Standing proudly on the crest of a 22-foot sand dune is Assateague Lighthouse, the icon of Virginia’s Eastern Shore. Since 1833, a light has been sending its message to mariners sailing near Assateague Island’s southern shores, signaling warnings and a place of comfort, security, and safe harbor.
As the country’s population grew, so did the job of managing and constructing lighthouses. In 1820, Stephen Pleasonton was appointed superintendent of United States Lighthouses. Pleasonton lacked experience in knowledge of the sea, as well as an understanding of lighthouse construction, so he relied on others, particularly a retired sea captain by the name of Winslow Lewis. With Pleasonton’s frugal management and Lewis’ lack of engineering skills most of the lighthouses built during their era (1820 – 1852) were at best inadequate. Almost from the beginning, ship captains and owners complained about the lighthouses being too short, too dim, poorly located, and often out of service. Coastal commerce increased and still shipwrecks piled up on the many shoals off the Delmarva coast.
There was no lighthouse along the Delmarva shoreline between Cape Henlopen, Delaware and Cape Charles, Virginia, a distance of well over 100 miles. One was suggested in the vicinity of Chincoteague in 1820, but it wasn’t until March of 1831 that an Act of Congress appropriated $7,500.00 to build a lighthouse there. A 50 acre site was chosen and purchased on May 4, 1832 for $440.00 by Conway Whittle, Superintendent of Lights in Norfolk. Pleasonton awarded the contract to the low bidder, Noah Porter of Boston, Massachusetts. Porter constructed the 65 foot, Ocracoke Lighthouse in 1823, still in use in North Carolina today.
But what happened at Assateague is another story. Construction began in August, 1832 and was the lighthouse was to be completed and lit by January, 1833. However, a quote from a letter written by Richard C. Grant, supervisor of the building of the lighthouse, to Conway Whittle on January 19, 1833 tells it differently.
“I was in hopes this letter would inform you of the completion of the building that has lingered here so long but, alas, it is not the case. The Lighthouse’s height is 39 feet from the surface of the ground and had Mr. Porter acted honest the work would have been done long (long) ago. The brick he brought from Boston which he said was sufficient to complete the building but it only run 20 feet above the surface of the ground, he intended to make a sand wall, it appears that every thing work against him, he has had to go to the main [land] four times for brick and will have to go again before he will have enough to finish with. Mr. Porter has tried to cheat and defraud in every possible manner, in measuring the building with his tape line myself at the top and he remained at the bottom and when the line was sent down to him he managed it so as to cut one foot off and then pinch one foot more off in hand in order to deceive me. I then had recourse to the 10 foot rule but on examining the length found he had cut 2 ? inches off also. Time would fail me to tell all of his villainy it remains a doubt with me whether or not his work will be received. I have used all the argument I am master of in order to keep him to his contract but he remains inflexible.”
Why was Porter’s work so different from what he had done in North Carolina?
The government advertised that the light would be lit on May 15, 1833. David Watson, the first keeper, arrived in April, and informed Superintendent Whittle that he did not have any oil or other necessary supplies to light the beacon. When it was finally lit is unknown.
From the beginning, the first Assateague Lighthouse was a disaster. The 45 foot tall lighthouse was too short and too dim to adequately warn sailors of the imminent danger from the hazardous shoals that stretched five to 12 miles off the shore. The range of the light was only 14 miles in good weather. Loblolly pines, which can grow to a height of 100 feet or more, were on private land adjacent to the lighthouse, posing additional visibility problems.
The shortcomings of the Assateague Lighthouse were shared with light stations up and down the Atlantic Coast. In 1850, Congress began to address the numerous problems. In 1852, it established the Lighthouse Board, comprised of military personnel and engineers, in the Department of the Treasury. This group took over the design, placement, and operation of lighthouses. The disastrous era of Pleasonton and Lewis was over. Inspection of seaside lighthouses found that 36 lighthouses needed to be replaced without delay. In order of priority, Assateague Lighthouse was number 16. In the interim, the lantern was replaced with a 3rd order lens in 1856.
Eight years later in 1860, $50,000 was finally authorized for a First Class lighthouse at Assateague, at least 150 feet above sea level, with a First Order lighting apparatus. Preliminary work on a wharf, plank road, and workers’ housing began in 1861. However, the onset of the Civil War diverted funds and halted construction.
When the lighthouse property was purchased in 1832, the vicinity of Chincoteague boasted a population of 510 inhabitants, which included all those living in Assateague Village, Chincoteague and Wallops Islands combined. Commerce in the area shifted from raising livestock and farming to harvesting seafood. The population increased and the seafood industry became the primary source of income. Faced with the choice of seceding from the Union and losing their markets in the north, or remaining with the State of Virginia and the Confederacy, the Islands of Chincoteague and Assateague chose to remain with the Union by an overwhelming vote of 130 -2 . That made life uneasy for both Union supporters and Confederates in the area, with the Union not quite trusting locals and the Confederates angry with them.
In 1861, Confederate sympathizers stole the lamp from the lighthouse, but it was soon recovered and relit. Union troops were stationed on both Assateague and Chincoteague to provide protection for their ships and the lighthouse. Men from both Islands enlisted in the 1st Eastern Shore of Virginia (Union) Volunteers.
