Digest>Archives> September 2000

The Back River Lighthouse

Lost in the Pages of Time

By Judy Bloodgood Bander


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This pile of rock is the only monument to where ...
Photo by: Judy Bloodgood Bander

In a once remote comer of Hampton, Virginia, Beach Road winds and turns its way through a place where family roots go deep into the soil and fishing boats have long plowed the waves of the Chesapeake Bay. Beach Road crosses a small bridge to Grandview Island and ends at the shore of the Chesapeake.

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The Back River Lighthouse, VA is shown here, ...

Once located on a windswept beach near here was the Back River Lighthouse. For one hundred and twenty years it sent its beacon across the Chesapeake Bay, marking fishing grounds by day and the entrance to Back River by night.

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The Back River, VA, Lighthouse (to the far left) ...

Winslow Lewis of Boston built the thirty-foot tower in 1829 at a cost of just under $5,000. It was a whitewashed, round brick tower standing on four acres of land with beach in front and marsh behind. An elevated footbridge 144 feet long had to be built over the marsh to connect the tower to the keeper’s home.

From a June 18th, 1829 newspaper we learn the specifications for the Back River Lighthouse. The tower was to have a foundation sunk three feet deep, or as deep as necessary to make the fabric secure and lined with good lime mortar. The diameter of the base was to be eighteen feet, tapering to nine feet at the top. The thickness of the walls was to be three feet and graduated to twenty inches at the top, which was to be arched with a deck eleven feet in diameter and four inches thick. There were to be three windows in the tower with twelve panes of glass ten by eight inches. A six-foot by three-foot door would allow entrance.

Of the construction cost, $750 was for the cost of the ten oil lamps and ten reflectors used for illumination of the lighthouse. The reflectors were fourteen inches and were to have six ounces of pure silver in each. A one story, brick keeper’s house, thirty-four feet by twenty feet, was built at the same time. At the request of the first keeper, William Jett, a small porch was added to the front of the house. Someone persuaded the contractor to place chimneys at the ends of the house instead of one in the middle. This was more in keeping with the Virginia building tradition.

An attached stone kitchen was built, fourteen by twelve feet. It had two windows, one door and a chimney with a sizable fireplace and oven, complete with an iron door-crane, trammels and hooks. The specifications also called for a brick out-house to be built, five feet by four feet with a shingled or painted roof.

In 1855, the installation of a new revolving machine and reflecting illuminating apparatus improved the light. It contained six twenty-one inch parabolic reflectors and six fountain lamps.

Even though the Confederates vandalized the tower during the Civil War, its worst enemy was the blowing sand and relentless waves. An 1868 report mentions riprap stone being collected and put around the tower. Again in 1878, 100 cubic yards of stone weighing 1500 to 3000 pounds each were added to protect the tower. Three years later screens were used to keep the sand in place. Again in 1888 another 450 cubic yards of riprap stone was put around the tower. A storm in 1904 completely wrecked the concrete wall around the keeper’s house. A bulkhead 459 feet long was started along the front and sides of the house. However, within two weeks another storm hit, and only because the construction crew was there and worked day and night for three days was the house saved and the light kept burning. Waves fourteen feet high moved some of the large riprap stones out of place. The lighthouse tender Thistle, which was anchored nearby, was driven ashore.

During the tenure of the last keeper, R.F. Johnson in 1914, the house was sold and dismantled. The materials were hauled by horse and wagon from the beach and used to build another house in the community.

In 1915 the light was automated and it was decommissioned in 1936. Over the years, neglect and the elements took their toll and the lighthouse was allowed to deteriorate. No one came forward to try to restore the light — which had once itself saved lives. Apparently no one cared.

Donald A. Johnson, Sr., a lifelong resident of the area, recalled that many years ago when he was a boy, he and his friends used to ride their bicycles down to the beach and climb the steps of the old abandoned tower, which by then had lost its lantern room roof. He recalled that the 360-degree view of the Chesapeake was beautiful. But, he was just a kid then with no thoughts of preservation.

But, those are only memories now - the lighthouse is gone, lost in the dusty pages of time. A hurricane in the 1950’s washed away what little was left of the lighthouse.

When the lighthouse was built 170 years ago it had been on dry land. Today, only a pile of rocks, about thirty feet out in the water, marks the spot where the Back River Lighthouse once stood. It’s not much of a monument to a lighthouse that fought so long and hard to save lives.

This story appeared in the September 2000 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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