The City of Portsmouth, Virginia is proud to announce that the recent renovations to its beloved lightship Portsmouth, LV101, are complete. The former navigational aid, now a museum, is once again open to the public. This latest round of restorations, including a paint job both in and out, had closed the popular waterfront site for two years. It has now reopened, with displays including equipment, uniforms, and many other artifacts.
As with any museum, the improvement process is continuous. Says curatorial assistant Corey Thornton, “We are in the process of examining ways to open up our interpretation of the time period to include the 1930s through the 1950s.” The Lightship Museum is also working with the Tidewater Maritime Heritage Living Association, a living history group that reenacts Coast Guard History. Together they will stage live demonstrations of life on a coastal Lightship.
Early American Lightships
Portsmouth is often called the birthplace of American lightships. In 1820, James Poole built the first American lightship in nearby Hampton, Virginia. The newly formed United States Lighthouse Service assigned the Vessel to Willoughby Spit. After a few weeks of suffering, it was moved to its permanent, less exposed home in Portsmouth’s Elizabeth River, near Craney Island.
Early lightships were simply wooden boats with a large light attached to the mast. Their crews were poorly paid, untrained and undisciplined. Relief ships did not yet exist, so if a ship was damaged its post was left vacant. Disorganization and undue attention to costs further hampered the effectiveness of these navigational aids.
Traditionally, lightships were renamed whenever they changed assignments. These names were then painted in very large white letters on the red hull (black in the Great Lakes). Captains could identify the lightship, and consequently their location from a distance. Yet the changing of names with each reassignment made tracking individual lightships impossible.
The Lightship Service was overhauled in 1852 and placed under a committee of maritime professionals. A numbering system was developed in 1867 to track the lightships. Working conditions and training for the sailors improved. Technological advances were applied to the building of ships, such as metal hull construction that could better withstand the many collisions a lightship withstood over the course of its service.
Because lightships were expensive to build and maintain, they were replaced by lighthouses on rivers, near islands, and anywhere else possible. By the time LV 101 was built in 1915, lightships had come of age, marking open water and coastline hazards where constructing a lighthouse was impossible. Sturdy construction, relief ships on standby, and professional crews assured that these hazards never went unmarked.
Birth Of LV 101
LV 101 was constructed by Pusey and Jones in Wilmington, Delaware at a contract price of $108,507. It measures 102 feet in length and incorporates a whale back hull design to reduce roll in heavy seas. The original power source was a 200 HP Meitz and Weiss 4 cylinder, direct reversing kerosene engine, with which she was capable of 8 knots. In 1944, during one of her several overhauls, the engine was replaced with a Cooper-Bessemer 315 HP diesel engine.
The most innovative feature of LV 101 and her sister ship, the LV 102, was a hollow mast which treated the sailors to a sheltered climb inside the mast when the lamp was serviced. Originally, the light was a 500mm lens that was illuminated first by kerosene, then an acetylene lamp, which required weekly or even daily service. In 1931, an electric lamp with a 375mm lens was installed, which required less maintenance.
LV 101 was launched on January 12, 1916. In keeping with tradition, her name changed several times. First she was “Charles”, for Cape Charles on the coast of North Carolina. The station there is now called Chesapeake. In 1926, LV 101 became the “Overfalls” when she was transferred to Cape Henlopen, Delaware. Her final active duty name was “Stonehorse”, for her assignment in 1951 to Stonehorse Shoal near Nantucket, Massachusetts. She stayed at that post as a lightship during WWII, when some lightships were reassigned to patrol duty by the Navy. In 1963, she was decommissioned and sent to Portland, Maine for storage.
The last lightship was built in 1952. By this time Large Navigational Buoys (LNB), which included lights and radio transmitters, were already replacing lightships. Other permanent structures, some called “Texas Towers”, marked the more difficult coastal hazards. The last lightship, WLV 613 Nantucket 1, was decommissioned on March 29, 1985. Part of the ship’s last message captured the moment. “An important part of Coast Guard history ended today. We must now look somewhere else to find the stuff that sea stories are made of.”
In the early 1960’s the City of Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce endeavored to revitalize its waterfront. In 1964, three decommissioned Coast Guard lightships docked in Portland, Maine became available for donation to interested parties. Frank Kirby, chairman of the Public and Business Affairs committee of the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce, advertised in New England for bids on the contract to bring one to Portsmouth. Anthony Pinello, a New England fisherman and Portsmouth native, answered the ad.
