Lighthouse keepers tell tales of working at Plum Island

08/17/2012 5:00 PM |

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Retired Coast Guard machineman Robert Goguen next to the actual light he serviced during his stint as Plum Island’s lighthouse keeper in 1968-69.

Two guys from the Coast Guard met on a lighthouse cruise …

No, that’s not the start to some crude, corny joke, it’s what happened Saturday, Aug. 4, when retired Coast Guardsmen Robert Goguen and Richard Kenney crossed paths on one of East End Seaport Museum’s recent lighthouse cruises.

Following the cruise, which toured Southold Town’s many lighthouses and other sites, the two men, who now live in Massachusetts, took time at the museum to talk about their experiences working at the Plum Island lighthouse.

They stood in front of the original Plum Island Light lens as they recalled the countless hours they both spent shining all the glass and brass.

“It would cut the heck out of you,” Mr. Goguen said of the razor sharp edges.

Each lived for a time at the Plum Island Lighthouse — Mr. Goguen for nine months in 1968 and 1969 and Mr. Kenney for a year in 1973-74.

The lighthouse has stood vacant for decades.

Although their separate stays there were not so far apart, their experiences could not have been more different.

The two also held similar positions. Mr. Kenney was second in command as an E4 diesel mechanic and Mr. Goguen first in command as an E5. But their individual experiences differed greatly, from the mundane to the perhaps paranormal.

Mr. Goguen said he didn’t notice anything unusual during his stay on Plum Island in the late ’60s. But Mr. Kenney said the entirety of his time there in the early ’70s was peppered with unusual experiences.

GIANNA VOLPE PHOTO | Richard Kenney lived at the Plum Island lighthouse for the year of 1973-74.

“I was supposed to go to a small boat station and asked to be switched somewhere else because my wife was due to have a baby in New London,” Mr. Kenney recalled. “They said the lighthouse keeper on Plum Island wanted to get off so I agreed to swap with him.”

Mr. Kenney said he asked the man he was replacing why he was in such a rush to get off the island, and the man had responded, “Just ask them about the Colonel.”

He said it wasn’t long before he was told about Col. Thomas Gardiner, “the only one buried on the island that we know of,” he added.

“One of the first nights I was there, Frank Indermhule, who was in charge of the lighthouse, decided to stay with me to get me used to the place and show me what to do. That night we were watching TV in the pitch black and we heard someone tumble down the lighthouse stairs and slam onto the landing. I looked at this great big guy of 300 pounds and he just turned pure white and said, ‘Maybe it was the cat.’ That’s when the cat came crawling out from underneath the couch and started looking down the dark hallway, because the cat had heard it, too.

“So Frank said to me, ‘Go see what it is’ and so I got up and went out into the hallway, flipped on the lights and there was nothing there. The doors were locked. There was nobody in the lighthouse except for us.”

Mr. Kenney said the strange experience was not an isolated one and that he heard someone walking around the lighthouse attic while he was in bed at night “all the time, just pacing around and around and saying something that I could never make out.” He described the voice as that of an angry man and added that Mr. Indermhule, the first in command, was so scared of the place that he slept with a .45 caliber pistol under his pillow anytime he stayed at the lighthouse.

“We knew never to go near his bedroom at night,” Mr. Kenney said, “because one night that he was there by himself, he said he heard the tower door swing open. When the door opens up there, it taps an alarm bell slightly just because of bad placement. So he heard the bell go, then footsteps down the corridor to his bedroom. Since he’d heard stories, he had his chair pushed up against the door knob so the door couldn’t open, but he said he saw the door knob turning, like something was trying to get into the room, so from that point on he kept a .45 with him.”

Mr. Kenney said the odd experiences continued throughout the year he lived at the light.

“We’d go to bed at night, pull the shades down so light would only be coming out of the tower and in the morning the shades would be up and the doors would be open,” he said. “We’d lock everything from the outside — there was no way anyone was coming in.”

Mr. Kenney had little opportunity to swap stories about the island because unlike Mr. Goguen, he was prohibited from leaving the lighthouse grounds. Plum Island has been a federal animal disease research center closed to the public since the 1950s.

“I could go around the island,” Mr. Goguen said of his stint on Plum Island. “Mr. Kenney was restricted to the lighthouse and could only go from the dock to the lighthouse and back. I couldn’t go totally around the island, but let’s say a woman reported her husband missing, we could go either with the guards or by ourselves to the end of the island and look for him.”

Their experiences with the island’s staff also varied greatly.

Mr. Goguen said the employees were “awfully nice” and often invited him to events, let him eat at the laboratory cafeteria, made breakfast for him and sometimes delivered his newspaper to his door while on their rounds.

“It was a lot more casual when I was out there,” he said. “The guys were super to me.”

That wasn’t Mr. Kenney’s experience.

“They wanted nothing to do with us and we weren’t allowed off the lighthouse property,” he said. “Sometimes we’d try to sneak around the island. They’d see us every time, pick us up, bring us back and tell us not to leave the lighthouse.

“I’m thinking the stuff they were testing got a little crazier or else there was a change in command. They told us they didn’t even want the cat out there. They wanted to take the cat away from us and destroy it. They’d always ask us to let them know if we saw deer or anything because nothing was supposed to leave the island. You’d see deer wandering out in the woods. How they got there, I have no idea.”

Both had to live with the rule, still very much in effect, that little of what’s brought to the island, now run by the Department of Homeland Security, can leave there.

“When I transferred from Fishers Island they took my sea bag over to New London for me and all I had was basically my underwear and a couple shirts,” Mr. Goguen said of his trip to Plum Island in 1968. “I was told I could not take anything off the island so I left with only my clothes; they destroyed the rest. They were using a lye bath to decontaminate your shoes and clothes. Would you want a bag of clothes dipped through lye?”

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