LILAC: Flower of the Delaware

See also our video page to hear our veterans speak about living and working on LILAC and to view vintage film

George Putnam, Commissioner of Lighthouses, was present when LILAC was launched in 1933. Now, LILAC is the last surviving steam-propelled lighthouse tender in America and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The U.S. Lighthouse Service used such vessels to carry supplies to lighthouses and lightships their keepers and crews as well as for maintaining the buoys and range lights that guide ships and boats into harbors and away from rocks and reefs. Today, the lighthouses on our coastlines and harbors have been automated. The term “lighthouse tender” has been dropped from use, and the specialized vessels servicing aids to navigation are known as "buoy tenders." All U.S. lighthouse tenders were named for flowers and trees.

Successful major seaports have been vital to this country’s growth, as entry points for goods, raw materials and immigrants, and for export of manufactured items.  Well-marked navigable channels for the passage of ships are indispensable to the success of ports and safe navigation relies on the system of lighthouses, range lights, and buoys.

During an active career spanning nearly four decades, LILAC was responsible for maintaining aids to navigation on the lower Delaware River and Delaware Bay.  The navigable reaches of the Delaware River estuary support busy industrial and commercial areas including the ports of Philadelphia, Camden, Trenton and Wilmington, with numerous shipbuilding and repair yards, petroleum refineries, power plants and factories.  The Delaware River is also a link in the nation’s Inter-coastal Waterway System through the Cape May Ship Canal and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Built for the U.S. Lighthouse Service, the lighthouse tender LILAC was contracted for on August 16, 1931 and her keel laid at the Pusey and Jones Shipyard in Wilmington, Delaware on August 16, 1932. Nine months later, LILAC was launched on May 26, 1933.  Kristi Putnam, daughter of George Putnam, legendary Commissioner of Lighthouses, was the sponsor who christened the ship that day. 

LILAC is 174-1/2 feet long with a 32-ft beam.  Her riveted steel hull is painted black, like all lighthouse and buoy tenders and most workboats, such as icebreakers and tugs. This hides the bumps and scrapes that are an inevitable part of their work. LILAC was built to be extremely stable and she is equipped with a steam-powered boom so she could lift buoys weighing 14 tons or more. Her sides are nearly vertical and a section of each bulwark on the well deck can be lifted out to make the job of moving buoys onto the deck easier. She has a wheelhouse with a wide field of view that allowed the captain to simultaneously maneuver the ship and observe what was happening on deck and alongside while handling a buoy.

LILAC was assigned to the Fourth Lighthouse District covering Delaware Bay and its approaches, north to Trenton, New Jersey.  She was originally based in Edgemoor, Delaware just north of the mouth of the Christina River. On July 1, 1939, the Lighthouse Service was dissolved and the responsibility for aids to navigation was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard and LILAC became a Coast Guard cutter.

During World War II, LILAC went about her usual duties of tending lighthouses and buoys but was specially equipped to assist in protecting the coast.  The entrance to Delaware Bay was a prime hunting ground for U-boats as 35 percent of ships were being built in Philadelphia.  LILAC was camouflaged with gray paint, had a 3-inch 50-caliber gun installed on the focslehead and 20-mm anti-aircraft guns on the afterhouse roof with depth charges in racks at the stern.  To help spot U-boats, sonar was added and, to protect the ship from magnetic mines, a degaussing system was installed. In 1948, the base in Edgemoor was closed and LILAC was assigned to Gloucester City, New Jersey, across the Delaware from south Philadelphia. She was based there for the rest of her active duty. 

Buoy tenders going about their normal rounds often have been first upon the scene when a vessel is in distress and are equipped with firefighting and rescue equipment.  LILAC responded to several disasters during her career, including the collision between the oil tanker PHOENIX and gasoline tanker PAN-MASSACHUSETTS near the entrance to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal on June 6, 1953. The explosions could be heard 20 miles away and the surrounding waters were soon aflame in gasoline. LILAC was among many vessels that responded and served as a command post as burned and oil-soaked survivors were pulled from the water.  Among the 86 crewmembers between the two ships, 40 were reported injured and at least one died. 

LILAC was decommissioned on February 3, 1972.  She was the last ship in the Coast Guard fleet operating with reciprocating (that is, piston-driven) steam engines.  She has these engines still although they have not run since carrying LILAC to the Coast Guard shipyard in Curtis Bay, Maryland in 1972 for her decommissioning ceremony.

The ship was donated by the Coast Guard to the Seafarers International Union and became dormitory and classroom space at the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship in Piney Point, Maryland.  This school trains merchant mariners who crew commercial ships.  SIU made few alterations to the ship other than adding electric heat.

LILAC was privately owned by Henry Houck starting in 1984 and moored on the James River in Virginia.  Houck had a boatyard where he kept the ship and rented out the afterhouse as a real estate office. When he passed away in 2002, his wife Betty put the ship up for sale.  Some historic ship enthusiasts in New York determined that it was a ship that needed to be saved and, in March 2003, LILAC was sold to the Tug Pegasus Preservation Project, a non-profit that already existed and was willing to take temporary ownership until the new non-profit Lilac Preservation Project was formed.

The ship cost $25,000 and, after $250,000 of work at Lyons Shipyard in Virginia, she was towed to New York City. She moved to a berth at Pier 40 in Hudson River Park in Manhattan on New Year’s Eve, 2003.  In May 2011, she moved downtown to the newly re-built Pier 25 in the Tribeca section of the park.  Since arriving there, the ship has been open to the public on a regular basis.  

For more history, see LILAC's National Register Nomination by maritime historian Norman Brouwer

Courtesy of Hagley Museum

Courtesy of Hagley Museum