|Smith Point, VA|
Description: The quest to establish a permanent navigational aid at the southern side of the mouth of the Potomac River has been an arduous one. Over the years, four lighthouses and multiple floating lightships have been deployed to mark Smith Point and the shoals located nearby. The first attempt was an iron frame tower built in 1802 by Elzy Burroughs, but after five short years, erosion at the point forced the structure to be moved farther inland. Unfortunately, the relocated tower proved ineffective at lighting the area, and in 1821 a lightship was stationed offshore to better mark the shoals near the river's mouth.
A fourth-order Fresnel lens was installed in the dilapidated tower to replace the old arrangement of fifteen oil lamps and reflectors. The lighthouse inspector had the tower, lantern and keeper's house put into a state of temporary repair, but he ominously noted, "the bank on which the tower stands is fast washing away..."
In 1857 a new lightship was positioned offshore, displaying an updated lighting apparatus. The Board enthusiastically noted that the new ship could mark both the position of Smith's Point Shoal and the entrance to the Potomac River. Mindful of the expensive repairs that the inland tower would require, as the ebb and flow of the tides was wearing away its foundation, the Board decided to discontinue the lighthouse. In 1859, the lighthouse was removed and the dwelling was rented. The lightship continued to illumine the area for two more years, until it was sunk by Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War. Another lightship promptly replaced it, and this one remained in service until 1868, when the screwpile lighthouse was finally financed and constructed.
For the next twenty-five years, the screwpile structure was a success. It originally emitted a fixed white light, but was soon changed to flashing white. In 1882 the station's fog bell was transferred to a specially constructed room on the lighthouse's roof to enhance its audibility. The station was also equipped with boat hoisters and thoroughly repaired.
Screwpile lighthouses were known to be susceptible to ice floes. Although Smith Point Lighthouse had weathered the winters well for many years, its luck was about to change. In 1893 the first ice damage occurred at the lighthouse. The keepers were so frightened by the event that they abandoned the station and were later fired for doing so. The lighthouse was repaired, but just two years later a more powerful ice floe wrenched the entire structure from its foundation and carried it away. Given the importance of the beacon, Congress immediately appropriated $25,000 to replace it, and gave the Board permission to engage up to $80,000 in additional construction contracts.
Unsurprisingly, it was decided to build a lighthouse with a massive and sturdy caisson foundation, which could resist the worst of the ice. Construction began in Baltimore in 1896, and in April of the next year it was towed to the offshore site. Pneumatic machinery was brought in to help the caisson settle to a depth of 15 feet, 5 inches in the seabed, after which workers filled the caisson with concrete and piled over 700 tons of rip rap stone around the base. While penetrating the final three feet of sand on the shoal, workers were troubled by the release of sulphurated hydrogen gas, which was highly irritating to the eyes and delayed the work for some time.
A 1936 inspection report noted that the station contained both a standby bell and striker, along with a diaphone fog signal. The fog signal was powered by a compressor, which took ten minutes to start. If needed, the bell was rung until the diaphone signal was ready to be sounded. By this time, modern radio equipment had also been installed at the lighthouse. The station contained three boats for the use of the keepers, including a twenty-two-foot skiff and a twenty-two-foot motorboat, which the keepers could pilot to the nearest community of Sunnybank, located four and a half miles up the Little Wicomico River.
Coast Guard personnel were removed from the station in 1971, when a three-mile-long submarine power cable was run between the station and the shore. If this power source were interrupted, a battery backup system was activated to power a small emergency light on the outside of the lantern room.
In the 1980s the submarine cables were in fact damaged, and the Coast Guard considered decommissioning the lighthouse rather than replacing the cables. Public outcry was abrupt and determined, proving that citizens do indeed become attached to their historic landmarks. In 1988 the power cables were replaced and the lighthouse lived on as an active aid to navigation.
The lighthouse tender Gentian landed at the site in 1991, along with a barge equipped with a crane and manlift. A Coast Guard repair crew powerwashed the lighthouse from the water line to lantern room, scraped and repainted both inside and out, and repaired cracks in the mortar work. The roof was sealed, the balustrade sandblasted and painted, and the windows replaced with vented acrylic panels.
A visitor to the lighthouse today would find two large rooms on the entrance level, which formerly were the kitchen and sitting room, but now contain electronic equipment and emergency battery power packs. The second floor consists of three irregularly shaped rooms with tongue and groove wood floors. One of the rooms is five sided and also has a pentagonal closet. Ascending to the third floor, one would find an 8'x10' watch room containing a metal ladder that leads up into the lantern room. This last is a six-foot-wide octagonal space enclosed in glass. The white light flashes every fifteen seconds from a thousand watt bulb, and is accompanied by a fog signal that bellows every thirty seconds.
In 2005 Smith Point was one of four offshore lighthouses in Virginia to be auctioned off to a private party by the General Services Administration, after no non-profit group agreed to take over the lighthouse when it was offered under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act. Bidding at an online auction for government property, David McNally (code-named trimac), a builder and lumber yard owner hailing from Winona, Minnesota, outdueled two other participants (killer and angel) to obtain the lighthouse for $170,000. The Coast Guard still maintains stewardship over the beacon, and McNally is required to preserve access to it. This is the start of what may become a new trend for the nation's lighthouses, as these automated and keeper-less bastions are becoming available for private ownership and even residence. The Coast Guard has long been mindful of the cost of maintaining these structures, and historical preservation groups have not found the burden any easier. Some of the new enterprising lighthouse owners plan on renting out their premises to lighthouse enthusiasts, who can spend the night and experience the life of the extinct keeper.
The McNallys turned the first story of the lighthouse into a kitchen, dining room, and living room. All the interior walls and ceilings that were wood were redone, and the kitchen was equipped with glazed cherry cabinets, a stove, refrigerator, sink, dishwasher, microwave, and toaster. The second story features three bedrooms, and a fourth bedroom is located one level above in the watchroom. In 2012, the McNallys placed the refurbished Smith Point Lighthouse on the market for $499,999.
Located three miles east of the southern side of the entrance to the Potomac
River. The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the Coast Guard. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.