Since the founding of Jamestown in 1607, the Chesapeake Bay and its rivers and their estuaries have been an integral part of the civilization, growth, commerce and development of the Old Dominion. Our Rappahannock is one of those rivers. Spacious as it appears, many shoals, rocks, sandbars and other underwater obstructions loom just beneath the surface. Today, buoys, day beacons and range lights provide nautical guidance to prevent catastrophe. It wasn’t always that way.
The fledgling government of the United States decided in the early 1800s there needed to be a system of marking channels and harbor entrances to assist mariners as they navigated these rivers. Early attempts to mark the hazards consisted of cutting long saplings and sticking them in the bottom of the river. The leafy tops were left on so the vessels would be able to see them. This process was referred to as “brushing the river”. This was of some help, however, there needed to be a better way.
By 1849, “Light Ships”, consisting of a boat with an open fire on the deck, marked the more dangerous locations in the river and nightly fires onshore also were beacons that warned mariners to avoid the shallow waters. Congress appropriated money in the early 1840s to begin the construction of aids to navigation in the Chesapeake and its estuaries, and in 1867, a manned lighthouse was constructed over the most dangerous obstruction in the middle Rappahannock, Bowlers Rock. It was a raised structure sitting on iron pilings driven into the river bottom.
The keeper of the light lived on the structure and was responsible for keeping the light burning first using kerosene and later changing over to the more dependable acetylene. He was also responsible for the other markers in his areas. Although not numerous, these lights needed to brought to life at dusk and extinguished in daylight which required daily trips usually by rowboat and in all types of weather. The fuel, new wicks, and normal maintenance items needed to supply and maintain the structure were the responsibility of the keeper and the only way to get them out there was by boat.
The extraordinarily cold winter of 1917-1918 caused the Rappahannock to freeze over for several weeks. As this ice finally melted, gigantic ice flows began moving with the high and low tides. Bowlers Rock with its iron underpinnings became seriously threatened and the keeper, John Spence from Tangier Island, was experienced with the potential damage ice could cause. Living on the structure he became gravely concerned and removed the large glass fluted lenses on the lighthouse and along with his belongings, placed them in his skiff and pushed them across the ice to the safety of Bowlers Wharf. The next day, the structure was carried off by the ice. It was decided not to replace the lighthouse and a more permanent structure consisting of screw caisson pilings filled with concrete and topped with a 12 foot concrete deck cap was built. This included two compartments which held the acetylene supply in one and the carbon dioxide for the attached fog bell in the other. This transformation moved the light keepers off the structures and to the shore.
On September 1, 1918, Fred L. Garrett, Sr. contracted with the Department of Commerce, the controlling agency for the U. S. Coast Guard, to assume the responsibility for the lights at Jones Point and Bowlers Rock which was now a permanent fixed lighted aid to navigation. Thus began the Middle Rappahannock River Lamplighters, a business Garrett and his sons Fred, Jr. and William “Wit” would operate until 1967 when the U. S. Coast Guard opened a base in Mathews County and operations were performed by the inland buoy tenders.
As the river became more heavily traveled, Garrett was awarded more lights. These aids consisted of lighted buoys, fixed lights and unlighted markers. Also in 1922, Wit was born. At that time, Wit’s father was the basic lamplighter, but by the time Wit reached “10 or 12” he would accompany his dad, or whoever was going out to work the lights, learning from the more experienced older light keepers. The job was an arduous one. Kerosene needed to be taken to the Jones Point light every couple of days, about 2 miles south of the Garrett’s home. Fred, Sr. would row out and about every week depending on how high the brightness of the light was set, to replenish the fuel, and it was on these trips he would also carry wicks and other materials to keep the light clean and shining bright. According to Wit that light eventually became unnecessary and service stopped. “By the 30s, most of the lights had been changed over to acetylene and carbon dioxide to operate the bells and horns that remained on the structure. Those tanks were cumbersome and heavy, and it was a job to get them in place”, said Wit. Fred, Sr. and Jr. were occupied primarily with the farm and the oyster beds, and as Wit matured, he became more and more involved with the buoy business.
