The morning of August 23, 1983 dawned as a special day for Jessie Collins. This was going to be a day of memories; some from long past, some shared and some yet to be made. Just two weeks before, her grandson, Billy Wells and wife, Janet gave her a unique birthday present. They contacted Senator William Roth and made arrangements for a unique visit to Virginia’s Assateague Island for her and her family. Here she would be able to visit the lighthouse, the former keepers’ house and the site of the village where she lived, went to school and married. Jessie was 100 years old.
Born on Chincoteague Island, Virginia, to Jemima (Mima) and Bill Scott on August 12, 1883, Jessie Lola Scott moved to Assateague Island when she was 6 years old. At that time there were no bridges to Chincoteague or Assateague, all travel was by boat.
Assateague Village was at its peak. After the Civil War a new lighthouse was completed and a life saving station established on Tom’s Cove. The watermen were planting and harvesting clams and oysters, bringing them to Chincoteague or the mainland to be shipped to northern markets. A screw pile type lighthouse, Killock Shoals, was constructed in Chincoteague Bay to guide the ships to the railhead at Franklin City, Virginia.
Shortly after little Jessie arrived more changes occurred. The size of the lighthouse reservation and the needs of the lighthouse required three keepers; one head keeper and two assistants. The keeper’s house was only a duplex so major alterations were undertaken creating the “Keeper’s Mansion” with three six-room apartments. Kerosene became the lantern fuel of choice leading to the building of an oil-shed for storage. In the village the men got together and built a small schoolhouse then later a church. In 1890, the doors of the school opened to 40 students, the number required to receive public funding. A teacher hired at $25. per month boarded with the Scotts.
Jessie’s father was well know in the area, not only because he was a colorful character but because he also owned and operated the local general store. He did well providing the community with staples that they could not grow or raise on their own and in obtaining goods from catalogs and delivering them to his customers. The store provided the means for Jessie to attend the University of Virginia in the summer, receive normal school training and return as the Island’s schoolteacher (1907 - 1911).
Meanwhile Keeper, William Thomas Collins courted her and Jessie fell in love and left teaching when the 1911 school term ended. Jessie and William were married that June. Keeper Collins came to the area from Delaware in 1907. He first served at the beacons at Fishing Point in Tom’s Cove, assisted at Killock Shoals and then was appointed 3rd assistant keeper for Assateague Lighthouse.
The government built an additional keepers’ house just for them. It became home to Jessie, her husband lighthouse keeper William Collins and later their three daughters, Ada, Margaret and Ruth. All three girls were born in the residence known today as the “1910 keepers’ house.” Jessie taught the girls at home up to the fourth grade when girls continued their schooling at Chincoteague where they became the first from Assateague Island to graduate from the high school.
The village school was discontinued due to low enrollment and it should be noted Chincoteague didn’t always have a high school. Keeper Collins sailed the girls to Chincoteague in his motorboat. Then they continued by walking a mile to school while their father hurried back to the lighthouse. This was an ordeal for the girls especially since the weather was unpredictable, often unpleasant, and Jessie had warned them about strangers. If Keeper Collins was otherwise occupied, Jessie, would row them over in her little boat she called “Thelma” named after a favorite book. (She still had the book at 100)
At times when Keeper Collins was serving at Killick Shoals, Jessie would row her three little girls out to the lighthouse to visit and bring her husband food and supplies. Imagine three young girls climbing the ladder to a screw pile dwelling out in the ocean.
The Assateague Lighthouse principal keeper retired in 1918 and his successor retired in 1922. This left only Keeper Collins and Keeper Wescott. The government began cutting back. It didn’t replace the retired keepers and started selling off property. They sold the Collins bungalow so the family moved to the house known as the “Keepers’ Mansion,” which Jessie watched them remodel when she was a little girl.
Other changes were happening. Tom’s Cove was silting in. It was no longer accessible to large boats. A causeway and bridge connecting the mainland and Chincoteague opened the area to modern living and new means of transportation. People began exiting Assateague and moving to Chincoteague. Some even took their homes with them.
By 1933, only a four families remained; the Jones, the Scotts, (Jessie’s parents) and the two keeper’s families. Then in May the Assateague Lighthouse was converted to battery power. A full time keeper was no longer necessary. Keeper Wescott was reassigned to Hog Island, VA and Keeper Collins to Smith Island, Cape Charles, VA.
Fifty years later Jessie returned to review the milestones of her life on Assateague Island: the ruins of the house where she grew up, the site where the school house stood, the home she moved into as new bride and Assateague Lighthouse, always in the background and her husband’s place of work. Keeper Collins had long since passed. Her three little girls, now 71, 70 and 66 respectively, their spouses, grandchildren and spouses and her great-granddaughter accompanied her on this visit.
At 100 she let the rest of the family climb to the lantern room while she remained at the foot of the stairs thinking of times passed. Happy 100th Birthday Jessie!
Sadly, Jessie died June 19, 1987, just short of 104 years old.
This story appeared in the
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