Keeping the Light On

From a 1932 Gazette:

“Work for Uncle Sam, the best employer there is,” read various advertisements. The following is written about a man who has spent virtually his entire life in the service of the United States, and is still holding a government position: Solomon McLeod Attaquin of Gay Head, assistant keeper of the Gay Head lighthouse.

Mr. Attaquin is not an elderly man, for he is less than 50, but his career is most interesting because he has served the government so long and in so many capacities.

He was born in Gay Head. A Mashpee father and Vineyard mother both contributed to the heritage of the ancient Indian characteristics that predominate in him. He is powerfully built, dark of skin with crow-black hair, and the straightforward gaze that indicates confidence and courage.

When he was a child of four years he suffered the loss of his mother by death, and was taken to Mashpee where he was raised by a truck gardener. “They tell me that a man who spent his boyhood on a farm never becomes a farmer,” he says with a smile, thus accounting for his leaving while a youth.

So at 14 he came home to Gay Head. There was little work for a boy there at that time, but the clay mining was in full blast. This business consisted of mining the white clay from the face of the cliffs, hauling it to a wharf below and shipping it to Somerset, where it was manufactured into fire bricks and furnace linings. It was a profitable business, employing nearly all ablebodied men of the town who had no business of their own. For nearly three years Attaquin worked on the clay and then, through the loss of some of its vessels and other causes, the company suspended operations and he was without employment.

During this time he had become a very rugged boy and although young, became a summer substitute at the life saving station when various crew members had their vacations. When he was but 17 he pulled an oar in the lifeboat that went to one of the most sensational wrecks: A winter gale was blowing when the freighter Sylvia ran hard and fast on Sow and Pigs Reef off Cuttyhunk. Engines were almost unknown at the time, and the big lifeboat was pulled with oars. Four hours were consumed in reaching the freighter. Down the cliff-like side of the freighter 97 people were lowered in slings to the tossing lifeboat, not one was lost and all were transferred to the cutter Gresham.

It was shortly after this that Attaquin became of age to enlist in the Navy. Naval life was to his liking. He gained promotion and was popular with his shipmates. But at the termination of his enlistment he was allowed several months in which to reenlist and he took the opportunity to try something new. With a number of men he went from New Bedford into the Maine lumber woods. He was detailed with two Frenchmen to saw logs and remained for a few months. The work was wholesome, the gang good, but rough. So he once more shipped in the Navy and was sent south to Haiti in the U.S.S. Petrel.There was an uprising in the island and much raiding in the towns. Parties of seamen were landed to patrol the limits of the towns, as it was impossible to catch the insurgents when they retreated to the mountains. Snipers were everywhere.

Two years later Attaquin obtained his discharge from the Navy and entered the lifesaving service at the Nantucket station, where he served for a year and then came to Gay Head. Four more years were spent in that position, duing which time there were many wrecks. Attaquin did his part in rescuing the crews and floating the vessels.

But the exposure affected his health. Doctors advised him to leave the service. He had applied for a lighthouse position and received a substitute berth at Woods Hole, after which he was sent to Great Point, Nantucket. He remained there until war was declared and he once more joined the Navy. At the end of the war he waited for a vacancy at Gay Head, which he secured 13 years ago.

“That’s the whole story,” he says, with the attitude that it doesn’t amount to much. Comparatively few men ever see the sights or perform the tasks that Attaquin has, and few are competent to assume the responsibility that he has carried.

His records make him a trusted man. Only a thoroughly reliable man can run a lighthouse of any type. Timed to the split-second in its revolutions, the light must never vary, and every one of its intricate parts must always be in perfect order. Through the long watches of the night that he shares with Charles Vanderhoop, there must be no relaxing of attention, no pause in the endless flashing of the warning beams from the tower or there could be no peace in the mind of the keeper if he did not know that his assistant was competent, dependable and conscientious. Mr. Attaquin is all of these, for he is the type of man who has made this service second to none on earth.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner