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Lightship LV 82 lost in Lake Erie in 1913 storm

The Lightship 82 sunk in Lake Erie off Hamburg, in a storm that has often been referred to as the “white hurricane.”

The storm was actually a blizzard that devastated the Great Lakes Basin in the Midwestern United States and the Canadian providence of Ontario, from Nov. 7 – 10, 1913.

This was the deadliest and most destructive natural disaster to ever hit the Great Lakes. It killed 250 people, destroyed 19 ships and stranded 19 other vessels. All six crew members of the Lightship 82 were lost in the storm.

The financial loss in vessels alone came to $5 million, or approximately $100 million, at current value. The storm, an extra tropical cyclone, produced winds in excess of 90 mph and waves at higher than 35 feet.

An analysis of the storm and its impact on humans, engineering structures and the landscape led to better forecasting and faster responses to storm warnings and the stronger construction of marine vessels.

Lightships served both the Canadian and American governments for more than 100 years. They helped to make the navigation of the Great Lakes safer.

Eventually, they were replaced by lighthouses or, in some cases, by Texas tower-type offshore platforms, other fixed structures or navigational buoys. These vessels themselves and those who served on them constitute a unique and proud segment of American maritime heritage.

Lightships, or light vessels, have been around for more than two centuries. The Romans were probably the first to use these vessels. Coast guard galleys, manned by armed crews, carried open framework baskets at their mastheads. A fire could be built, in these baskets, to guide and protect incoming vessels, by providing a beacon to deter piracy.

In 1731, Robert Hamblin, an Englishman, obtained permission from King George II and outfitted what would become the first modern lightship. This ship, called “Nore,” carried two lanterns, held 12 feet apart, from a cross arm above the deck.

Flat wicks set in oil provided the light. The “Nore” was stationed at Nore Sands, in the Thames estuary.

The first contract for the construction of a United States lightship was awarded to John Pool of Hampton, Va. in 1819. The ship was put in service in 1820, as an aide to Chesapeake Bay commerce.

From 1820 – 1983, 116 lightship stations were established, by the United States. The number of stations existing at any time peaked in 1909, when just 56 lightships were maintained.

By 1927, 68 stations of those original 116 had been discontinued, replaced by lighthouses or buoys, taken over by Canada or been deemed unnecessary.

In 1939, when the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for aids to navigation, the number of lightships had been reduced to 30 and, although three lightship stations were established between 1954 and 1965, the number of lightship stations continued to decline until 1983, when the Nantucket Shoales Lightship was replaced by a navigational buoy, marking the end of the American lightship era.

As seamarks, lightships satisfied multiple uses. They could be moored in shallow water, where fixed structures could not be placed, or they could just as easily be stationed in deeper water, to serve as a landfill or point of departure, for trans-oceanic traffic.

Being vessels, they could also be readily repositioned to changing needs.

In their roles, they served as daytime beacons, as light platforms by night, as sound signal stations in times of reduced visibility and round the clock, as transmitters of bearing and distance-finding electronic signals.

During their brief era, lightships evolved into a highly-sophisticated and efficient aid to navigation.

Today, most of the decommissioned ships are long gone. Some were sold and served in coastwide and harbor roles, a few were transferred to other countries, for uses as lightships, and some became floating clubhouses by various organizations.

The majority were scrapped, but 19 are still afloat, serving as museums or exhibits, open to the public. A few also serve as restaurants and at least one is in use, in the charter trade.

This column is written each week by Hamburg Town Historian Jim Baker.

Anyone wanting to submit photographs and/or materials can call Baker at the Hamburg Town Hall on either Wednesday or Thursday, between 9:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., at 649-6111 ext. 2400.

Readers can also provide feedback by writing to The Sun and mailing it to The Sun, 141 Buffalo St., Hamburg, NY 14075.
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