It is doubtful whether the name of any light-house is so familiar throughout the English-speaking world as the “Eddystone.” Certainly no other “pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day,” can offer so romantic a story of dogged engineering perseverance, of heartrending disappointments, disaster, blasted hopes, and brilliant success.
Standing out in the English Channel, about sixty miles east of the Lizard, is a straggling ridge of rocks which stretches for hundreds of yards across the marine thoroughfare, and also obstructs the western approach to Plymouth Harbor. But at a point some nine and a half miles south of Rime Head on the mainland the reef rises some-what abruptly to the surface, so that at low-water two or three ugly granite knots are bared, which tell only too poignantly the complete destruction they could wreak upon a vessel which had the temerity or the ill luck to scrape over them at high-tide. Even in the calmest weather the sea curls and eddies viciously around these stones; hence the name “Eddystone,” is derived.. .
As British overseas traffic expanded, the idea of indicating the spot for the benefit of vessels was discust. The first practical suggestion was put forward about the year 1664, but thirty-two years elapsed before any attempt was made to reduce theory to practise. Then an eccentric English country gentleman, Henry Winstanley, who dabbled in mechanical engineering upon unorthodox lines, came forward and offered to build a lighthouse up-on the terrible rocks. Those who knew this ambitious amateur were dubious of his success, and wondered what manifestation his eccentricity would assume on this occasion. Nor was their scepticism entirely misplaced. Winstanley raised the most fantastic lighthouse which has ever been known, and which would have been more at home in a Chinese cemetery than in the English Channel. It was wrought in wood and most lavishly embellished with carvings and gilding.
Four years were occupied in its construction, and the tower was anehored to the rock by means of long, heavy irons. The light, merely a flicker, flashed out from this tower in 1699, and for the first time the proximity of the Eddystones was indicated all around the horizon by night. Winstanley’s critics were rather free in expressing their opinion that the tower would come down with the first sou’wester, but the eccentric builder was so intensely proud of his invention as to venture the statement that it would resist the fiercest gale that ever blew, and, when such did occur, he hoped that he might be in the tower at the time.
Fate gratified his wish, for while he was on the rock in the year 1703 one of the most terrible tempests that ever have assailed the coasts of Britain gript the structure, tore it up by the roots, and hurled it into the Channel, where it was battered to pieces, its designer and five keepers going down with the wreck. When the inhabitants of Ply-mouth, having vainly scanned the horizon for a sign of the tower on the following morning, put off to the rock to investigate, they found only the bent and twisted iron rods by which the tower had been held in position projecting mournfully into the air from the rock-face.
Shortly after the demolition of the tower, the reef, as if enraged at having been denied a number of victims owing to the existence of the warning light, trapt the “Winchelsea” as she was swinging up Channel, and smashed her to atoms, with enormous loss of life.
Altho the first attempt to conquer the Eddystone had terminated so disastrously, it was not long before another effort was made to mark the reef. The builder this time was a Cornish laborer’s son, John Rudyerd, who had established himself in business on Ludgate Hill as a silk mercer. In his youth he had studied civil engineering, but his friends had small opinion of his abilities in this craft. However, he attacked the problem boldly, and, altho his tower was a plain, business-looking structure, it would have been impossible to conceive a design capable of meeting the peculiar requirements of the situation more efficiently. It was a cone, wrought in timber, built upon a stone and wood foundation anchored to the rock, and of great weight and strength. The top of the cone was cut off to permit the lantern to be set in position. The result was that externally the tower resembled the trunk of an oak tree, and appeared to be just about as strong. It offered the minimum of resistance to the waves, which, tumbling upon the ledge, rose and curled around the tapering form without starting a timber.
For forty years Rudyerd’s structure defled the elements, and probably would have been standing to this day had it not possest one weak point.
It was built of wood instead of stone. Consequently, when a fire broke out in the lantern on December 4, 1755, the flames, fanned by the breeze, rapidly made their way downward.
No time was lost in erecting another tower on the rock, for now it was more imperative than ever that the reef should be lighted adequately. The third engineer was John Smeaton, who first landed on the rock to make the surveys on April 5, 1756. He was able to stay there for only two and a quarter hours before the rising tide drove him off, but in that brief period he had completed the work necessary to the preparation of his design. Wood had succumbed to the attacks of tempest and of fire in turn.
Smeaton would use material which would defy bothPortland stone. He also introduced a slight change in the design for such structures, and one which has been universally copied, producing the graceful form of lighthouse with which everyone is so familiar. Instead of causing the sides to slope upward in the straight lines of a cone, such as Rudyerd adopted, Smeaton preferred a slightly concave curve, so that the tower was given a waist about half its height. He also selected the oak tree as his guide, but one having an extensive spread of branches, wherein will be found a shape in the trunk, so far as the broad lines are concerned, which coincides with the form of Smeaton’s lighthouse. He chose a foundation where the rock shelved gradually to its highest point, and dropt vertically into the water upon the opposite side. The face of the rock was roughly trimmed to permit the foundation stones of the tower to be laid. The base of the building was perfectly solid to the entrance level, and each stone was dovetailed securely into its neighbor.
