By Timothy Harrison
Throughout the annals of lighthouse history, dogs of all sizes and breeds have played an integral role in the lives of lighthouse keepers from coast to coast and on the Great Lakes.
Some of the more notable lighthouse dogs were Milo of Egg Rock Lighthouse in Massachusetts, who was awarded the Lifesaving Bronze Medal; Sue the dog at Maine’s Portland Head Light; Spot, who rang the fog bell at Maine’s Owls Head Lighthouse; Shep, the lighthouse dog who once flew with Charles Lindberg; and Nemo and Rover, who barked in the fog to warn ships of the dangers before a fog bell was installed at Maine’s Heron Neck Lighthouse. Dogs were part of the lighthouse family, and even more so at remote lighthouses. They were always excellent and loyal companions to the loneliness of lighthouse life. But none of those dogs ended up meeting such a despicable fate as did the dogs Red and Snowball, who lived with the four Coast Guard keepers at Alaska’s remote Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse.
In August of 1974, in preparation for the permanent removal of all personnel for automation of the lighthouse, in a radio communication to the Coast Guard keepers at Alaska’s Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse came what may well have been one of the most dastardly and reprehensible orders given to lighthouse keepers in Coast Guard history. They were informed that the dogs had to be put down. And it was their responsibility to do the job. They were ordered to kill Red and Snowball, the dogs that had been their companions and were loved by all.
The four Coasties assigned to the station were shocked beyond belief. These dogs were part of the crew and had given them so much joy. They played with them, they laughed at their antics, and the dogs were loyal and obedient. They were part of their family.
Rick Buchsteiner, who was a young 19-year-old Coastguardsman serving his first assignment at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse at the time, recently recalled how well behaved the dogs were, saying, “each dog had their own bed on the living room floor and they were not allowed on the furniture.” But, like every rule, some were meant to be bent. Such was the case with Snowball, who would jump on the sofa and snuggle up with Rick every Saturday night for the 7:00pm movie time. The crew received 16 reels of movies on a rotating basis every two weeks, and the dogs nearly always watched every movie with the crew, almost like they understood each and every film. But, only on Saturday nights would Snowball come on the sofa.
William H. Ottow, who was the last U.S. Coast Guard Officer in Charge (OIC) of Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse, told us that not only were the dogs great companions, their barking also warned them when bears were around and more than once those warnings avoided what could have been a serious confrontation that quite possibly saved the lives of one or more of the keepers.
Buchsteiner said that he recalled that he knew that Snowball had been on the island since he was a pup. No one seemed to know how long Red had been there, but probably just as long.
The Cape Hinchinbrook Coast Guard crew felt that good homes could be found for the dogs, but their arguments fell on deaf ears. They were told that the Coast Guard would not allow the dogs on the helicopter when the crew would be taken off the island for the last time when the station was closed up. Their orders were to be carried out. They had to do it; they were in the military and they could not disobey military orders.
On that fateful night as the dogs went into their dog house, a blanket was put over the door and CO2 was pumped into the structure and the dogs passed away silently in their sleep. They were then taken out and buried. The men cried.
This is the exact wording in what was in the final entries in the Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse Visitors Register.
“Upon Direct Orders station dogs RED and SNOWBALL were laid to rest. They were good dogs and were brave to the end. They were good Coasties. They seemed to know what was happening. They gave their best to make all station personnel stay’s here more enjoyable. It was a shame their lives had to end this way, but there was no other way, no one seemed to care but us and the task of getting rid of them, was left to us. God forgive us for taking their lives. We are sure they are up in heaven with you now. We wish there would have been someone to at least do the job for us. It was hard to swallow, and it will be harder to live with. It is over and done with now; but God forbid we will be called upon to do something like this again.”
BM1 William H. Ottow (OIC)
It was obvious by the wording that OIC William Ottow wanted to make sure that anyone and everyone who would read this register book in the years that followed would always know of the terrible act that the men were ordered and forced to carry out at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse.
OIC Ottow recalled how he believed that Rick Buchsteiner was closer to the dogs than anyone else. That was obvious by the final short entry that Buchsteiner wrote under Ottow’s when he wrote that the Coast Guard really screwed up when the lighthouse crew was forced to make a “hit” on their own dogs. In referring to the dogs, he wrote “they were loyal to the end,” and in referring to the Coast Guard, he wrote, “and the latter was not.” No other entries were even written in the register.
That final night was a somber one at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse as with heavy hearts the men finished up their chores, getting the lighthouse ready to be closed up for good, a lighthouse that would soon be void of life.
His voice choking, William Ottow recently recalled with me that day, 44 years ago, on August 14, 1974. He said, “It was like someone took a knife and cut our hearts out. Those dogs deserved better.” He said that the experience left a lasting effect on him for rest of his life, as well as his career in the Coast Guard. Even though he worked on aids to navigation on the Great Lakes, he tried to have as little to do with lighthouses as possible; there were too many bad memories from Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse. He retired from the Coast Guard in August of 1990.
Rick Buchsteiner also said that day in 1974 is one that he will never forget, and he also choked up as he talked with me about Red and Snowball. Although he has those bad memories of Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse, he also remembered how good life was there at the lighthouse before they were given that terrible order. He went on to serve his four year career in the Coast Guard as a keeper at Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod and then at Buzzards Bay Entrance Lighthouse in Massachusetts.
William Ottow did not have a camera with him at Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse, and he is glad that Rick Buchsteiner did, so that photos were saved and could be published to go with this story, a story that both men believe needed to be told.
To add insult to the memories of Red and Snowball, the men are saddened that the Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse has been allowed to fall into total disrepair, especially after they strived to take such good care of it. But, they are thankful that the story of these two loyal Coast Guard dogs is being kept alive and told through the pages of Lighthouse Digest, so that future generations will always remember the ultimate sacrifice made by Snowball and Red, the Coast Guard dogs of Cape Hinchinbrook Lighthouse – two dogs who deserved better.
This story appeared in the
Sep/Oct 2018 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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