MILWAUKEE BREAKWATER LIGHT STATION CIRCA 1949-1953

By Alfred Schreiber

 

The author tells of the death of veteran Chief Mike Rotta in this brief story...

I was on the lighthouse between 1949 and 1953. These are some of the incidents that occurred during that time.

The most notable event was the accidental death of the Officer in Charge.

He was a Chief Boatswain mate and a former Lighthouse Keeper named Mike Rotta. He spent most of his career on the Breakwater Light. He and his family lived ashore at the North Point Light Station. 

I was an Engineman 1st class. Our crew of four, worked three days on and three days off. Our so called off time was spent at North Point Light; painting, scrubbing, changing storms and screens, and other household chores. We also were on call in case one of the harbor lights went out, or they needed servicing, painting, etc. 

After Chief Rotta died the Milwaukee Base Commanding Officer occupied the lower quarters. We painted his quarters and did other household tasks. No one wanted to occupy the upper flat because of the chores. The CO called us at night if the light went out.

When the Chief had 30 years in, he received orders to Isle Royal Lighthouse. He and his family did not want to go so he had the orders cancelled. It wasn't to long after that that he fell to his death.

Every year we either soogied or painted the exterior of the breakwater light and North Point Light. We rigged a permanently built staging that was suspended outside the buff colored breakwater house. As we worked we lowered ourselves down. Usually one man did this operation after rigging it while the other man attended to watchstanding duties. 

The Chief and Dick Skolwig were on duty at the Lighthouse that fateful day. No one knows exactly what happened. The left hand tackle became unhooked at the top railing and the Chief fell to the concrete crib in front of the propane tanks and doorway. He died there of massive injuries. It was surmised that he attempted to climb off the platform, by shinning up the suspended tackle. Which was a common practice. THE UPPER BLOCK HOOK WAS NOT MOUSED. He must have inadvertently unhooked it, and the heavy weight of the staging pulled him off.

John Kobe BM3 and I were at North Point Lighthouse engaged in painting the tower exterior white from bos'n chairs slung from the top. I was half way down when we received the news of the accident and ordered to return to the lighthouse.

I became temporary Officer in Charge of the lighthouse. Days went by and the CO of the Base called and wanted to know when we planned to continue painting at North Point. I told him we were reluctant to go back there because of what had happened to the Chief. He informed us that they were looking for volunteers to go to Alaska! Needless to say we finished painting . 

My four years at the Breakwater Light were interesting. We had a donated TV, but the reception was really bad. Every time the radiobeacon signaled, the picture would go off. The fog horn really scrambled the picture. Maybe it was a good  thing because I completed a National Correspondence School Course in Marine Engineering administered by the Coast Guard for lack of something better to do. I also did the required Chief Engineman Course.

We ran the motorboat out to the light year round. In the winter we waited for a car ferry to come close and break the ice for us so that we could get off and on. 

All of the entrance lights north and south on the breakwater were acetylene gas operated. We carried out the acetylene bottles in the whaleboat and rigged a block and tackle at the light to haul them up. We then bulled them inside, removed the empties, and serviced
the burner. Fortunately this didn't happen to often during the year. The North Pier Light was electric and had a fog bell on it, that often froze up in the winter.

The USCGC Mistletoe would bring out our coal in the summer. It was piled in canvas bags on deck. She would lay along side the crib and use her winch and boom to dump the bags on the crib deck in front of the boathouse doors. We had to shovel all 40 ton down the coal chute before we went ashore.

The fishermen liked to fish near the crib. One fisherman in his boat would hook a big spring line on one of the steel rungs of the ladder that went down to the water on the seaward side. The swells would activate the spring and he would not get jolted. The trouble was the spring squeaked so that you heard it all over the lighthouse. We told him to leave. But the next day he would return. We finally doused him with a water hose to keep him away.

One late evening when it was storming out, I saw a red flare in the sky to the south. It was quite a ways off. I judged it was off of Cudahy. I decided to go and investigate. We lowered the boat and headed south into the seaway. It was very rough, and the sea was running high. I had to stop and bail by hand every few minutes, because water was being taken over the bow. It was March and the water and air were very cold. I had to bail often because I feared I would swamp the gasoline engine in the whaleboat. I was out about an hour and hadn't made much progress against the seas when I saw the USCGC Mistletoe off my port side. She briefly shined a searchlight on me and passed me by. I kept on, but I was taking on too much water to proceed safely. I turned around and went back to the lighthouse. We had a very difficult time hoisting the boat because the waves were coming over the breakwater and threatening the boat. 

We later learned that an Army plane had gone down in the water off of Cudahy. He had run out of gas. No one survived. The Mistletoe found nothing. There was a stir about the amount of time it took for the Mistletoe to get underway, but she had to get the crew back and get steam up before proceeding. I was asked about my adventure that night but heard no more. At any rate, the temperature of the wind and water would have doomed the plane crew in very short order. 

In the spring of 1953, I was given immediate orders to Spectacle Reef Light Station. Now that's another story!

 

Return to Coast Guard Stories