A Brave Connecticut Lighthouse Keeper Gives His Life in 1911

“The brave man wants no charms to encourage him to duty; and the good man scorns all warnings that would deter him from doing it”. Edward George Bulwer-Lytton

Discovery

As the Pansy approached the lighthouse an American flag fluttered in the west wind, the only sign of movement, and Hayward felt a growing sense of apprehension. Feeding his discomfort was the beacon’s dull luminance. Odd, he thought, why would the lights be operating in the middle of a clear morning?

What he saw next both shocked him and at once explained the situation. The flag was inverted -the maritime signal of distress.

He ordered the Pansy to quicken the pace over the last 100 yards and it docked in a reckless matter. Assistant Superintendent John Hayward tore into the structure calling frantically for the keepers. His shouts were met with silence. He rushed up the spiral staircase and found a clump of clothing on the floor. Beneath the pile appeared to be an unconscious man enveloping a mangy dog. Heyward shook the man just as the “last breath (was) passing from him”.

The story of how a brave keeper gave his life maintaining the beacon is one of New England lore. And yet the full story would need several years before it was fully played out.

Taking Stock

It all started 11 days earlier on March 10, 1910 in the kitchen of the Green’s Ledge Lighthouse. The only two occupants, John Kiarskon , the head keeper and his 25 year old assistant, Leroy C. Loughborough agreed on the need to re-provision the station with both food and fuel. Both were dangerously low.

Kiarskon decided to make the short hop back to the Connecticut mainland while his assistant maintained the watch. All seemed in order; fair weather, a well maintained skiff and a capable seaman.

Kiarskon departed early that Thursday morning promising to return a few hours later with the necessary supplies and the cash proceeds from both their paychecks. Leroy went about his routine longing for the fresh breads and meats for that evening’s supper.

Mid- afternoon came, then dusk and no sign of Kiarskson or the skiff. Leroy reasoned his now tardy boss would not risk a return at this late hour, so he and his dog Rover went about tending the beacon. They fought off thesharp evening chill by burning the last coal reserves as they settled in for another long New England night.

Solo Act

The following day brought no sign of Kiarskon’s return. As night fell again Leroy went about his routine in the hope that tomorrow would bring relief. Saturday was clear and the waters calm ,but again no keeper. Leroy now suspected a serious injury or illness had befallen his otherwise reliable boss.

Meanwhile the demands of single duty maintenance were affecting his ability to function. He napped for short intervals during the brief daylight but the long winter nights were demanding. And without food he was growing weaker by the hour.

With no telephone or telegraph available, Leroy created a makeshift distress signal starting a barrel fire just outside the structure. Apparently the signal went unnoticed by the workaday harbor vessels.

And then the most feared New England maritime weather descended upon the coast — dense fog.

Leroy now understood both his days and nights would be occupied due to the need to maintain the fog horns. Little did he imagine that this curtain of clouds would last for the next 72 hours.

With little nourishment and warmth to keep him going, he ran the two gasoline engines for sounding the horns. He kept his vigil attending and repairing the engines while also ensuring that the light burned through the night.

During this period, not a hint of relief came his way. With no means of communication and without his own boat, Leroy realized his position was desperate.

When the fog finally lifted an exhausted and weak man stood in place of the former assistant keeper. He shared his last few potatoes and biscuits with Rover. The only liquid available, sea water, had to be boiled before drinking. The food ran out on the 9th day. Although his strength had ebbed he kept to his duties, providing the lighted warnings to sailors to avoid the dangerous rocks of Green’s Ledge.

He now believed that both he and his dog would soon perish.

On the 11th day of his abandonment, Leroy collapsed at the top of the stairs leading to the beacon. This is where he was discovered with Rover curled around him, both sharing a collected sense of duty and the last remnants of body heat.

Revival

John Haywood found Leroy “half starved, exhausted and almost crazy”. He was brought back from the brink of death due entirely to Haywood’s efforts and fortuitous timing.

Several days later a weak but grateful Leroy was able to comment on his experience:

“I feel ten years older and my hair has gone gray”

“I would not go through that experience again for the United States mint. Several times I inverted the flag on the mast, intending to attract the attention of some passing boat and thereby escaping to the mainland, but the greater part of the time, it was so stormy or foggy the signal could not be seen. I was almost out of my head from the strain. It would not have been so bad for the awful fog, which made me keep at the engines night and day. It is well that the Pansy came when she did. I don’t think I would ever have moved from that rug”.

Unfortunately for Leroy he would be dead a year later.

A Criminal Investigation

Now that half the lighthouse’s crew was accounted for, the search for the head keeper became the priority. The investigators soon found the skiff intact in the Norwalk harbor- strike out a possible maritime mishap. Next, witnesses recalled seeing Kiarskon earlier that week in the local bank and then leave for a hotel. A hotel stay seemed at odds with the purpose of his shore leave. Illness? A sudden emergency?

As it turned out a crime was committed but not upon Kiarskon, but by him.

Earlier he had forged Leroy’s signature on his monthly pay and with the proceeds of their combined wages went on a two week drunken bender. With total abandonment of duty he drank himself into a stupor that would eventually cost him a career, jail time and contribute to Leroy’s premature death.

The Story Doesn’t End

Shortly thereafter, Leroy was delivered to his father’s home in Point Judith, Rhode Island, still suffering the ill effects of his ordeal. According to the Portsmouth Daily Herald he “wasted to a skeleton by the ravages of consumption and other diseases all had their inception during his vigil”.

He died in his father’s arm, February 24, 1911.

Because of Leroy’s commitment to his work not a single maritime mishap occurred during this 12 day period of dreadful weather. Ships, steamers, oyster boats and coal tows traveling up and down Long Island Sound owed a great debt to Leroy. Newspapers across the county noted the passing of an American hero.

But an odd twist followed Leroy’s death; his brother George replaced him a year later at Green’s Ledges. This time George went ashore and never returned stranding the new head keeper, William T. Locke, for 16 days (William survived) . George’s reasoning? He rushed to visit his sick aunt in Wakefield, Rhode Island. It is still unclear if this dereliction of duty was a strange payback for his brother’s untimely passing.

Duty is the grandest of ideas, because it implies the idea of God, of the soul, of liberty, of responsibility, of immortality– Jean Baptiste Lacordaire