Wit’s father believed very strongly in education and in 1940 after graduation from Rappahannock District High School, Wit was off to Hampden Sydney College to complete his education. When he was half way through his second year, World War II began. “We knew we would be called up, so we went and volunteered. Being in college, Wit received a deferment until 1943, and upon graduation he was shipped off to Naval Officers Training School located at the University of Notre Dame. He graduated in 1944, and was commissioned an Ensign. “I served in the South Pacific on the LCT 886; we would resupply the bombs and fuel needed by the planes that were bombing Japan. I served there until the end of the war”. In 1946 Wit was released from the Navy and returned home. “My first order of business was to marry the girl I had met in college. She wrote me almost every day so I didn’t feel I should wait any longer. Special girl.”
While Wit was away, the other Garretts carried on the light service. When Wit returned, he and his father once again became the primary light keepers, and also he became involved in the operation of the Garrett Farm.
In the early 50s F.L. Garrett, Sr. retired, and Wit assumed the responsibility of tending the lights. “By this time most of the lights had been converted to batteries. The batteries resembled automobile batteries, just a little larger. Small holes in the top covered with tape allowed me to fill them with water and that activated them. They were stored inside the buoy compartments just like the old gas cylinders were. They lasted for about 2 to 3 weeks before they needed to be replaced,” he said. The Coast Guard would ship batteries and lights directly to Wit at his home in Bowlers Wharf. He had a shed where he stored them and his father’s first boat, a small motor skiff called the Lindy. Over the years, there were three boats used in the business. The second was a 32ft Chesapeake deadrise named the Margaret Frances. This was the boat used to tend the buoys on the southern part of Wit’s area. For the extreme northern end, he would trailer a small aluminum boat and put in near Port Royal.
Mr. Garrett reflected on the pros and cons of being a light tender. “I had made friends along the river and if they saw a light was out, they would call and I would go as quickly as I could to repair it,” he said. “It was a responsibility I
took very seriously”, he added. “It’s certainly not a job you did for the money. I don’t think I ever made any more than $125.00 month.”
Other challenges that came with the job included ice, storms and summer heat. “I remember going to work a light on the north end in the winter. There was a great deal of ice on the river, and I had trouble getting to the light. I always carried two bow lines and in this case, I tied them both to the buoy. I didn’t want the boat to get away and leave me on the light. I probably would have frozen to death before anyone could get to me,” he said with a smile.
His nephew, F.L. Garrett, III known as “Skipper” said, “One day Uncle Wit asked me if I would go across the river to Cat Point Creek and fix the light. It was pretty windy and as I got to the light, I took the bow line and began to climb the ladder. About half way up the bow line slipped out of my hand back into the water, and I just jumped back in the skiff. It is a wonder I did not go through the bottom of the boat,” Skipper said with a chuckle. “I did not want to spend a couple of hours on that light”. Being marooned on the light structures was one of the keepers’ biggest concerns.
The third boat used in the operation was a buy boat named the Lillian C. Cooper. This boat was a larger oyster buy boat and used mainly to purchase oysters from smaller oyster boats. An interesting fact about the Cooper is in 1963 as the current Downing Bridge in Tappahannock was about to be completed and opened to traffic, the final time the span was swung open was for the Cooper heading back down the river. Wit and his son Bill had just completed a trip up river to tend some lights. Shortly thereafter, the span was removed and the old bridge demolished.
The Middle Rappahannock River Lamplighters years took care of the river lights for almost 50 years. They began with servicing the Bowlers Rock light, and in the end were responsible for 16 lighted structures from Jones Point to Port Micou. Three generation of Garretts worked together on this job. Beginning with Fred, Sr., his two sons Fred, Jr. and Wit, their two sons, “Skipper” and Bill, and on occasion Wit’s daughters, Neely and Fran, would assist as needed. Although Wit was in charge, the rest would fill in as needed.
In 1967 the Coast Guard opened a new facility in Mathews County and the “Lamplighters” were extinguished by progress. “When I retired from that job, I missed the river, the people. I guess I felt a little like John Spence after the old lighthouse was destroyed in 1918,” said Wit. “Being on the river especially in the summer and with good weather was most relaxing. I truly enjoyed the river folks.”
Now 92 years old, Wit resides in an assisted living facility near Tappahannock. Although the years have diminished his hearing and eyesight, it has not had any effect on his memory. He is an amazing man, with an extremely sharp mind and to hear his reflections on his youth, his service to his country, farming and working the river is special. The Garretts are an amazing family with a wonderful story.