Lighthouses stand as solitary sentinels of maritime life past and present. They are stalwart against wind and weather, romantic and melancholy in their isolation. Despite advances in technology, the structures are still considered by the United States Coast Guard to be active aids to navigation. Their unique visual designs, and the distinct frequency of each flashing beacon, help distinguish one from another during the day and the night. Their mournful fog horns, like voices in the gloom, signal both a warning and a welcome. Possibly more than any other image, a lighthouse captures the essence of nautical life.
The U.S. is home to more lighthouses (about 680) than any other country. The East Coast has more than four times the number of lights as the West Coast. Among the 37 states with lighthouses, Michigan has the most with about 120.
All the nation’s lighthouses are automated except for one — the first lighthouse built on U.S. soil — The Boston Lighthouse on Little Brewster Island in the Boston Harbor. First built in 1716, and later renovated, it is the last lighthouse in America with a keeper.
Operated and maintained by the Coast Guard since 1939, only about two-thirds of the nation’s lighthouses (about 400) are active, and their upkeep is expensive. In 2000, Congress passed the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act (NHLPA), which allows for transferring ownership of the historic structures to qualified non-profit organizations, or putting them up for sale at public auction. The law was designed to lighten the taxpayer burden while ensuring that lighthouses could pass to caretakers better equipped to meet the unique challenges of the lights’ maintenance and costs. When a property cannot be matched to a non-profit or government entity, it can be auctioned to individuals willing to maintain it according to historical standards. About 20 lighthouses around the country are privately owned.
Featured on posters, notecards, advertisements and fine art, the nation’s lighthouses have a devoted following of friends, admirers and conservationists. The Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula have their fair share of these icons, and they all have stories to tell — tales of extreme makeovers, minimal facelifts, precarious beauty and even minor hauntings.
The Chesapeake Bay boasted the greatest shipping volume in North America during the 1700s and early 1800s, prompting America’s new federal government to establish lighthouses for guiding vessels to its vital ports. Among the first group of these new structures were Smith Point Light, New Point Comfort Light, and later Wolf Trap Light.
Smith Point Light
Smith Point Light is a caisson lighthouse (one whose superstructure rests on a concrete or metal base) in the
Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay, at the mouth of the Potomac River. It marks a dangerous shoal off the shore of Smith Point, not far from Reedville. The lighthouse is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It was first constructed in 1802, but due to erosion was rebuilt further inland in 1807. Its current structure is the latest in a succession of lights — three towers, three lightships, a screw-pile lighthouse (which stands on a foundation of pilings screwed into sandy or muddy sea or river bottoms), and the present caisson framework. The light was automated in 1971, reportedly a late date for a Chesapeake Bay light. A long submarine cable was run to provide power to the light, with a battery backup to handle interruptions. Damage to the cable in the 1980s led the Coast Guard to consider discontinuing the light, but public outcry led to repairs in 1988.
In 2003 the lighthouse was offered for transfer under the NHLPA, but there were no applications. In 2005, the structure went up for auction and was bought for $170,000 by David McNally, a builder from Winona, Minnesota. “I always wanted to own a lighthouse,” he said. “I don’t know why.”
For five years, McNally faithfully restored his extreme vacation retreat, adhering to historic preservation guidelines and transporting by boat the necessary materials and provisions (including about 200 gallons of water stored at the lighthouse). He brought friends along to help with the work — carpenters, electricians, helpers. He and his group of volunteers would spend a week at a time on the light, for a total of five or six weeks during the summer season. “It became sort of a status symbol for guys from Minnesota to get out to a lighthouse in Virginia,” he said. The finished version includes four floors of newly-renovated space — four bedrooms, a modern kitchen and living area, and an environmentally-friendly bathroom. It is protected by a new roof and hurricane-proof windows. “The light is like a rock,” noted McNally in a blog post. “Large waves hitting it don’t even make it quiver.”
The Coast Guard maintains the lantern room and its
light, which McNally says is no bother. More difficult was shrugging off the foghorn, which sounded a two-second blast every 15 seconds. But the horn “has been taken care of,” McNally added, because the cable providing electricity to the lighthouse no longer works. The light that flashes every ten seconds has been converted to solar power. Electricity for the living quarters of the lighthouse comes from an on-site generator. “Every day on the lighthouse is an adventure,” he said. “It has been an absolute blast.”
McNally put the lighthouse back on the market in 2012, complete with furnishings. “Owning this light has been a treat, but due to grandbabies coming into my life, the light no longer fits my lifestyle,” he wrote on his website: www.smithpointlighthouse.com. “A large part of the fun was the challenge of getting it done,” McNally said.
