Digest>Archives> September 2005

Mystery Photo Solved

By Bill Edwards


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In the April 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest, there was a ”mystery photo” concerning a giant searchlight in Charlottesville, Virginia. With the kind assistance of the local newspaper there, The Daily Progress, we now know more about it from one of their “yesteryears” articles published in 1991. The article that follows is reprinted with permission:

For weeks, the people of Charlottesville had been hearing about a giant searchlight being assembled on the roof of the Monticello Hotel. But few were prepared for the awesome light that suddenly illuminated the heavens a few minutes after 8 p.m. on August 2, 1927.

The initial burst of light from the 1.3 billion candlepower beam sent hundreds of people scurrying into the streets and yards. The startled spectators watched as a huge circle of light – first white, and then red – swept across the clouds from the University of Virginia to Monticello.

The light, hitting Little Mountain three miles away, was so bright that photographers took pictures unaided by flashbulbs. The light

was clearly seen in the town of Thelma, 20 miles away. At ten miles, the beam was said

to be blinding.

Mr. George W. Bruce, who lived about 20 miles from Charlottesville, said the light reflecting off the nearby mountains was sufficiently bright enough to enable him to read a newspaper on his front porch.

Unquestionably, this was no ordinary floodlight.

Built by Sperry for army use in spotting airplanes at night, the searchlight was given to Charlottesville as a gift by the Virginia Public Service Company (now Dominion Power).

The lenses were 62 inches in diameter with a mirror reflector of equal size. A

25-horsepower engine revolved the unit. Care had to be taken when manipulating the beacon because it was claimed that if the beam were cast on a person 1,000 feet away, the intense light would blister the skin.

The brilliance of the light producing center in the searchlight was said to have been the equivalent of the sun’s intensity at noon. When in operation, the center was touted as being the hottest spot on earth.

The company said it could be used to illuminate Monticello for night visitors, act as a beacon for tourists nearing the city and guide airplanes along a proposed flight route from Boston to New Orleans.

But just getting the massive light on top of the hotel was no small feat. The Charlottesville Lumber Company was awarded the contract, and spent a number of weeks bracing the roof, building a steel-rotating mount and hoisting the 4,500-pound beacon with block and tackle onto the roof.

It was named The Thomas Jefferson Light and would be operated by linemen from the power company. The company also paid the setup costs and operating expenses. After a second successful test on August 4, it was announced that the light wouldn’t be turned on again until its dedication ceremony later in the month.

The two tests had impressed people with the power the searchlight had. It was too powerful for those who were caught in the illuminating beam as it panned over favorite necking areas.

“Roadside petting parties in Charlottesville are destined to vanish into the lost limbo of hoop skirts and mint juleps when the giant searchlight is permanently lit,” read a Daily Progress article after the tests.

“Consternation concerning the effect of the light is being felt among the ‘Roadside Sheiks’ and already, there is a general uproar in the ranks of the Philistines. Someone has conjured up a picture of a return to wartime methods and the use of camouflage.”

The article suggested that roadside smoochers might send up a flare, just as the light reached them, to alert the operator to shift the beam of light in other directions.

The story ended – “Satisfactory arrangement can be reached, despite the crude and jarring awakening recently given numerous couples while the light was being tested.”

The Jefferson Light was formally christened on the evening of Aug. 16, with ceremonies in Charlottesville and New York City. As hundreds of people looked on in the aldermanic chamber at the City Hall in New York, Constance Gibboney, daughter of Stuart G. Gibboney, president of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, took center stage.

With the use of a small, one-candle-power flashlight and some electrical wizardry, Miss Gibboney turned on the Jefferson Light automatically. At 8 p.m., she flicked on the flashlight and directed the tiny beam onto a statue of Thomas Jefferson. Through a series of telegraph wires and a new device invented by the Westinghouse Company, the small beam triggered to switch on the searchlight.

The beacon, pointed at Monticello, blazed to life, bathing the historical landmark with light. The same apparatuses then relayed the light back to New York where it turned on a floodlight directed onto a large picture of Monticello.

Simultaneously, a huge army blimp from Langley Field appeared over the city. As the searchlight played over the droning ship, members of the fire department marched down Main Street accompanied by military music played by the Municipal Band.

Several different colored filters were placed over the beam, giving the clouds and night sky rainbow hues. The searchlight then touched five former homes of presidents with its light: Jefferson’s Monticello, Monroe’s Ash Lawn, Madison’s Montpelier, Theodore Roosevelt’s Pine Knot Hunting Lodge and 31-West Range – the college home of President Wilson.

People as far away as Spartanburg,

South Carolina, 340 miles south of Charlottesville, reported seeing the light. It was clearly visible in Reidsville, North Carolina, in Roanoke, Harrisonburg and in Danville, Virginia. The searchlight prompted the Boston Globe newspaper to run a page

of cartoons concerning the beacon titled, “Advantages and Disadvantages of New Searchlight at Charlottesville.” One cartoon showed two Eskimos complaining of the

heat – “Darn it, there’s that Charlottesville

light again.” Another showed a young couple, fleeing police with the caption, “The petting couples around Charlottesville don’t like

it at all.”

In October, the power company said it was going to start experiments with cloud painting and creating startling effects with various colored lenses. But on the evening before Thanksgiving, the light was put to a more practical use.

“The searchlight was turned upon the concrete mixer located at the corner of High Street and Altamont Circle in order that

they could complete the job of pouring concrete after dark, so as to get the job completed before Thanksgiving,” The Daily Progress reported.

In time, the novelty of the searchlight passed and interest waned. No one seems to know just how long it operated or when it was disassembled, although almost certainly, it was before World War II.

The only evidence of the searchlight left on top of the Monticello Hotel, now condominiums, is the electrical box that turned it on. But for a time, the powerful searchlight put on dazzling light shows of the likes never seen before or since.

This story appeared in the September 2005 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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