Thursday, July 20, 2017  



New Point Comfort: Lighthouse in Peril

Once past the friendly lights at Cape Henry and Old Point Comfort, mariners were quiet literally in the dark. An act of Congress in 1801 called for the establishment of two lighthouses on the Bay—New Point Comfort and Smith’s Point.

By Deb Weissler

Even as the first block was being laid, New Point Comfort Lighthouse was destined for a perilous existence. Perched on a two-acre sand hill in the middle of a 100-acre island, within a decade the waters of the Chesapeake Bay lapped at its doorsill. The tenth oldest lighthouse in America and the third oldest still standing on the Bay, the fate of this historic beacon has always rested in the hands of a dedicated few who have made it their mission to save it.

By the beginning of the nineteenth century increasing ship traffic plying north to Baltimore and Annapolis all too often ran aground on deadly shoals. Once past the friendly lights at Cape Henry and Old Point Comfort, mariners were quiet literally in the dark. An act of Congress in 1801 called for the establishment of two lighthouses on the Bay—New Point Comfort and Smith’s Point

Stonemason and Mathews native Elzy Burroughs, who had recently completed Old Point Comfort Light in 1802, was keenly aware of the need for another lighthouse further north. Acquiring acreage at New Point Comfort, he sold approximately two acres of the island to the Federal government for $150 with the understanding he would be awarded the construction contract.

It had seemed the ideal location. The island was situated on the northern edge of Mobjack Bay at its confluence with the Chesapeake. A spit of land connected it to the mainland at low tide and the clay soil beneath the sand appeared solid.

Little is known about the years Burroughs and his crew labored to construct the tower. Material was either hauled by dray over sandy tracks through maritime forests and across the creek or by open water on shallow draft barges. Either
way, conditions were less than ideal. The construction crew labored until early 1805, plagued by gales, mired in muck, and harassed by mosquitoes, midges and biting flies.

The result was a sixty-three foot tall octagonal tower built from Aquia quarry sandstone, the same quarry that supplied material for the US Capitol and the White House. Its beauty lies in its simplicity. The lantern was lit in January 1805 and could be seen for twelve miles. Nearly bankrupt by the venture, Burroughs received $8750 for his labors. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him the first keeper where he served for the next decade.

From the beginning, the tower’s location was capricious. Wind and tides scoured the landscape and storm surges ate away at the island yard by yard. In its first year of operation a summer gale blew out the lantern glass, extinguishing the light and washing away a considerable part of the beach. By 1815, water was lapping at the foundation and keeper Burroughs was frantically looking for ways to protect his lighthouse.

1812 brought war to the Chesapeake. British troops occupied the light in 1814 and when they departed, the property was in shambles. By early 1815 Burroughs left his post as keeper to begin post-war repairs on New Point Comfort, Old Point Comfort, Cape Henry and Smiths Point lights. Despite the questions raised regarding the wisdom of repairing the light due to its tenuous location, by August 1815 New Point Comfort was refitted and back in operation.

The succeeding decades brought a series of concerns about, and repairs to, the lighthouse. By the late 1830s it was no longer possible to cross to the mainland at low tide and the keeper was provided with a boat to cross the channel and eventually the island on which the tower stood had been carved by the elements into a series of smaller islands.
During the Civil War Confederate troops disabled the lighthouse hoping to hamper Union shipping on the Bay. By 1864, with the Union firmly in control of the region, repairs were initiated and by war’s end the beacon was back in operation.

Nature had other surprises in store. On the evening of August 31, 1886 keepers along the East Coast felt their towers tremble. Waves roiled, deep rumbles filled the air, and lighthouse towers swayed so violently that some keepers clung to their railings to remain upright while walls cracked and plaster crumbled. From the mouth to the middle of the Bay keepers reported the shock and series of aftershocks from the Great Charleston Earthquake that shook seven states from South Carolina to New York.

The twentieth century brought changes to the lighthouse. In 1919 the light was automated with acetylene lamps that eliminated the need for a full time keeper. The keeper’s house was demolished although periodic repairs continued to be made to the tower.

The US Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses in 1939 and during World War II used the lighthouse as a watchtower. In 1950 the tower was electrified, but by 1963 New Point Comfort Light was abandoned, demoted to a day marker and federal maintenance ended not long after.
In 1972 the lighthouse was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and three years later Mathews County acquired the property. The County Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to develop a stabilization and restoration plan. Faced with problems of access and money, the Committee to Preserve New Point Lighthouse turned to the public.

As funds accumulated from private donations and public grants, restoration work began. The tower was painted, the lantern room restored, brick flooring re-laid, window glass replaced, a dock built and sixty tons of riprap were placed to stabilize the island. On August 15, 1981 a public ceremony celebrated the newly restored lighthouse.
In 1999 Elzy Burroughs’ descendent Marion Grey Burroughs decided the tower needed a lamp and residents again rose to the task. A poster by graphic designer Ida Trusch was sold to raise funds for the light. With sale proceeds, $3000 in donations and a prismatic lantern from the Coast Guard, members of the Lighthouse Lantern Committee installed a single light in the lantern room. Powered by solar panels and battery, the lamp was lit on December 12, 1999.

But the lighthouse’s woes did not end there. Storms and tides continued to undermine the island and its isolated location made it vulnerable to vandalism. On several occasions vandals damaged the lock and destroyed the door and door frame, requiring the installation of a barred door. And the tower’s continued assault by the elements has peeled away the paint, causing the sandstone blocks to gradually wear away and the mortar between the joints to erode.
In 2001 the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force was formed to oversee preservation efforts and when Hurricane Isabel struck in 2003 with an accompanying storm surge on par with the ’33 storm, coupled with rising sea levels, it was clear time was running out to save the lighthouse.

After an Army Corps of Engineering study to stabilize the island proved unfeasible, the Task Force turned to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science for help. In 2010 Mathews County received a $424,000 grant from the Virginia Department of Transportation to preserve the lighthouse in two ambitious phases.
The first phase will raise the elevation of the island around the lighthouse and construct a revetment with 500 tons of granite rock. A pathway around the tower will provide a walk for visitors and a sound footing to support scaffolding for phase II--repairs to the tower itself.

The lantern room must be removed in order to repair the blocks upon which it rests and to facilitate restoration of the lantern room ironwork. The tower’s peeling paint will be removed and the mortar repointed. Flooring will be replaced and handrails for the stairway installed. A security system will discourage vandals. Cost estimate for phase II is $1M and a Transportation Enhancement Grant request has been submitted to the Virginia Department of Transportation.
The Task Force has also started a fund to ensure the long-term upkeep of the lighthouse and Bill and Wilbur Burroughs, descendents of Elzy Burroughs, have donated $10,000 to the fund that will be administered by the county.

It’s been almost twenty-five years since a lighthouse was manned on the Chesapeake Bay and advanced technology has rendered most obsolete, but each one represents a rich moment in our nation’s maritime history. With so many lighthouses lost, demolished, or in private ownership, a county’s few dedicated individuals are endeavoring to ensure that the future of New Point Comfort Lighthouse remains bright.