This blog is an update on the research from the previous blog post, Cape May’s Missing Lightship. This post is going to detail my ongoing research into this lost lightship, wherein I slowly put the puzzle pieces together to find out what finally became of this ship.
The Story So Far…
I appeared on the archaeology podcast network’s Archaeology 365 regarding my research into the LV-95/WAL 519 and you can listen to it here:
The WAL-519 is the Coast Guard designation for the lightship but, when the vessel was first constructed for the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1910, it was designated LV-95 which is why that I refer to the vessel as either. When the U.S. Coast Guard took over the responsibilities of the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1939, that’s when the LV-95 received its new designation of WAL-519 or (WLH).
An important part of LV-95’s history was that it was the guiding light for ships into the port of Milwaukee on Lake Michigan. LV-95 served in this way for twenty years before the breakwater for the port of Milwaukee was finally completed and the breakwater light was completed. What ultimately did the LV-95 in was a radio beacon was installed at Milwaukee harbor, where ships could be guided into the harbor safely by radio transmissions.
After that LV-95 spent a brief stint as a relief lightship for lightships operating on the Great Lakes. It was then transferred to the East Coast where the vessel continued its service as a relief lightship at both Edgemoor, Delaware and Cape May, New Jersey. When LV-95 was decommissioned in 1965, it was put “out of commission: special.” until 1966 where it was apparently donated to be put on display as a museum ship.
This vague blurb inside the ultimate reference book for U.S. lightships is all that there is regarding the disposition of LV-95. When I started my research into LV-95 for an article in a publication, I did not realize that I would be tripping over a mystery. There is nothing more, no ship and no further records. The LV-95 essentially disappears after 1965. For me as a researcher not knowing the end of the story, the historical plot hole, is insufficient. This is what has spurred my continued research into this ship because the final fate remains unknown, undetermined and unchallenged. It just has been generally accepted that this vessel has been lost without any deeper looks into how it was lost, just some tantalizing rumors.
So far my research has taken me to the archives of the U.S. Coast Guard, where (in addition a few other things like pictures) I found out that the LV-95 was donated to the Victorian Village Development Corporation, a now defunct organization based in Cape May, New Jersey. Their plan was to put the ship on display as a museum but, that never happened.
So what happens next? One of the rumors I’ve uncovered about LV-95 after it was decommissioned is that it was brought to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay, Maryland. Most likely to be surveyed for its new life as a museum ship. It was found to be unsound and unsafe to be made into a museum and was scrapped at Curtis Bay. OR, it was sunk purposely or even accidentally on its way to or from Cape May, New Jersey. This is the problem with rumors in historical research, it’s hard to find which one is the correct one, though I really like the possibility that this vessel could still exist somewhere as a shipwreck.
Since LV-95 was decommissioned, it would have had to have been towed by a tugboat to its final date with destiny. One of the pictures that I had received from the Coast Guard Archives show LV-95 moored with a tug at what appears to be the shipyard at Curtis Bay.
The tug in this image is the USCG Sauk WYTM-99. The unfortunate part about the images I had received from the U.S. Coast Guard archives is that they were not dated and had no descriptions. Seeing this picture, the scenario is easy to imagine, the Sauk towed LV-95 to Curtis Bay. The Sauk was based at Gloucester City, NJ across from Philadelphia and the scenario was easy to imagine that the Sauk traveled down to take LV-95 in tow at Cape May for a trip to Curtis Bay.
Fortunately, the National Archives in Washington, D.C. had all the deck logs of the USCG Sauk from 1960-1970, precisely the years I was looking for. On my first visit, this is what I searched for because of this picture. I focused on the years I was concerned with 1965-1966 and it took nearly the whole day just to review those logs. From my survey of the logs, it was quickly revealed that the Sauk did not tow the LV-95. I expanded into the deck logs for 1967 and still, the Sauk never towed LV-95. However, the Sauk visited the Coast Guard Station at Cape May over a dozen times in those three years. No dice.
However, I did learn why the two ships are pictured together which is an important piece of the puzzle. I remembered from the records I had read at the Coast Guard archives that the LV-95 had spent time in 1963 getting “decked over” most likely at Curtis Bay. I looked back into the deck logs of the Sauk for 1963 and the Sauk had spent most of 1963 (January to October) at the Coast Guard Yard in Curtis Bay for some TLC. This gives a date to the picture I had found, 1963. So the picture resulted from both vessels being at the same place at the same time for the same reason but, they weren’t together.
I learned an important lesson from this. Even though I had failed in what I had come to the National Archives for, I had learned it’s okay to fail with historical research. I had presumed that I would find the log that would state “Mission: Tow LV-95” but that did not materialize and maybe as a researcher, I was putting the cart in front of the horse in assuming that I would find it. I had missed the mark, putting a lot of stock in a historic image. Even though I had failed, I figured a piece of the puzzle, the reason that both ships are pictured together and I can take the Sauk off my list of possible tow boats.
I also learned that my education has failed me in the understanding of cursive writing but, that’s neither here nor there.
What’s next? There is another possible tug named the Messager which was the tug devoted to the Coast Guard Yard at Curtis Bay. It makes more sense that the official yard tug would be the one for the job but, that remains to be seen and involves another trip to the National Archives.
I did learn some interesting facts about the Sauk from the deck logs I had reviewed. First, the Sauk had escorted the U.S.S. Guardfish (SSN-612) on Monday 3 October 1966. This was during Guardfish’s sea trials.
Lastly, I learned the Sauk had more than a few special cold war missions, something I didn’t expect from a tug. More than a few times the Sauk would travel across the channel from Gloucester City to Philadelphia in order to conduct surveillance on various polish vessels that were moored there.
Although the deck logs did not elaborate on what the surveillance activities actually entailed. It is an interesting facet of this ship’s history and truly a reflection of the time that part of the mission was to keep an eye on eastern bloc vessels, it was the Cold War.
Stay tuned for further updates on the search for LV-95.