Tuesday, 23 February 2010

'Let them lights shine in America'

Here at CHAS we have received lots enquiries from the U.S.A. regarding Chances, many of these regarding Chance lighthouse apparatus. I was hoping to uncover lots of information on this topic during my trundle through the Lighthouse Works records but I was disappointed to find that Chances did not make much of a dent in the US market. They only supplied a handful of (around 15 first- to fourth- order) lights to America whilst French manufacturers supplied hundreds. According to Toby Chance's and Peter Williams' book Lighthouses: The Race to Illuminate the World, this was because of the close relationship between US maritime authorities and the French, as a result of France's military and diplomatic support for the Colonies in the War of Independence. It was also down to Chance's inability to establish capable agents in New York and Washington.

With this in mind, I excitedly stumbled upon a file and an envelope containing correspondence with Chances' agents in America. Contained in a battered and fragile paper folder, the letters provide a fascinating insight into how marketing and promotion were conducted in the nineteenth century. Most of the letters are from Chances' Boston agent R B Forbes. His letters describe attempts made to encourage the Lighthouse Board in America to purchase Chance lights between 1856 to 1861. He repeatedly admits in his letters that 'I do not think that I would make a good agent for you' and his predictions are soon realised when he has a disagreement with the Secretary, Lieutenant Jenkins, during his first attempt to present a Chance catalogue to the Lighthouse Board. During the next five years it becomes apparent that Forbes was unsuccessful at each attempt he made to introduce Chances lights. The last two letters written by Forbes were sent in September and December 1861, following the outbreak of the Civil War. He optimistically states that 'whenever peaceable relations between the North and South are resumed, Lighthouse apparatus will be wanted, as several of the lights have been destroyed & more will be no doubt'.

History has since told that this was not to be the case and in 1866 Chance were still attempting to promote their lighthouse work in America. In an additional small envelope I found correspondence between Chances, Fred Burdus of the Cosmopolitan and H Fuller, an American Naval official, regarding a Chance lighthouse advertisement in the paper. Fuller writes to Burdus charismatically, 'If your Birmingham friends want to let them Lights shine in America, they should send a copy of last Saturday's Cosmopolitan, to the Secretary of the Navy - to the members of Congress, the Naval Board, Naval Schools, Admirals, etc.'. He also claims that he can get a Bill introduced for the adoption of a Chance eclipser for a fee as 'we cannot turn the Grindstone to sharpen other men's axes for nothing'. It is unclear whether Fuller managed to turn the Grindstone but one thing is certain, not many Chance lights are shinning in America.

One light that does continue to shine in America, however, is a third order middle lens, lovingly restored by Ellen Henry, MFA, Curator at Ponce de Leon Inlet Light Station in Florida. She contacted me recently with an enquiry about the light and one of Chances' agents. She also sent me a link to a website dedicated to the Ponce Inlet Lighthouse that describes all of the wonderful work the Association is doing to preserve it and make it available to the public and she has offered me a red carpet tour of the station next time I visit Florida. If you would like to read about the light station and pay a visit yourself, take a look at the website at http://www.ponceinlet.org/

Keep that light shining Ellen!


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