One of the settings in America On the Move is built around a ships engine room and its triple-expansion steam engine from the 1921 U.S. Lighthouse Service tender Oak. The exhibition interprets the engine room as part of a much larger story about the Port of New York and its critical role in international commerce and cultural exchange during the 1920s. The Oak and its crew are part of this story, for they maintained the hundreds of aids to navigation in New York Harbor and kept the surrounding seaways marked for safe passage by the thousands of vessels serving Americas largest city.
This tour turns the focus away from the big city and back to the little ship, the 160-foot buoy tender Oak, built for the USLHS (the forerunner of the U.S. Coast Guard) in 1921. The sister ships Oak and Hawthorn were built by Consolidated Shipbuilding Corp. in Morris Heights, New York, at a cost of about $378,000 each.
The Black Fleet
Like all buoy tenders, the Oaks steel hull was painted black to hide the scrapes and bumps that were an inevitable part of tending aids to navigation. The fleet of buoy tenders is sometimes called the Black Fleet.
Everything about the buoy tender design means business: the deck forward is open and heavily built for carrying buoys and other aids to navigation. The low freeboard eases launching and retrieving operations, and the mast and boom amidships are made for heavy lifting.
For more on buoy tenders see:Peterson, Douglas. United States Lighthouse Service Tenders, 1840-1939. Annapolis & Trappe, Maryland: Eastwind Publishing, 2000.
Its no accident that the Oak and Hawthorn were both named for plants. Other craft built for the U.S. Lighthouse Service in the 1920s included Primrose, Aster, and Poppy. The tradition of naming the services ships for shrubs, flowers, and trees dates to the Civil War, when the U.S. Navy purchased vessels from private sources and gave them new names, all for plants. After the war, when the Lighthouse Service acquired four of these steam-powered vesselsHeliotrope, Cactus, Iris, and Geraniumthe names were kept and the tradition, still followed by the U.S. Coast Guard, was launched.
Two Lighthouse Tender Models
The Smithsonians collection of ship models includes two rigged models of lighthouse tenders, both employed by the U.S. Lighthouse Service to tend lighthouses and navigational markers on the nations inland waterways. Both represent typical designs of shallow-draft river steamboats: Joseph Henry, built in 1880, was a sidewheel steamer and Greenbrier, built in 1924, had two sternwheels.