Digest>Archives> July 2010

He Died On His Knees

The Amazing Story of Lighthouse Keeper William M. Parker

By Timothy Harrison and Myrna J. Cherrix


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William M. Parker, who served longer than any ...

As the Killock Shoal Lighthouse was being built in 1886, the local residents of nearby Chincoteague, Virginia wondered who would get the job as the lighthouse keeper. For the most part, lighthouse keeping was a highly respected job, and if you performed your duties, you would likely be assured of a job until your retirement years.

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On the other hand, all light stations were not the same, especially a lighthouse resting on top of iron legs standing out in the open waters where life could be dangerous in more ways than one. This type of lighthouse duty required a special type of person.

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The Killick Shoal Lighthouse is more commonly, ...

In January of 1886, Samuel E. Quillen, the first assistant keeper from the famous Assateague Lighthouse, received a promotion and was assigned to be the lighthouse keeper of the new Killock Shoals Lighthouse. The promotion meant more pay and more prestige. But after about a month on the job, Quillen decided the job was not him. This may have been because he and his wife had four children and he did not want his family making, what could be dangerous, journeys back and forth to the lighthouse. Plus, if he decided to keep his family on the mainland while he lived on the lighthouse, he would have been away from them much more than he wanted.

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William M. Parker’s funeral was held here at the ...

Then, thanks to the new rules of Civil Service that had recently been instituted, the job of head lighthouse keeper for the Killick Shoals Lighthouse went to William Major Parker, who was the 2nd assistant keeper at Assateague Lighthouse.

Parker had received his appointment to the Assateague Lighthouse in August 1876, thanks in part to help from Thomas W. Taylor, a prominent politician from Onancock, Va. Parker had met Taylor while attending the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute that had been founded in 1868 to help the newly freed slaves get a better education. Although Parker and his family were listed since the early 1800s as ‘Free Negroes,” as a young black man he qualified in 1873 for entrance into the Institute.

However, when Parker secured the appointment as an assistant keeper at Assateague Lighthouse, he left the Institute’s school, knowing full well that the job with the Lighthouse Establishment, especially in those days, was a much better career move. In later years, his sister wrote, “Although not a graduate of Hampton, it was his chief delight to talk of the school and its workers, to tell how it had shaped his life.” The Hampton Institute is now the Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia.

Parker was elated at the appointment and promotion to head keeper at Killock Shoals Lighthouse. He had worked hard for the job. However, Parker was also one of the few African-American men in the employ of the United States Light House Board, something that apparently displeased some of the locals.

Complaining in the local newspaper, his critics wrote that Parker was “utterly incompetent and knew nothing of lighthouse work . . . and he cannot even tell which direction the wind is blowing.” Others, while sitting around the local tavern and meeting house, talked of starting a petition drive to get a different man appointed as the lighthouse keeper. But the lighthouse people in Washington would not be budged and Parker assumed his position.

Parker, a deeply religious man, did not let any of this deter him in any way and he went about his duties to the best of his abilities to ensure that everything the government had entrusted him with was always in good working order. From time to time there were trivial complaints made against him, but every visit by the Lighthouse Inspector found the lighthouse in operating order and being maintained exactly as the rules and procedures required.

On a cool autumn day in October, 1905, Parker made the unfortunate decision to go to Chincoteague Island for supplies at about the same time that a shooting had taken place. Obviously he had no idea about this until he reached the shore. Local officials told him that he would be required to join the posse and hunt down the culprit. Although Parker knew it was his civic duty to join the posse, he also knew that government regulations would never allow him to leave the lighthouse unattended for any length of time and he had no idea how long the manhunt would last. So, he gathered up his supplies and returned to the lighthouse.

About a month later, it was time to head back to Chincoteague Island for supplies. He had been busy with his duties at the lighthouse and had nearly forgotten about the shooting incident. However, that quickly changed when he arrived to get his supplies. He was promptly arrested for his failure to join a legally formed posse the month before.

Parker protested, explaining that he was required by government regulations to tend to the lighthouse. He went on by saying, “It is better to save lives than revenge them.” The Light House Board agreed with him and came to the rescue, intervening with local officials, who dropped the charges.

