It was always a great tragedy in a family to lose a lighthouse keeper due to the dedicated performance of his duty. But sometimes, it was even more devastating when it was compounded by the hard-lined policies enacted by officials in the higher ranks of the U.S. Lighthouse Service regarding survivor benefits – or the lack thereof. Such was the case in the circumstances surrounding the death of 30-year veteran keeper Alonzo Morong of Maine.
Alonzo belonged to a lighthouse-keeping family. His father was keeper Frederick W. Morong Sr., and Alonzo’s brother, Frederick W. Morong Jr., was also a keeper, district machinist, and inspector, in addition to having written the famous lighthouse-keeping poem, “It’s Brasswork.”
Born May 3, 1878, Alonzo was 27 when he went into service in 1905 at Goose Rocks Lighthouse, followed by several years each at the following Maine locations: Petit Manan Lighthouse, Cape Elizabeth Two Lights, and Browns Head Lighthouse. His last duty station was at Fort Popham Light, situated at the mouth of the Kennebec River near Phippsburg, Maine, a beacon that no longer stands today.
It was sometime in December of 1934 that there was a severe snowstorm along the MidCoast region of Maine. The following account was given by Shirley Morong, Alonzo’s daughter-in-law and published in the March issue of Lighthouse Digest in 2004:
“He [Alonzo] had crossed the bridge leading to the lighthouse tower to check the lamp when a wave struck the underpinning sending up spray that soaked him. Drafts from the wind around the light were causing the mantle to black up and he had to stay in the unheated tower the rest of the night to be sure that the problem would be checked. He caught a cold that in spite of home remedies, turned to pneumonia. He was in the hospital [from January 3rd] until March 5th, when he passed away. During Alonzo’s stay in the hospital, his son, George, came down from Parker Head about five miles away where he lived, to tend the light and perform all other duties of the keeper.”
This story was corroborated giving similar details in the published journal of Elizabeth Etinier entitled, On Gilbert’s Head. However, her entry, written in April of 1935, gave a more distressing account of what followed after Alonzo’s death:
“George Morong greeted us. He has been looking after the light since his father’s death, but the new keeper is coming next week. In the middle of the winter there was a terrific storm, waves kept dashing against the fort and drenching spray kept putting out the light. Mr. Morong stayed up all night in the tower, which shook as the waves hit it, lighting and relighting the lamp. He caught pneumonia, which was the direct cause of his death, only a week before he was to be pensioned for life after thirty years’ service, yet when George wrote the government on his mother’s behalf, the reply was that his staying up had been unnecessary and there was nothing they could do about it. They are in rather a bad way, I’m afraid.”
For the Lighthouse Board to say that Alonzo’s staying in the tower that night to keep the light burning was not necessary is unfathomable. Any responsible keeper would have done the same thing regardless of physical discomfort or inconvenience, particularly one as seasoned after 30 years of experience and attention to duty as Alonzo Morong.
But the most disturbing thing is found when looking at the entry for Alonzo’s date of service commencement in the U.S. Lighthouse Service appointment ledgers. It clearly states that he began at Goose Rocks on January 1, 1905 as an assistant keeper with a $450 per annum salary. That would mean that he had reached his full 30-year benchmark by the time he passed away on March 5th, 1935. Even if they did not count the time he spent in the hospital, unable to serve from when he was admitted on January 3rd, he would have still reached his full pension date as of January 1st, 1935.
How much, if any money, that Alonzo Morong’s wife Pauline, received in the end is unknown. In addition to Alonzo’s son George being a relief keeper, another of Alonzo’s sons, Clifton, served as a keeper at eight light stations in Maine and Massachusetts; and his grandson, Robert, followed the family tradition by spending his career as a Coast Guard keeper at various stations, on cutters, and in Coast Guard administrative roles in Maine and New Hampshire.
For all of the service the Morong family had given and was yet to give, in addition to the intense dedication and sacrifice that resulted in Alonzo’s death, it seems a great injustice was done to his family. The Morongs deserved far better.
This story appeared in the
Mar/Apr 2020 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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