The LILAC was added to the National Register of Historic Places as a unique surviving example of a type of vessel that once served a vital role in the navigable waters of every coastline of this country. She is the last surviving steam-propelled lighthouse tender known to exist in America. She is also the oldest of only three remaining United States Lighthouse Service tenders. These vessels carried supplies to lighthouses and their resident keepers and lightships and their crews as well as maintaining buoys and range lights. Today, the country’s lighthouses are automated and usually serviced by helicopter. The term “lighthouse tender” has been dropped from use, and specialized vessels servicing aids to navigation have the more appropriate designation "buoy tender."
Successful major seaports have been vital to this country’s growth, as entry points for goods, raw materials and immigrants, and as outlets for manufactured items. Well-marked navigable channels for the passage of ships are indispensible to the success of ports and these systems rely on lighthouses, lightships and buoys. During an active career spanning nearly four decades, the LILAC was responsible for maintaining these aids to navigation on the lower Delaware River and the Delaware Bay. The navigable reaches of the Delaware River estuary support a busy industrial and commercial area including the ports of Philadelphia, Trenton and Wilmington, with numerous shipbuilding and repair yards, petroleum refineries, power plants and factories. The Delaware River is also linked in the nation’s Inter-coastal Waterway System through the Cape May Ship Canal and the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.
The United States Lighthouse Board developed a basic design for its largest steam tender in the 1890s that would remain little changed until its successor, the United States Lighthouse Service, formed in 1910, was absorbed by the Coast Guard in 1939. Between 1892 and 1939 thirty-three of these vessels were built, most ranging in length from 164 to 174 feet. Only three of the thirty-three survive, the FIR, commissioned as a steamer in 1940 but later converted to diesel propulsion, is in California; the MAPLE which is privately owned in Milwaukee, WI was built with diesels; and the LILAC.
The LILAC of 1933, which retains its original steam machinery, is now being renovated with the aim is to see her steaming again. The LILAC was contracted for on August 16, 1931 as one of three vessels of the “VIOLET Class”. The name of the vessel of the class had been launched at Manitowoc, WI in August 1930. The third vessel in the class, the MISTLETOE, would not be launched until 1938. The ARBUTUS, a fourth tender with the same dimensions and machinery, and nearly the same deck layout, but treated as a one ship class, was built in the same shipyard as the LILAC during 1933. The MISTLETOE was assigned to Chesapeake Bay, and the ARBUTUS was assigned to the district centered on New York Harbor. The keel of the LILAC was laid on August 16, 1932 at the Pusey & Jones Shipyard in Wilmington, DE. The Pusey & Jones yard located on the Christiana River a short distance form the Delaware Bay, had been active before the Civil War, and at one time claimed to be the oldest commercial shipbuilding plant in continuous service in the country. The firm turned out a wide variety of vessels, form large steam yachts to oceangoing steamships. The LILAC was launched on May 26, 1933. She was christened by Kristie Putnam, one of the daughters of George R. Putnam, Commissioner of the Lighthouse Service from its creation in 1910 until his retirement in 1935 and the author of several books on aids to navigation.
The LILAC was assigned to the Fourth Lighthouse District, which covered the Delaware River, from Trenton, New Jersey south to the mouth of the Delaware Bay. She replaced the tender IRIS which dated from 1899. Her first base was in Edgemoor, DE, just north of the mouth of the Christina River. When an overhaul or installation of new equipment was necessary, she was sent north to the Lighthouse depot at St. George, Staten Island. When dry-docking was required, she went into one of the private yards in New York Harbor. After World War II, most of this work was done at the Coast Guard Shipyard in Curtis Bay, near Baltimore, Maryland, though she returned to the Tietjen & Lang Shipyard in Weehawken Cove, Hoboken, NJ for dry-docking in February 1950. The ship’s regular duties included delivering fuels and supplies to offshore lightships and isolated lighthouses, rotating their personnel for shore leave or replacement, servicing buoys on site or transporting them to the base for overhaul after installing replacements, and taking district or national officials on tours of inspection. She was also expected to respond to marine disasters or emergencies in the region. During abnormal ice conditions in the winter of 1935-36, the LILAC was sent into lower Delaware Bay to evacuate the keepers on endangered offshore lighthouses. She sustained propeller damage that required dry-docking. The LILAC became a vessel of the United States Coast Guard with the dissolution of the Lighthouse Service, effective July 7, 1939. The Coast Guard took over all the responsibilities for maintaining aids to navigation previously handled by the Lighthouse Service.
