Restorers seek clues to ship’s history

October 4, 2009 at 5:51 pm Leave a comment

For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, ships serviced lighthouses and lightships along the coast, providing supplies, fuel, mail and transportation.

Today, only one lighthouse tender of the U.S. Lighthouse Service remains. And that Wilmington-built vessel was almost lost.
Lighthouses — often built on isolated and rocky banks — needed a special kind of ship to tend them, and as part of the U.S. Lighthouse Service and later the U.S. Coast Guard, the vessels had an important role in the country’s maritime history.
The Lilac was spared a scrap-heap fate thanks to New York volunteers trying to revive the deteriorated ship as a working, educational treasure. A Delaware native with family ties to the ship crew is helping researchers fill in some of the holes in the vessel’s history.
Shifted in 1939 as the Coast Guard assumed Lighthouse Service duties, the ship was renamed WAGL-227 and tended buoys after lighthouses automated. The Coast Guard converted most steam ships to diesel, but left the Lilac intact. Today, it is the only Coast Guard steam vessel left.
Painted gray in World War II, it added weapons and was assigned to port security. It was repainted in peacetime and moved to Gloucester, N.J., after its Edgemoor base closed in 1948.
Fitted with radar in 1949, the ship served many duties — including crash rescue and firefighting — before its 1972 retirement, historian Norman Brouwer wrote.
The ship next was used for training in Maryland and sold in 1984 to a Virginia scrap firm that docked it and used it for office space.
When the aging ship again went up for sale, likely for scrap, it was bought in 2003 by the nonprofit Tug Pegasus Preservation Project of New York City and towed to Pier 40 at White and West Houston streets in New York, where it remains today.
The Lilac Preservation Project formed and took ownership in 2004.

The group sponsored the nomination that Brouwer wrote for the National Register of Historic Places, approved in 2005.
But project leaders still knew little about life on the ship in its early days.
Thanks to Wilmington native Sallie Davidson Macy, whose grandfather, Capt. Andrew J. Davidson, first skippered the Lilac as it tended lighthouses on the Delaware coast, they are getting some answers. Her father, Andrew A. Davidson, spent countless hours with him aboard the Wilmington-built ship, and before her grandfather died, he gave his old ship photos to her father.
Her father died last year, she said, “but I am trying to carry on for him his passion for the Lilac.” Seeing his old photos led her to wonder, then search out, what became of the ship.
Learning of its salvage, she gave the project the original photos to help the group know and share more about the people behind and aboard the Lilac.
Her father “takes us back to the beginning of the Lilac,” said the project’s executive director, Charlie Ritchie, adding that she sparked an effort to compile “living history” of its crews.
Before, he said, their only photos of the early days were from Hagley Museum and Library, most of them showing its 1933 launch at Pusey & Jones Shipyard.
Andrew J. Davidson came from a shipbuilding family. He helped his father build schooners at the family’s Milton shipyard. He joined the U.S. Lighthouse Service in 1895 as a ship’s carpenter at the Philadelphia Naval Yard and served in World War I as U.S. Navy boarding officer at Reedy Island in the Delaware River.
He made captain in 1917 and had two ships before the Lilac, and was appointed its captain during its construction.
His son, Andrew A., summered on the Lilac but charted a different course. He became a Wilmington artist and teacher. “He loved painting water scenes and lighthouses,” Macy said.
Another treasure she shared with the project was his last painting of the Lilac off Lewes, home of the lightship Overfalls.
For decades, the Edgemoor-berthed Lilac was the main vessel keeping up lighthouses, buoys and lightships or floating lighthouses of Delaware River, its bay and ocean approaches.
As lives and cargo relied on the safety devices, a forerunner of The News Journal told of the Lilac in a 1937 report, “Delaware River’s Unsung Heroes Face Risks To Serve Shipping.”
The next year, the captain retired at age 67, saying, “I guess I’m a landlubber now.”
His last night aboard, Davidson — called a calm-tempered captain come gale, fog, ice storm and hard winter — was ready to keel-haul the steward who was late with supper call. Then the crew surprised their beloved skipper with a lavish meal, a tribute nearly making Davidson cry.
He told of that night in an article in a newspaper, announcing his retirement to the “snug harbor” of his Wilmington home.
Youngsters now fill the old ship. The project’s Maritime Adventure Program offers teens summer jobs, year-round after-school activities and internships in cooperation with city government, schools and the Chinese-American Planning Council.
Teens have done most of the labor in the last two years while gaining useful skills and experience, Ritchie said. Children also present “Ship of Ghouls,” a Halloween event that helps raise awareness and recruit support.
The ship’s water and heat systems were fixed and restoration is started on the officers’ cabins, bunk room and galley, but years of work and expense lie ahead. “I just put in a $1.2 million grant application to clean up and get the engines running,” Ritchie said. “As far as I know, it hasn’t operated since 1972, but I’m optimistic.”
The ultimate goal, he said, is to restore the Lilac to original condition, run it with a volunteer crew, offer maritime education programs, host cultural events and use its 20-ton crane, big deck and maneuverability for environmental projects.
The ship also could become a National Historic Landmark.
Macy, 61, who now lives in Tennessee, says her grandfather and father would have loved that. She dreams of seeing the restored ship steam into Wilmington.
But she says her goal now is to find fellow Delawareans to share their past with the ship to ensure that future generations know the Lilac was loved in the state that built and first crewed her to keep others safe on its coast.

Anyone willing to share photos, memorabilia and information about the Lilac may contact Executive Director Charlie Ritchie, Lilac Preservation Project, Box 20165, West Village Station, New York, NY 10014, (845) 612-1950 or

Tax-deductible donations may be sent to the Lilac Preservation Project, Box 20165, West Village Station, New York, NY 10014, or made online at The nonprofit also seeks volunteers for repair work, fundraising and publicity.


The News Journal


Entry filed under: Get Wet, Manhattan, Maritime.

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