|Jones Point, VA|
Description: The area surrounding the Potomac River has been a bustling center of trade and commerce since the earliest European exploration of North America. Captain John Smith sailed up the river in 1608, and his accounts, along with those of subsequent pioneers, attracted many settlers to the region. Originally the settlers did a brisk business trading with Native Americans for beaver pelts. One such adventurer was Cadwalder Jones, a British trader and mapmaker, who established a cabin in 1699 along the Potomac River at a spot that would later be named Jones Point in his honor. Around this time, lucrative tobacco crops were beginning to take the place of animal pelts, just as one hundred years later wheat fields would supplant tobacco as the most profitable venture. Wheat was an important export crop and also led to the development of mills and bakeries in the fledgling town of Alexandria, VA. Along with the ports of Georgetown and Washington City, Alexandria would form the backbone of commerce and industry along the Potomac. A lighthouse at Jones Point was requested to warn ships traversing the river of dangerous sandbars.
In 1852 the Lighthouse Board received a Congressional appropriation of $5,000 to purchase land and erect a beacon at Jones Point. Three years later, the money was used to purchase a tract of land measuring 30 by 100 feet from the Manassas Gap Railroad Company for $501. The land included one of the boundary stones of the original District of Columbia. The stone marked the southern point of the diamond-shaped district, and was installed by George Washington. The stone is still visible today in the seawall just south of the lighthouse, and to the north of the lighthouse a marker designating the boundary between Maryland-Virginia can be seen.
First lit on May 3, 1856 by keeper George L. Deeton, the lighthouse is a wooden clapboard house-shaped structure with a pitched cedar roof, sitting on a brick foundation. The house contains a porch perpendicular to the river, which includes what would appear to be the front door. In the lawn near the porch is the six-foot-square masonry foundation of what was a water well. The actual front door to the house is larger, and located on the side of the building facing the river. Inside on the main floor, a central hallway originally divided the space into two large rooms, each containing a large brick fireplace. In the middle of the hallway a hatch door leads to the basement, which contains two large rooms with brick floors. Fireplaces also adorn these spaces and are positioned directly underneath the main floor hearths so they can use the same chimneys. Above the main floor is one large room topped by a pitched dormer-style ceiling. A ladder ascends through this ceiling up to the lantern room, whose interior is like that of a large barrel. The lantern room contains ten trapezoidal windows along with slots for ventilation.
From the beginning, the lighthouse grounds were a center of good times for local residents. During the summer, fishermen, boaters and picnickers would gather to enjoy the park-like setting. In colder weather, the beacon’s light, which played upon the frozen river ice, served as an attractive backdrop for ice skating. Less wholesome pursuits also took place in the buoy shed near the lighthouse, where Maryland rye and Virginia corn whiskeys often accompanied poker games, even during the traumatic years of the Civil War.
For a number of years, the Jones Point Lighthouse was home to keeper Benjamin Greenwood’s clan of eleven children and his wife; in total he was married twice and spawned fourteen offspring. He kept the lighthouse from 1866 until his death in 1903.
Whale oil lamps were originally used to power the beacon at Jones Point, but in 1858 the Lighthouse Board allowed an Alexandria gas company to extend lines to the station. Soil erosion and corrosion plagued the lines until 1900, when mineral oil replaced gas. At the same time, the light’s characteristic was changed from fixed white to fixed red. As the lighthouse was near Alexandria’s red-light district, this change caused some confusion to revelers prowling the ‘Mulan Rouge’ corners of the city. The confusion ended in 1919, when the light source was changed to acetylene and its characteristic to flashing white.
The Jones Point Lighthouse was slowly obscured over time as the reclaimed land at nearby Battery Cove was used by the Virginia Ship Building Company. In 1926, a steel skeleton tower with a fixed green light was erected in a more prominent location. This tower was automated in 1934 and then decommissioned in 1962, when navigational-aid duties were usurped by the lights of the Woodrow Wilson Bridge.
When the Jones Point Lighthouse was supplanted by the skeletal tower, the lighthouse was deeded to the Mount Vernon Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). The group thoroughly renovated the station and gave it a custodian, a Mrs. McMahan whose ‘Sport Doll Factory’ occupied the grounds for some time. The lighthouse was accessible to the public until 1936, when the Army requisitioned it for a top secret Signal Corps of Engineers project. The grounds were sealed off with a wire fence, and were not returned to DAR until after the conclusion of the Second World War. At that time, the Mount Vernon Chapter found the interior of the lighthouse stripped and ruined, and what remained of the outside walls was pockmarked with bullet holes compliments of the soldiers who had used the lighthouse for target practice.
Under the direction of DAR, the exterior of the station has been refurbished, and the surrounding property has been turned into a 50-acre pastoral setting with picnic tables, soccer fields, and bicycle trails. The Mount Vernon Chapter raised $20,000 and received a matching state grant that were used to construct a retaining wall reinforced by rip rap stone. A new picket fence was added to the property and a replacement stairwell installed in the station, but the interior of the lighthouse remains in a state of ruin.
As the last remaining river lighthouse in the state of Virginia, Jones Point is of great historical interest. At a ceremony held June 29, 1993, Leona Kemper, DAR restoration committee chairwoman, threw the switch that reactivated the beacon atop the lighthouse, though its windows remained boarded up. At the gathering were local dignitaries, park officials and numerous DAR members. They were joined by the great grand-daughter of the very fruitful keeper Benjamin Greenwood in hearing a history of the lighthouse and watching as the lighthouse was lit for the first time in 67 years. The signal is powered by commercial electricity and emits a white flash every four seconds.
While walkers and bikers provide some level of visibility and security in the park, no one watches the lighthouse around the clock, and it has been vandalized repeatedly. The lighthouse is near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, beneath which live many homeless who also make occasional forays into the lighthouse’s interior. DAR hopes to restore the interior of the lighthouse and re-establish a full-time caretaker position at the point.
Construction of a new Woodrow Wilson Bridge was completed in 2008, and in 2010 a related two-year beautification project that funded the addition of an athletic field, two basketball courts, a kayak and canoe launch pier and the restoration of a fishing pier and Jones Point Lighthouse in Jones Point Park was initiated. The front porch of the lighthouse was torn down and rebuilt, and the interior was remodeled, allowing the National Park Service to open a front room on the ground floor to the public. However, do to staffing constraints, the interior will only be open on a case-by-case basis. The park reopened in the summer of 2012. The twenty-five-year contract DAR had on the lighthouse expired in 2012, and it reverted back to the National Park Service.
Located in Jones Point Park, just south of the western end of the Woodrow Wilson
Bridge. In 2009, a fifth-order Fresnel lens, believed to have been used at the Jones Point Lighthouse, was put on display at the Lyceum in Alexandria. There is also a fourth-order lens on display at the museum.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, lighthouse closed.
In 2009, a fifth-order Fresnel lens, believed to have been used at the Jones Point Lighthouse, was put on display at the Lyceum in Alexandria. There is also a fourth-order lens on display at the museum.
The lighthouse is owned by the National Park Service. Grounds open, lighthouse closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.