remained of the lantern room.

I could not help but think the old girl deserved a better passing. In her day she produced that bright beacon, night after night, for which Steve Purgley, as well as others before him, had provided the necessary care and devotion.