Under the Lighthouse Service, the LILAC had a crew consisting of six officers and twenty seamen. The Coast Guard increased this to two officers, two warrant officers, and thirty-four seamen. The ship continued to be based in Edgemoor, DE. The only changes in her outward appearance were repainting the all-black stack to Coast Guard buff with black top, the removal of the brass lighthouse emblems bolted to either side of the bow, and substitution of the Coast Guard flag for the triangular Lighthouse Service pennant. At the beginning of World War II, the LILAC was given the Coast Guard pennant number designation WAGL-227. To her continuing duties of maintain aids to navigation and responding to maritime emergencies, was added port security. She was painted gray for the duration of the war and provided with an armament consisting of one 3-inch 50-caliber gun on the fo'c'sle head, two 20-mm anti-aircraft machine guns on the bridge, and two depth charge tracks on the stern. She was also fitted with a degaussing system for protection against magnetic mines laid off the mouth of the Bay by German U-boats.
Following the end of the war the LILAC was disarmed and returned to her peacetime color scheme. In 1948 the Edgemoor Base was closed and the ship’s home shifted to the Coast Guard Station in Gloucester, NJ, further up the Delaware River near the Port of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The LILAC was fitted with her first radar around 1949. She continued to maintain aids to navigation and respond to maritime emergencies. The LILAC was on hand from May 15 to 17, 1952 following the collision of the cargo ship BARBARA LYKES and the coastal tanker F.L. HAYES in the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal. The F.L. HAYES caught fire and sank, temporarily blocking the waterway and LILAC helped extinguish the fire. The LILAC was involved again from June 6 to 12, 1953, following the spectacular collision and fire of the tankers PHOENIX and PAN MASSACHUSETTS off the Delaware Bay entrance to the Canal. She served as command post for efforts to find survivors and bring the fires under control. The following month, she spent two days fighting a fire on the tanker PAN GEORGIA in the Christina River.
The LILAC was re-designated WLM-227 in 1965. She was finally decommissioned, after almost forty years of continuous service, on February 3, 1972. Four months later, she was donated to the Harry Lundeburg Seamanship School of the Seafarers International Union, located at Piney Point, MD on the Potomac River below Washington, D.C. She was a stationary facility to house and train union members upgrading with non-officer positions in bridge and engine room departments. The Union made few alterations to the vessel. Former fo'c'sles for seamen and petty officers continued to be used for berthing. Some staterooms were used as staff offices. The ship’s wheelhouse and engine and boiler rooms were apparently used as stationary training aids. The union school had retired the ship in 1984, selling her to the Atlantic Towing Company. She was moved away from Piney Point on October 23 of that year. On April 3, 1985, she was bought by Henry A. Houck of Falling Creek Marina, located on the James River below Richmond, VA. A berth for her was dredged at Falling Creek adjacent to a marine salvage yard. Some fittings were removed during this period, but she underwent no significant alterations. Former staterooms and the officer’s mess were utilized as offices for the scrap yard, and an associated real estate business.
By 1999 the LILAC was being advertised for sale in maritime journals. The non-profit Tug PEGASUS Preservation Project based in New York City began negotiations toward purchase of the vessel in 2002. She was refloated on February 25, 2003, and towed to a shipyard in Norfolk, VA to be dry-docked. After a very favorable report on the condition of the ship’s hull, she was purchased on March 11, 2003, with the intent to eventually return her to operation as a steam vessel based in New York harbor. Before leaving the Norfolk dry-dock, the ship’s hull was cleaned and preserved, and she was painted externally to the top of the stack. She was towed to New York, to a temporary Brooklyn berth provided by American Stevedoring. She took up residence at Hudson River Park's Pier 40 on January 1, 2004 and in February of that year ownership was transferred from the Tug PEGASUS Preservation Project to the newly created non-profit LILAC Preservation Project. She moved to the newly built Pier 25 in Tribeca in May, 2011. Operated as a museum ship, LILAC hosts cultural events and exhibitions while undergoing restoration.