Mr. Kirby obtained promises of funding from three local bank vice presidents as well as the chamber of commerce. In just a few days the arrangements for funding and insurance were made and the boat was underway. Mr. Kirby reflected, “None of this took place over a signed contract. None of this took place even over the shake of a hand. It was all done on the basis of one man’s word against another man’s word. That was business in the 1960s.”
The trip was not quite as smooth. LV 101 was without working engines and was towed by Mr. Pinello’s fishing vessel, the “Anthony Anne”. They departed on September 3, 1964. Two days later, they hit heavy seas produced by Hurricane Dora. To avoid the storm, Mr. Pinello made the difficult decision to navigate the dangerous Nantucket Shoals. This saved him ten hours and allowed him to arrive ahead of the storm. The newly named Portsmouth was sighted at her new home at 11:00 a.m. on September 7, 1964, much to Mr. Kirby’s delighted relief.
Because the ship had been on active duty as late as 1962, little historical restoration was required. Still, it took almost three years to repair, paint, and transform the lightship into a museum. Volunteers worked tirelessly under the direction of then curator Mr. Ellwood Twilley and other professionals on the project. The museum was first opened to the public in 1967. The ship is now dry berthed near the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum.
From Sea Vessel To Museum Piece
Since then, the community has continued to be actively involved with the lightship museum. Volunteers give tours and continue to maintain the vessel. The staff also collects historical and technical data from visitors as they take the tour. Engineers, sailors, and even former lightship personnel often have stories and insight into the history and design of the vessel. These are passed on to the museum’s historians and become part of the collective knowledge we have on lightships.
The Portsmouth lightship museum gives the visitor a snapshot of the crew’s life aboard LV 101. Sailors were generally on the ship two months and then given one month’s leave, though this varied over the years. The watches were four hours long, creating a flexible schedule of maintenance work and other pursuits. Reading, fishing, games, swimming, and strength training by climbing the mast were common leisure activities. Still, duty was very tedious simply because the boat was not going anywhere.
The only scheduled break in the LV 101’s routine was the “tender,” meaning the arrival of the weekly supply ship with food, mail, and other supplies. The monotony was also skillfully broken by the ship’s cook. Jeff Cannon, who served aboard the ship under two captains, reported that the cook, “tried not only to give us a variety of foods, but good food as well.” Apparently, the cook succeeded because Mr. Cannon reported that he ate some of the best meals
of his life aboard that ship. Unfortunately, the tender ship was occasionally held up. Then the crew was forced to eat beans and cabbage, much to everyone’s disliking. Fresh fish, caught off the side of a lifeboat, also supplemented the crew’s diet.
One exception to the monotony was storms, which brought more excitement than the sailors wished. Lightships were moored only at the bow, rather than the bow and stern, so that they could rotate during a storm. The engines were used to keep the ship heading into the waves. The worst that could happen was “parting anchor,” when the anchor chain would break. The engines were not always strong enough to control the ship in this situation, leaving it at the mercy of the sea. LV 73/WAL 503 was lost with all hands during a hurricane on September 14, 1944 off the coast of Massachusetts. LV 101 faced a similar situation on February 4, 1920. The ship was damaged and the engines failed. Yet it was repaired and regained its post three days later. Such success stories became the expectation over the years, a tribute to the sailors who protected our coasts.
Today, the ship is a permanent part of the Portsmouth waterfront community. Visitors from all over the country enjoy this living piece of American maritime history. Local residents come time and again, bringing their children and grandchildren to share the stories and pride that lightships have given their community. In 1989, the Portsmouth was given a rare honor for a ship when the National Park Service designated it as a National Historic Landmark. Corey Thornton says that the Portsmouth and its mission are “alive and kicking,” and that he truly enjoys the active research and community involvement that the ship brings to southeastern Virginia. As Jeff Cannon said, “(The Lightship) deserves to be here to remind folks of a great tradition. And of lightship days.”
If you would like to visit the Portsmouth, it is located at Water and London streets on the Waterfront in Portsmouth, Virginia. For more information, call (757) 393-8741 or visit www.portsnavalmuseums.com
This story appeared in the
November 2004 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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