Digest>Archives> September 2005

New Point Comfort Light

Beacon On The Bay

By Deb Weissler


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As the workboat, Rita May, leaves Davis Creek Marina, heading towards the New Point Comfort Light, there are noticeable swells as we approach the mouth of the Mobjack. “It’s always choppy at the mouth of the bay,” waterman Page Cutler comments as he draws his boat alongside the island’s wooden pier. His wife, Rita, helps tie us off and we climb the dock’s ladder for our first close-up look at the lighthouse.

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The dock is littered with seabird droppings and partially digested fish and ospreys nesting on the tower’s roof, whistle alarms at our intrusion. The riprap is murder to walk on, made all the more precarious by poison ivy insinuating itself over parts of the island. Red-billed American oystercatchers watch warily as we teeter on riprap nearby. Gazing up the tower, my fingers caress sandstone that was quarried 200 years ago.

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From its completion in 1805, the 63-foot New Point Comfort Light has struggled to survive on its southernmost island at the mouth of the Mobjack Bay. Since its inception, the lighthouse has been assailed by nature and assaulted by man. For 19th century mariners, it was a blessing. But by the 1970s, time and automation had left it – like most Chesapeake lights – in the dark, abandoned and at the mercy of the elements.

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The octagonal tower was built from Aquia quarry sandstone — the same quarry that supplied material for the U.S. Capitol and the White House. Stonemason Elzy Burroughs, who had completed Old Point Comfort light in 1802, was keenly aware of the need for another lighthouse farther north. Acquiring acreage at New Point Comfort, he sold the property to the Federal Government for $150 with the understanding he would be awarded the construction contract.

Little is known about the years during which Burroughs and his crew labored to construct the tower. Material was either hauled by dray over sandy tracks through the maritime forest and across the creek to New Point Comfort, or by open water on shallow draft barges. Either way, conditions were less than ideal. Plagued by gales, harassed by mosquitoes, midges and biting flies, the crew labored until early 1805. Nearly bankrupt by the venture, Burroughs received $8,500 for his labors. President Thomas Jefferson appointed him the first keeper, and he served for the next ten years.

From the beginning, the tower’s location was capricious. Wind and tides scoured the landscape, storms and surges created dramatic alterations. 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. In 1814, the light was occupied by British troops and when they departed, the property was in shambles. By 1815, Elzy Burroughs left his post to begin post-war repairs on New Point Comfort, Old Point Comfort, Cape Henry and Smith’s Point lights. By August 1815, New Point Comfort was refitted and back in operation.

During the Civil War, Confederates disabled the lighthouse, hoping to hamper Union shipping on the Bay. By 1864, with Union troops firmly in control of the region by war’s end, the beacon was repaired.

Nature had other surprises in store. The evening of August 31, 1886, the keeper of Old Point Comfort light was on watch in his lantern room when he felt the 54-foot tower tremble beneath his feet. Over Hampton Roads, waves roiled and deep rumbles filled the air. The earthquake was one of a series that rumbled up the coast, shaking seven states from South Carolina to New York. The Great Charleston Earthquake reached New Point Comfort a few minutes later, but its sheltered position protected it from structural damage suffered by other towers. From the mouth to the middle of the Bay, keepers reported the shock and aftershocks for the next two days.

The 20th century brought changes to the lighthouse and surrounding area. The beach adjacent to the light was a popular summer destination. In 1904, the New Point Comfort Development Company planned a resort on the island with streets subdivided into hundreds of lots for residences and a grand hotel. Before construction could begin, the project’s costs were tallied and the enterprise went bankrupt.

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.

On August 23, 1933, the Great Chesapeake-Potomac Hurricane struck the region. The hurricane’s track brought a tidal surge measuring 6-9 feet over portions of the bay and its tributaries. Accompanied by high winds, the storm surge swirled around the lighthouse and 12-foot waves cut large swaths through the island. Less than a month later, a second storm passing off the Virginia capes inflicted further damage, dramatically altering the landscape upon which the lighthouse stood, creating two islands where there had only been one.

In 1939, the U.S. Coast Guard assumed responsibility for the nation’s lighthouses. During World War II, the lighthouse was used as a watchtower. In 1950, the tower was electrified, but by 1963, the Coast Guard abandoned the New Point Comfort light and demoted it to a day marker.

When Mathews County acquired the property in 1975, the County Board of Supervisors appointed a committee to develop a stabilization and restoration plan. Faced with immediate 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 relaid, window glass replaced, a dock built and 60 tons of riprap placed to stabilize the island.

In 1999, Mathews County resident 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 sales proceeds, $3,000 in donations and a prismatic lantern from the Coast Guard, members of the Lighthouse Lantern Committee installed a single light in the lantern room. The lamp, powered by solar panels and battery, was lit on December 12, 1999.

Numerous problems remain. Storms and tides continue to undermine the island. Tower maintenance is ongoing and in recent years, its isolated location has made it vulnerable to more insidious forms of destruction like vandalism. On several occasions, vandals have damaged the lock and destroyed the door and frame that protect the tower’s interior. Recently, a barred door has been installed to discourage unwanted visitors.

Middle Peninsula residents refuse to let their lighthouse meet the fate of so many other Chesapeake lights and continue to spend time and money on the historic landmark. In 2004, the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force was assigned to oversee preservation efforts. With $300,000 in federal funding, secured through the efforts of Virginia Congresswoman Jo Ann Davis and Senator George Allen (R-VA), the first phase of a Chesapeake Bay Erosion Study will be conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to determine the feasibility of restoring land to the beleaguered island, using Maryland’s Poplar Island as the blueprint.

On the verge of disappearing, Poplar Island is a national model for habitat restoration and the beneficial use of dredged material. Once more than a thousand acres in size, by 1990, the island was down to just ten acres. A massive restoration project will place approximately 40 million cubic yards of dredged material from Baltimore Harbor and Channels behind containment dikes to develop 1,110 acres of upland and wetland habitat.

If the New Point Comfort feasibility study is successful, ten acres of low marsh, high marsh and upland vegetation will be constructed around the lighthouse. With possible dredgings from the York River channel and Davis Creek, “the project will cost millions,” says Task Force Chairman Earl Soles.

In a press release, Congresswoman Davis stated, “The preservation of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse, and our water heritage, must remain a national priority.” The residents of the Middle Peninsula couldn’t agree more.

On June 4, 2005, the sky over New Point Comfort filled with explosions as area residents celebrated the light’s bicentennial. With one shell for each decade the lighthouse has stood, the fireworks kicked off a fundraising drive to preserve it once again. Through the efforts of private citizens, grants and federal and state funding, Mathews County hopes to raise enough money to complete the study.

Advanced technology may have rendered the lighthouse obsolete, but if the residents of the Middle Peninsula have their way, its light will never be extinguished.

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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