Since the 1920s, the volunteers of the Daughters of the American Revolution's Mount Vernon Chapter have worked to preserve the historic Jones Point Lighthouse near our nation's capital, a cause that undoubtedly falls under the organization's stated mission of “keeping America strong by promoting patriotism, preserving U.S. history and supporting education programs.” The ongoing restoration of the lighthouse is on temporary hold because of a major bridge project nearby, but will hopefully be back on track by late next year.
The plot of land where the lighthouse stands-on the Potomac River south of Alexandria, Virginia-has a fascinating history. A plaque near the lighthouse informs us that an early owner of 700 acres at Jones Point was Margaret Brent (1601-c. 1676), who was granted the property in a 1654 patent. Brent was the first woman lawyer in America and the first female colonial landowner.
Alexandria grew into an important port of entry for foreign vessels and an export point for hemp and flour. The modest lighthouse at Jones Point went into operation in May 1856, in an era when Alexandria was the third largest port on the estuaries of Chesapeake Bay. It’s now the last remaining river lighthouse in the state of Virginia.
The first keeper, George Deeton, was reportedly a mere 18 years old when he took the position. The lantern on the roof of the small, wooden one-and-one-half-story dwelling held a fifth-order Fresnel lens, showing a fixed white light (changed to fixed red in 1900). It’s said that in addition to serving as a valuable aid to navigation, the lighthouse provided illumination for nighttime ice skaters on the river.
From 1866 to 1900, the light operated on gas piped from the nearby Alexandria Gas Works, but problems with corroding pipes and leaks led to a switch to kerosene.
The light’s most notable keeper was Benjamin Greenwood, who lived at the station from 1866 to 1903. The twice-married Greenwood fathered 14 children in all. His second wife succeeded him as keeper and remained until 1906.
By the 1920s, shoaling of the river had led to an altered shoreline, rendering the light less important. An automatic light on a steel tower replaced it in 1926. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) immediately stepped in to preserve the site, and Congress deeded the light station to the organization. For some years, the DAR used the building for meetings and card parties. The live-in caretaker, a Mrs. McMahan, opened the lighthouse for public tours.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps took over the site in 1936 and built a fence around the property. Not even DAR volunteers were allowed access. The Army stayed at the station until 1953 and left it in poor condition; soldiers had even used the lighthouse for target practice. The Mount Vernon Chapter asked for compensation to help restore the site. Their pleas went all the way up the chain of command to President Eisenhower, but the government provided no help.
In the ensuing years, the lighthouse fell victim to vandalism, theft, and fire. The National Park Service (NPS) acquired about 52 acres of land at Jones Point, and it became apparent that the lighthouse could become a centerpiece for the new Jones Point Park (now leased to the City of Alexandria). The DAR turned the lighthouse over to the NPS in 1964, but the volunteers of the Mount Vernon Chapter stayed involved. An agreement was signed in 1986 officially making the DAR responsible for the upkeep and interpretation of the lighthouse.
The DAR has been responsible for many improvements including the addition of a retaining wall to protect the station from erosion, and the re-roofing and repainting of the lighthouse. In 1993, a bulb was installed in the lantern. Two years later, a 155-millimeter lens was installed and the lighthouse was designated a minor aid to navigation.
The interior of the building is in a state of severe disrepair after years of neglect and fire damage caused by vandals. The volunteers of the Mount Vernon Chapter are raising funds for a complete restoration, with the goal of having a caretaker live at the site to guard against vandalism. The DAR volunteers hold fundraising teas and dinners, and they can also accept donations from the public.
The planned work, in addition to the restoration of the interior, includes the reconstruction of two chimneys, repairs to the lantern and gallery, repairs to floors and windows, and improvements to the protective retaining wall. There are also plans to rebuild an 1890 shed to be used for public restrooms. All told, the planned improvements will total well over $1 million, and they will most likely be implemented in stages.
The 1926 light on the skeleton tower, about 300 feet east of the lighthouse, was discontinued in the early 1960s when lights on the new Woodrow Wilson Bridge (which connects Virginia and Maryland via Route I-95) made it irrelevant. The overburdened bridge is currently being rebuilt, with August 2008 the scheduled date for completion. In the meantime, no work can be done at the lighthouse because of safety concerns.
For more information or to donate, you can write to the
Mount Vernon Chapter of the N.S.D.A.R., 606 Princess St., Alexandria, VA 22314.
Much of the information for this article comes from Eric S. Martin’s website at www.jonespoint.garoux.net and from an article by Mark Riddick in the June 1995 edition of Lighthouse Digest.
This story appeared in the
May 2007 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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