Digest>Archives> October 2002

The Lighthouses of Ecuador from 1841 to 1941

By Eduardo J. Estrada


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The Santa Clara Island Lighthouse as it appeared ...

Ecuador is a small country in the northern part of the west coast of South America. Although it is small, its size is inversely proportional to the richness of its history and the complexity of its people. The history of its lights starts in 1841, when the first one was installed in the Island of Santa Clara, located at the middle of the Gulf of Guayaquil. In 1872, a system of five Fresnel lights was installed at several points that facilitated the entry to the three main ports: Guayaquil, Esmeraldas and Manta. By the end of the 19th Century, Ecuador had only nine lights, but each had a story of its own, full of hope, triumph, frustration, intrigue, incapacity and economic sorrows. In 1921, a system of sixteen AGA lights was installed to replace the old optics and add new ones to the system.

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The Santa Clara Lighthouse with its third order ...

The first lighthouse, installed in 1841, had a Winslow Lewis optic with some ten lamps and a wooden tower in an octagonal shape, very much like the East Quoddy Lighthouse. The optic was purchased in Baltimore and shipped to Ecuador via the Straits of Magellan, all arround South America. When the optic arrived, the tower was built in Guayaquil, according to the size of the lantern room, and was then taken in pieces to Santa Clara Island, where it was assembled. By the first of December, 1841, the lighthouse was completed and the light was lit for regular service on the second of December. A special port tax was established in order to keep the light. However, from the beginning, some unexpected surpises complicated the operation of the light. The first one was the high rate of fuel consumption, some three gallons of oil per night. The second one was the fact that the Port Captain’s office, which was in charge of the light, did not have a boat of its own to tend to the light’s needs, which caused trouble in the supply of fuel for the light and food for the lightkeepers. The income from the special tax proved insufficient for the upkeep of the establishment, so it became a burden on the strained finances of the emerging and politically complicated nation. During the first two years the light worked well because of the personal attention of the Governor of Guayas Province, but after he left office, the light started deteriorating. By 1845 there were serious problems and by 1848 the Government wanted to auction the service, as it did not have the funds needed for the upkeep. From then, until 1869, the operation of the light was most irregular and subject to the whims of the several constitutional and de-facto governments that succeeded each other precipitously. Political circumstances had conspired to diminish commerce, with the resulting decrease in the number of ships entering port and the logical decline in the income of the tax for the maintenance of the light. By 1869, the National Convention declared the light as obsolete and resolved to purchase several new ones.

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One of the new lights of Ecuador, circa 1921.

In 1870, the Ecuadorian Government, through its General Consul in Paris, purchased four complete lanterns and four bell buoys from Barbier & Fenestre, the well known Fresnel optics makers. The order, however, was not delivered until the end of 1871 because of the Franco-Prussian war.

The Consul, aware of the lack of qualified technicians in the purchasing country, made the necessary arrangements for a trained mechanic to be in charge of the installation. A mechanical engineer, with experience in the installation of lighthouses in Greece and Spain was contracted for the duration of the installation. Monsieur Ferdinand Dioudonnat embarked from Saint Nazaire on December 7, 1871 and arrived in Guayaquil on the 6th of January 1872. He started working on the next day and established good rapport with the Governor, a very powerful man who was delighted with the mechanic and started delegating on him all the responsibility for the projected lighthouses.

The mechanic (as he was called) had found that no preparations had been made in spite of the fact that plans and instructions had been sent some months in advance, so he had to take charge of all the prelimiary work, which included fixing the exact location of the lighthouses, purchasing wood and building the towers. For this, the Governor gave him ample powers, which caused immediate envy from the Port Captain, who had been in charge of the old light and thought he was entitled to be in charge of the new ones. The mechanic presented a preliminary report with nine points to the Governor, who forwarded it to the President for his approval. After it was approved, the mechanic started the practical work.

When the lanterns and the buoys arrived in March of 1872, the problems started.