Parker, although somewhat upset by the whole mess, held no grudges or animosity. As a good Christian, he let the matter drop and went on about his job of serving the government faithfully while taking good care of the lighthouse to protect the mariner at sea. Every day, Parker faithfully shined the brass mechanisms that operated and held the valuable 4th order Fresnel lens, cleaned the glass of the lantern room, drew the drapes in the daylight houses to protect the lens from the rays of the sun, filled up the oil, and rang the fog bell when the area was shrouded in fog as it often was. He faithfully wrote in the station’s log book each day about the passing of vessels, the weather conditions, and anything else that he felt was important to notate that would be read by the inspector at future visits.

Then, came the night of January 23, 1911. The Christmas season had come and gone. Near Year’s celebrations were just memories. If people were thinking of anything, it was the long cold nights of winter. Perhaps they were planning something special for Valentines Day for that favorite loved one, or considering a proposal. After all, Valentines Day was not that far off. That night as the sun set and the cold night air of winter set in, there was a strange feeling that came over the people as they looked out into the darkness of Chincoteague Channel and Chincoteague Bay; they did not see a light coming from the lighthouse. Only darkness.

At first some people were not concerned. They felt that there must be some problem with the wick and that Parker would have it going at any moment. However, others felt less than comfortable; after all, the light from the Killick Shoals Lighthouse had never been dark, not once in 25 years.

Finally it was decided to launch a boat and go out to the lighthouse. On board the launch was Parker’s wife, Venus. The boat ride out to the lighthouse was at first somewhat upbeat. One person said, “We’ll probably be almost there and the light will come on,” to which another remarked, “Yeah, we’re probably worrying for nothin’.” To which another replied, “Yeah, we’ll get there and good ol’ Parker will say there was nothin’ to worry ‘bout.” But as the boat traversed further out over the water and into the darkness and came closer to the lighthouse, an eerie silence came about them. Their thoughts had now shifted toward some type of tragedy. Maybe Parker was injured. What if he somehow fell off the lighthouse and drowned. Would the boat be at the lighthouse?

As they approached the lighthouse, they could see that the station’s boat was hanging in its place. But they also noticed that, as well as there being no light in the lantern room, there were no lights on in the house. Fear swept over the boat. They hollered and called out for him, but there was no response from Parker. They climbed up the ladder and went into the keeper’s house and lit a lamp. The room was empty and the stove was cold. They yelled for him again, but there was no reply, only silence. They entered the bedroom and there they found Parker. He was dead on his knees, with has hands gripped together and his head upon the bed. He had died while praying.

Parker’s wife, Venus, was grief stricken. But she also knew that she was the wife of a lighthouse keeper and knew that the light must be lit and, having worked with her husband, she knew what needed to be done. She instructed the others to take her husband’s body to the mainland and she would stay and tend to the lighthouse. After all, the lives of others depended on that the light being on.

William M. Parker died a young man; he was 55 at the time of his death. But for nearly half of his life, he had served his nation faithfully in providing safety to the sailors and passengers at sea.

Upon report of his death, a local newspaper wrote, “He was considered the local leader of his race.” Remember, this was the South and prejudice still ran deep in those days. Another newspaper, in reporting his death, did not mention Parker’s twenty five years of dedicated service; instead they stated that a “white man will be promoted” to replace him.

However, Parker’s widow, Venus, or Aunt Venus, as the locals referred to her, was appointed as his replacement. She continued to keep the lighthouse for a little more than a year, when she resigned in March of 1912. She was replaced by Demarest Peterson, who had been a crewman on the Winter Quarter Lightship. In 1914 Venus remarried and records indicate she was still living in 1930 at the age of 70.

Although the subsequent lighthouse keepers to serve at Killick Shoals were indeed Caucasians, none of them served collectively as long as William Parker served at the lighthouse. In the 1930s the lighthouse was automated and keepers were no longer needed; there was only an occasional visit for battery replacement. By 1935, the lighthouse had outlived its usefulness and it was demolished and replaced by a nondescript 20-foot tower.

About a month after his death, the New York Times reported that William and Venus Parker were “esteemed by all who knew them.” And even today, over 100 years later, we can attest to that fact, even though we never knew him.

But we do know that William M. Parker and his wife Venus “Kept a Good Light,” leaving a legacy of which we can all be proud.

This story appeared in the July 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.

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