Peace came in 1865, and construction resumed in 1866. The new lighthouse was completed in September of 1867, along with a duplex keepers’ dwelling. The First Order Fresnel Lens was first shone on October 1, 1867, with a focal plane of 154 feet, 9,000 candle power and visibility up to 19 nautical miles. Both structures were located on the sites of the former tower and keepers' dwelling. The new lighthouse now required two keepers.
At night, the keepers divided their shifts in the watch-room, making sure the lamp remained lit, charting the weather, watching for ships at sea, and monitoring other aids to navigation in the area. Then in the morning, the keepers prepared the light for the following evening. The keepers at Assateague also raised chickens, hogs and sheep, planted and tended a vegetable garden for food, and cut trees from a wood lot for fuel for their fireplaces, and also did minor repairs and painting around the light station. By the mid 1870s ,a second assistant keeper was added.
The keepers’ dwelling, a duplex built in 1867 had to accommodate the three keepers and their families, with the assistants living in 2 rooms each. A recommendation for a new keeper’s house for the principal keeper was proposed but the money was never approved even after a report stating that, “New quarters should be built at this station, so that the assistant keepers can live decently with their families, let alone having at least as much comfort as can be had by skilled workmen in cities.” The interior of the keepers’ house was gutted in 1893, remodeled and enlarged to make three, six- room apartments suitable for the keepers and their families.
The keepers and residents of Assateague Village formed an integrated community; they were all family. Three of the keepers married “local Assateague girls” and some their children also chose spouses from Assateague.
People from the mainland and neighboring islands gathered on Assateague for special occasions like hog killing, sheep penning, pony penning, and Camp Meetings. Residents opened their homes and prepared meals for the crowds.
By 1890, the village had a general store and a school which was also used as a church and for all community activities. When a separate church was built in 1919, keepers participated in the religious life of the community by conducting services in the absence of a minister. The church closed in 1921 and was floated to Chincoteague where it is now a home.
Littoral drift, a current that carries sand from the shoreline and deposits it to the south and west further down the beach, formed “the hook “adding almost five miles to Assateague Island. In the early 1900s, a wooden structure called Fishing Point Lighthouse was established near the end of “the hook” with its own keeper who also took care of the lighted buoys at Assateague Anchorage. Then in 1908, the keeper from Fishing Point Light Station was united with the Assateague Light Station as a 3rd Assistant Keeper and a concrete bungalow was built for him
Meanwhile the Field family started buying property on Assateague until they owned all the land with the exception of the village, lighthouse, and life saving station properties. Then in1922, Samuel B. Field, a Baltimore clothing manufacturer, fenced his land, hired an overseer, and started a stock farm raising cattle and horses. This restricted the movement of the village residents, denying them easy access to oyster grounds and the fish factories.
At the same time a causeway from the mainland to Chincoteague Island opened in November, 1922. The town had many modern amenities which were lacking on Assateague including, electricity, a public water system, cars, movie houses, banks, churches of different faiths, and a new brick high school.
Settlement on Assateague was nearing its end. By 1923, two of the lighthouse keepers retired after serving 45 and 43 years respectively and were not replaced. People began putting their houses on skids and floating them across the channel to Chincoteague. By 1933, only the Jones Family and Bill Scott, storekeeper, and his wife remained.
Operation of lighthouses was also changing. With the prospect of automation in sight, lighthouse property was sold off in three parcels: a 28 acre woodlot in 1923, the 1910 keeper’s house and 3.88 acres in 1929, and 18 acres with the big house in 1933 .
On May 1, 1933, the light was automated, powered by batteries charged every few days by two large generators. After 100 years, almost to the day, the light station became unattended.
In 1939, the U.S. Lighthouse Service was integrated into the United States Coast Guard (USCG), transferring operation of all lighthouses. The USCG conveyed ownership of the Assateague Lighthouse to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge in 2004. Because it is still a major aid to navigation, the Coast Guard retains operation of the light and support mechanisms.
Few alterations have been made to the original tower. These include the installation of electricity and the removal of the original first order Fresnel lens. In 1968, the Coast Guard repainted the tower with the broad red over broad white strips, the day-mark colors so familiar today.
With automation, keepers no longer maintained lighthouses on a daily basis. Metal rusted, causing leaks, and painting became a job best done by professionals. The U.S. Coast Guard, stretched to its limit even before the September11th tragedies, had little time to deal with lighthouses that were becoming obsolete.
The Chincoteague Natural History Association, in cooperation with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge, is undertaking the total restoration of Assateague Lighthouse. In 2009, the gallery deck and the supporting brackets were completely restored, allowing visitors access to walk around the top of the tower. The lantern room was also restored, protecting the tower from future water damage. When all repairs are completed, the tower will be painted and restored to its former glory.
This story appeared in the
June 2010 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.
All contents copyright © 1995-2024 by Lighthouse Digest®, Inc. No story, photograph, or any other item on this website may be reprinted or reproduced without the express permission of Lighthouse Digest. For contact information, click here.