The Captain of the French Barque Perseverant did not want to allow the port workers to build, on board his ship, the temporary rigging necessary to disembak the floating parts of the buoys, as the pier had no facilities for this work. In order to allow the construction, he demanded extra payment, which the Governor had to disburse grudgingly because the ship was about to sail with the buoys on board. Once this problem was solved, the crated lanterns and parts of the buoys were transferred to an unoccupied schoolhouse by the river, where the assembly shop was established. This also became a carpentry shop where the towers were built, assembled and disassembled for transportation.

The construction of the towers was lengthy as the wood had a high degree of humidity due to the fact that this was the rainy season. In May, the mechanic had to assemble the third order lens in the shop, in response to an order by the President, who wanted to make sure that the light did in fact work. After the authorities were satisfied, the lens had to be disassembled and crated again for transportation to Santa Clara Island.

By the end of July, the lighthouse was ready and on the 1st of August, the Barbier & Fenestre third order optic was lit for regular operation. The instalation had not been without problems. The old lightkeeper and his assistant, who would be in charge of the new lighhouse, had refused to help in the construction, and had refused to receive the operating instructions from the mechanic. The reason for this was that they were employees of the Port Captain’s office and were following instructions from their boss.

As we said before, the mechanic was put in charge of the lighthouses by the Governor, who simply ignored the autority of the Port Captain, a naval officer in special duty who had been in charge of the previous lighthouse. The Port Captain thought he was entitled to be the “Director of Lighthouses.” From the beginning, it was understood that the mechanic’s duty was to install the lights and once that was over, he would go away. However, the Governor gave the job to the mechanic, who was induced by the Governor into signing a ten year contract. This caused deep resentment, so that relations between the mechanic and the Captain were strained from the beginning. The Captain did everything in his power to discredit and sabotage the work of the mechanic and the latter was so ingenuous that he did not realize what was going on until it was too late. The arrangement of having some of the lightkeepers dependent from the Port Captain’s office and others from the Lighthouse Service was odd and gave way to many problems in the next few years. Inexplicably, for all the authority he had, the Governor did nothing to clarify the lines of authority he had de-facto established, therefore allowing internal disputes to affect the efficiency of the Lighthouse Service. One of the nine points presented by the mechanic at the beginning of his work was the need to establish a body of rules for the operation of the Service. For this purpose, he presented the Governor with a project... which was never approved! So, the mechanic finished the installation of the other lights and started managing the Service without official rules, applying his proposed rules unofficially, and governed really by the whims of the Governor and the President. This worked fine while the mechanic was in the good graces of his “Boss,” the Governor, but when his star declined, things started getting uncomfortable. The constant effort to discredit the “foreign” mechanic started paying off by the third year, and by that time the Frenchman’s spirit had been destroyed. He lamented, too late, having signed the ten year contract, and this mistake had been compounded in his first year by having his wife and daughter come to Guayaquil with all their furniture. He had tranferred his life to this tropical city and he did not have the funds to go back to France to start over again. The land that had captivated the Frenchman with its balmy climate and friendly people (except the Port Captain and his cohorts), the land of those moonlit night cruises down the silvery Guayas river on the way to the lights, had suddenly lost its charm. The mechanic felt cornered and insult was added to injury when the Governor named the Port Captain as “Inspector of Lighthouses,” thereby giving him authority to criticize the work of the mechanic.

The situation became unbearable and, in spite of his love for his wife and daughter, and perhaps because of the guilt he felt for the terrible mistake he had made, Monsieur Dioudonnat decided to take his own life, which he did on October 10, 1874, by taking arsenic and cutting his jugular.

Not many months had gone by when the establishments started deteriorating. The mechanic’s abscense was sorely felt and the nation had lost a faithful servant.

By 1921 the Barbier & Fenestre optics and the mechanisms were completely deteriorated and the Government decided to replace them with the new AGA lights that were the new rage of lighthouse services. The Government contracted 16 new lights to replace the nine old ones installed until then, and to place seven new ones in strategic spots.

Before the new lights arrived, Aga sent a mechanic, Mr. Ellwe, to make the preparations. His job was well done and when the lanterns arrived, they were immediatelly installed. Nevertheless, Mr. Ellwe stayed in Ecuador for nearly a year, while all the istallations were completed and the maintanance personnel was trained. Thirty AGA lights were in service by 1941 to guard the coast of Ecuador.

This story appeared in the October 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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