New Point Comfort
From the beginning it seemed New Point Comfort Light was destined to be a damsel in distress. Situated on a very small eroding island off the southern tip of Mathews County, at the convergence of the Chesapeake and Mobjack bays, it was among the first few lights to be commissioned by the new federal government. It is the third-oldest surviving lighthouse in the bay, and the tenth-oldest in the United States. It was completed in 1804 by Mathews native Elzy Burroughs, who also constructed Smith Point Light and Old Point Comfort, located about 30 miles south and nearly the twin of New Point Comfort Light.
At the time of the light’s construction, New Point Comfort was a small island separated from the mainland by a narrow passage called Deep Creek. A dispute with the owner of the island over the portion needed for the light eventually led Burroughs to buy the entire island and sell the government the few acres needed for the light. Later, Burroughs was appointed keeper, a position he held for ten years. The light was fully automated in 1930.
Throughout its history, the survival of New Point Comfort Light was often in doubt. Damaged by British forces in the War of 1812, it was repaired and returned to service by Burroughs, who also took the first steps to secure the structure by putting a pile- and debris-lined ditch around the tower. Weather and erosion proved to be relentless enemies of the lighthouse. By 1839 it was no longer accessible by land at low tide. In 1886 an earthquake made the tower tremble, and a hurricane in 1933 cut through the island and left the tower standing alone on a tiny isolated parcel. By 1963, shoaling to the south of the light rendered it useless as a marker and it was deactivated, replaced by an offshore beacon.
Although New Point Comfort is considered endangered, and is on a “doomsday list” compiled by Lighthouse Digest, it is the beneficiary of considerable conservation efforts. It is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and ownership of the lighthouse was transferred to Mathews County in 1975. It was renovated in 1988, severely vandalized in 1994, then repaired and relit in 1999. The New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force now oversees a plan for the restoration of the lighthouse, using grant money and donations. For more information, log on to newpointcomfortlighthouse.org.
Wolf Trap Light
Wolf Trap Light stands like a dusty-red castle fortress marking a dangerous shoal just south of where the Rappahannock River meets the Chesapeake Bay, about 7.5 miles northeast of New Point Comfort. Both the shoal and the light are named for the 1691 grounding of the HMS Wolf, a British vessel engaged in policing the coastline and combating piracy. Wolf Trap Light, a sibling of Smith Point Light, is an active caisson tower listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its beacon flashes every 15 seconds and can be seen for 16 miles.
In 1821, a lightship was stationed at the spot; but the ship was eventually destroyed by Confederate raiders in 1861 during the Civil War. Two years later a replacement ship was put on station. Because it was cheaper to maintain a lighthouse than a lightship, a screwpile lighthouse on a hexagonal foundation was constructed at the shoal in 1870.
Another Burroughs, John L., was hired as the first keeper of Wolf Trap, where he remained for 12 years. In 1882, an assistant keeper resigned due to “ghostly visitations.” A correspondent with the Baltimore Sun at the time reported that the unpleasant spiritual disturbances continued after the departure of the assistant keeper, and a number of prominent citizens in the neighborhood set out to investigate the ghost. The newspaper article claimed the spirit was “evidently a merry ghost, as he whistles when called on, and when requested to dance gives a regular ‘double-shuffle’ or Virginia ‘hoe down’ in the very room occupied by his would-be investigators.”
In spite of the rumored haunting, the screwpile light survived until 1893, when ice tore the house from its foundation. The keeper was able to escape, but the house was found floating several miles to the south near Thimble Shoals, where the lantern and lens were recovered.
The current lighthouse was constructed in 1894 and painted its signature red in the late 1920s. It was not automated until 1971. Wolf Trap Light was offered for transfer to qualified organizations and non-profit groups in 2004, under the provisions of the NHLPA. There were no applications, so the light was sold at auction in 2005 for $75,000 to a Seattle-based lighthouse enthusiast with dreams of possibly turning the light into a bed and breakfast. The new owner apparently reconsidered his plans and the light was again up for auction about six months later. It sold for about $115,000 to another bidder, James H. Southard, Jr., of Charleston, South Carolina, who also had hopes of a private getaway. A new roof was installed and renovations began on the interior of the lighthouse. Alas, the task proved too daunting and in 2012 Southard listed the property for sale again, this time including a deep-water lot on Horn Harbor in Mathews. The listing can be found at charleston.craigslist.org.
The nation’s lighthouses are a part of the story of America — brave in all weathers, adventurous, sometimes eccentric, casting light in the darkness. Losing these icons to decay would be to lose chapters in a story that technology cannot replace. With great dedication, optimistic preservationists both private and public work together to keep the lights on.