Years of hard work culminated on September 10, 2010 in Lewes, Delaware with the proud celebration of the refurbishing and dedication of the best preserved lightships in the nation, the Overfalls LV-118. “Best preserved” is said with tongue in cheek, but since the work on her was just completed, and she sparkled from stem to stern inside and out, most likely it was true. Originally built at the Rice Brothers Shipyard in East Boothbay Harbor, Maine in 1938 at a cost of $223,900, Overfalls was the last riveted lightship to be built. Until 1958 the ship served faithfully on station at Cornfield, eight miles off the coast of Connecticut in the Long Island Sound. Moved to Cross Rip station off Martha’s Vineyard, Overfalls next served until 1962 before being moved to Boston Harbor, six miles off shore. Damage from a major storm in 1970 marked the beginning of the end, and she was decommissioned in 1972.
When at sea, she carried a crew of 14 men who rotated shifts of two weeks on, one week off. She displayed a light rated at 15,000 candlepower, 57 feet above the water line with a light signature flash every three seconds, seen up to twelve miles on a clear night. The diaphone fog signal sounded every 30 seconds and could be heard for five miles.
From 1898 until 1960, four lightships named Overfalls served at the mouth of the Delaware Bay. Two are museum pieces in Portsmouth, VA, and Oakland, CA. In 1973, the current ship was donated to the Lewes Historical Society and permanently named Overfalls. In 2001, ownership was transferred to the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation.
Between 1973 and 1999, considerable deterioration took its toll; then loving work commenced at the prodding of Merrill Kaegi, who placed a small notice in the local paper after it seemed Overfalls would end up on the scrap pile or would be given to Connecticut. As reported by the Foundation’s second president and chief fund-raiser, Elaine Simmerman, that ad brought together 23 dedicated workers, mostly in their 60s to 80s, soon to become known as the “Dirty Hands Gang,” who, every Tuesday morning, scraped, painted, fixed, rewired, hand-removed tons of ballast, and carefully restored the ship.
Many volunteered time, money or effort to tow the ship to the Norfolk Ship Yard to be fitted with a rebuilt hull to replace steel that resembled Swiss cheese after the old paint was removed. After a cost of $1.2 million of funding from many sources, Overfalls, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, looks as if she were ready to begin serving the nation’s coasts rather than being in retirement.
About 200 people were on hand for the festivities, including the Mayor of Lewes, James L. Ford, III, credited for playing a major part in brokering an agreement over wetlands, allowing Overfalls and the Historical Society Boat House to be placed on a showcase property now known as the Overfalls Maritime Museum in the Lewes historic district on the Lewes & Rehoboth Canal.
For the technically minded, the Overfalls Lightship is 114 feet, 9 inches in length, has a beam of 26 feet and a draft of 13 feet, 4 inches, and weighs 422 tons.
While a small number of U.S. lightships still exist, many were destroyed by storm or wreck while serving at dangerous locations, and others have met with scrap dealers. Fortunately some of them have been turned into museum pieces on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts as well as Lake Huron.
Travelers would find a visit to Lewes, “The First City in The First State,” well worthwhile. If the folks of the Overfalls Maritime Museum Foundation have anything to say about it, the Cape May-Lewes Ferry will soon become the second best known maritime attraction in the region.
This story appeared in the
December 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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