Digest>Archives> October 1995

Jones Point Re-lighting

By Mark Riddick


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The relighting ceremony at Jones Point.
Photo by: Mark Riddick

On the evening of June 29, just minutes away from Washington's beltway, the members of the Mount Vernon Chapter of the D.A.R. gathered at the end of a small park on the banks of the Potomac River to celebrate a remarkable accomplishment-the relighting of Jones Point Light. Also on hand were Park Service officials, local dignitaries and a very special guest of honor, a woman who used to visit the lighthouse as a child-Louise Evans, great-granddaughter of Jones Point Lighthouse keeper Benjamin Greenwood. Speakers gave the crowd a brief history of Jones Point and a briefing on the new plastic fifth order Fresnel lens. Then came the moment of truth: as the crowd retreated some 30 yards to better see the light, restoration committee chairwoman Leona Kemper reached in through a side door and flipped the switch, lighting Jones Point Light and bringing oohs and aahs from the crowd. The relighting of any lighthouse is a rare and happy event, but this one is doubly so because of its unique history and near demise.

In 1852, the newly established Lighthouse Board wasted no time in recognizing the need for a lighthouse to guide ships safely to the port town of Alexandria, Va. Appropriations were made, land was purchased, and on September 29, 1855 work began on what is now our nation's oldest river lighthouse. On May 3rd of 1856, at the age of 18, Keeper George L. Deeton first showed the light.

To the general public, who perhaps think of a lighthouse only as a soaring coastal tower casting their rays over pounding surf, Jones Point may seem rather...small. The white, two-story building would look more like a schoolhouse if not for the lantern room protruding from the roof. The tiny station did its job well-the fifth order light (fixed white) was visible for 12 miles. In 1866, in what seemed like a good idea at the time, the superintendent decided to pipe gas from the Alexandria Gas Works, a few miles away. Unfortunately, corrosion in the pipes was to prove a chronic problem and in 1900 the Board switched the light to oil. By 1918 the shoreline had changed to such a degree as to make the light "of little use" according to the commissioner and in 1926 a light on a skeleton tower replaced Jones Point Light. If that sounds bad, things were only to get worse.

Despite the fact that the lighthouse had been deeded to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1926, during World War II the US Army took over and fenced off all of Jones Point for use by their Signal Corps. The D.A.R., which had been maintaining the site, had their access severely limited and things quickly fell into a state of disrepair that lasted for decades. The interior had been gutted by vandals and neglect and the remaining portions of the exterior walls were riddled by bullet holes - bored soldiers had used the historic building for target practice.

In 1964 the D.A.R. lacking money for proper upkeep, deeded the site to the Park Service with the understanding that the D.A.R. would be given the opportunity to restore it when possible. Spearheaded by restoration committee chairwoman Leona Kemper in 1984, the D.A.R. have been able to weed through the red tape and restore the lighthouse and grounds. What was a trash-strewn, overgrown mess is now a lovely park complete with walking trails, picnic tables, and soccer fields. And the lighthouse once described as "derelict" is whole again, freshly painted and encircled by a white picket fence. The D.A.R. had a tremendous ally in Creg Howland, a National Park Service historian. Mrs. Kemper and Mr. Howland worked together like lamp and lens and in 1993 a bulb was placed in the lantern room, ending 67 years of darkness at Jones Point.

The bulb approach fell a little short of perfect, however. The lighthouse was not officially recognized by the Coast Guard, presumably because the bulb would frequently go out. Mrs. Kemper remembers "I have friends that live in the nearby apartments, and they'd call to tell me that the light's out again. Creg and an electrician would have to come out with a ladder and change it." The team convinced the Coast Guard to allow them to install a plastic fifth order Fresnel lens and multiple bulb changer. The Coast Guard now officially classifies Jones Point as a minor aid to navigation. Almost 140 years after if was first lighted, a historical inland lighthouse is back in service.

But the work here is far from done. The team of Kemper and Howland would like to install outdoor security lighting to deter vandals. In recent years, the lighthouse has been spray painted, portions of the picket fencing have been removed and thrown in the Potomac, and a small fire was started by a teenager who fortunately was apprehended. The interior still remains devoid of a floor or walls. Ultimately, they would like to fully restore the building and perhaps have a caretaker live there, a position that shouldn't be difficult to fill.

It would be ideal if every lighthouse had a group such as the D.A.R. to protect it from the ravages of vandalism, neglect, and erosion. A lucky few do. As for the rest, it's up to us.

The author would like to gratefully acknowledge Mrs. Leona Kemper of the Mount Vernon Chapter of the D.A.R. for her kindness in sharing with me the history of Jones Point Light.

This story appeared in the October 1995 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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