From the entrance, which was about 15 feet above high water, a central well, some five feet in diameter, containing a staircase, led to the store-room, nearly 30 feet above high water. Above this was a second storeroom, a living-room as the third floor, and the bedroom beneath the lantern. The light was placed about 72 feet above high water, and comprised a candelabra having two rings, one smaller than and placed within the other, but raised about a foot above its level, the two being held firmly in position by means of chains suspended from the roof and secured to the floor. The rings were adapted to receive twenty-four lights, each candle weighing about two and three-quarter ounces. Even candle manufacture was in its infancy in those days, and periodically the keepers had to enter the lantern to snuff the wicks. In order to keep the watchers of the lights on the alert, Smeaton installed a clock of the grandfather pattern in the tower, and fitted it with a gong, which struck every half hour to apprise the men of these duties. This clock is now one of the most interesting relics in the museum at Trinity House.
The lighthouse had been standing for 120 years when ominous reports were received by the Trinity Brethren concerning the stability of the tower. The keepers stated that during severe storms the building shook alarmingly. A minute inspection of the structure was made, and it was found that, altho the work of Smeaton’s masons was above reproach, time and weather had left their mark. The tower itself was becoming decrepit. The binding cement had decayed, and the air imprisoned and comprest within the interstices by the waves was disintegrating the structure slowly but surely.
Under these circumstances it was decided to build a new tower on another convenient ledge, forming part of the main reef, about 120 feet distant. Sir James Douglass, the engineer-in-chief to Trinity House, completed the designs and personally superintended their execution. The Smeaton lines were taken as a basis, with one important exception. Instead of a curve commencing at the foundation, the latter comprized a perfect cylindrical monolith of masonry 22 feet in height by 44 feet in diameter. From this basis the tower springs to a height which brings the local plane 130 feet above the highest spring tides. The top of the base is 30 inches above high water, and, the tower’s diameter being less than that of its plinth, the set-off forms an excellent landing-stage when the weather permits.
The site selected for the Douglass tower being lower than that chosen by Smeaton, the initial work was more exacting, as the duration of the working period was reduced. The rock, being gneiss, was extremely tough, and the preliminary quarrying operations for the foundation stones which had to be sunk into the rock were tedious and difficult, especially as the working area was limited. Each stone was dovetailed, not only to its neighbor on either side, but below and above as well. The foundation stones were dovetailed into the reef and were secured still further by the aid of tow bolts, each one and a half inches in diameter, which were passed through the stone and sunk deeply into the rock below. .
The tower has eight floors, exclusive of the en-trance; there are two oil rooms, one above the other, holding 4,300 gallons of oil, above which is a coal and store room, followed by a second storeroom. Outside the tower at this level is a crane, by which supplies are hoisted, and which also facilitates the landing and embarkation of the keepers, who are swung through the air in a stirrup attached to the crane rope. Then, in turn, come the living-room, the “low light” room, bedroom, service room, and finally the lantern. For the erection of the tower, 2,171 blocks of granite, which were previously fitted temporarily in their respective positions on shore and none of which weighed less than two tons, were used. When the work was commenced, the engineer estimated that the task would occupy five years, but on May 18, 1882, the lamp was lighted by the Duke of Edinburgh, the Master of Trinity House at the time, the enterprise having occupied only four years. Some idea may thus be obtained of the energy with which the labor was prest forward, once the most trying sections were overcome. . . .
When the new tower was completed and brought into service, the Smeaton building was demolished. This task was carried out with extreme care, inas much as the citizens of Plymouth had requested that the historic Eddystone structure might be erected on Plymouth Hoe, on the spot occupied by the existing Trinity House landmark. The authorities agreed to this proposal, and the ownership of the Smeaton tower was forthwith transferred to the people of Plymouth. But demolition was carried out only to the level of Smeaton’s lower storeroom. The staircase, well, and entrance were filled up with masonry, the top was beveled off, and in the center of the stump an iron pole was planted. While the Plymouth Hoe relic is but one-half of the tower, its reerection was completed faithfully, and, moreover, carries the original candelabra which the famous engineer devised.
Not only is the Douglass tower a beautiful ex-ample of lighthouse engineering, but it was relatively cheap. The engineer, when he prepared the designs, estimated that an outlay of £78,000, or $390,000, would be incurred. As a matter of fact, the building cost only 159,255, or $296,275, and a saving of £18,000, or $90,000, in a work of this magnitude is no mean achievement. All things considered, the Eddystone is one of the cheapest sea-rock lights which has ever been consummated.