|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, after Congress had provided $9,000 for its construction on March 3, 1801. Just five years after the lighthouse commenced operation, erosion at the point forced the structure to be moved farther inland, and Congress provided $6,000 for “pulling down and rebuilding the lighthouse.” Unfortunately, the relocated tower proved ineffective at lighting the area, and in 1821 a lightship was stationed offshore to help mark the shoals near the river's mouth.
In 1838, fifteen lamps set in spherical reflectors were being used in the lantern room to produce a fixed white light, and the tower was described as being “badly built” with the filling between the tower’s inner and outer walls appearing to be “nothing more than sand and loose stone.” Keeper John Pettit was maintaining a good light, which is something that could not be said of the captain of the lightship anchored offshore. For a one-week period, the lightship’s captain and crew left the boat in charge of a fourteen-year-old black boy, who was incapable of hoisting the light to the top of the mast.
In 1843, Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury who oversaw the country’s lighthouses at the time, recommended that Smith Point Lighthouse be discontinued as its function was being fulfilled by the lightship, but for some reason the lighthouse remained active.
In 1853, just a year after assuming control of lighthouses from the Treasury, the Lighthouse Board recognized that repairing the present Smith Point Lighthouse would require great expenditure and proposed placing a screwpile lighthouse off the point in lieu of the existing lighthouse and lightship. Congress provided $25,000 on August 3, 1854 for the new lighthouse, but to better serve mariners until it could be completed, the existing lighthouse, which stood just forty feet from the shoreline, was equipped with a fourth-order Fresnel lens on August 5, 1855.
In 1857, the Lighthouse Board reported that the money appropriated by Congress had “been found to be wholly inadequate to the erection of a suitable and durable structure” on the shoal, and the remaining amount subsequently reverted to the surplus fund. By this time, a new lightship, displaying an updated lighting apparatus, had taken the place of the old one, which was very much decayed. The Board enthusiastically noted that the new ship could mark both the position of Smith Point Shoal and the entrance to the Potomac River and recommended the lighthouse be discontinued.
Smith Point Lighthouse was extinguished in August 1859, and Thomas Gasksins, its last keeper, was granted the privilege of remaining in the lighthouse in exchange for taking care of the premises. 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. The lighthouse, which was hexagonal in plan and rested on fourteen piles in twelve feet of water, was placed in operation on September 9, 1868.
For the next twenty-five years, the screwpile lighthouse 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.
Screwpile lighthouses were known to be susceptible to ice floes, and although Smith Point Lighthouse had weathered the winters well for many years, its luck was about to change. In 1893, the first significant 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, on February 14, 1895, a more powerful ice floe wrenched the entire structure from its foundation and carried it away just one day after its keepers had fled. 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. The lens, fog bell, and some oil were recovered from the wrecked lighthouse, and a lightship was once again assigned to mark Smith Point Shoal.
Unsurprisingly, it was decided to build a lighthouse with a massive and sturdy caisson foundation that could withstand the ice floes. Construction began in Baltimore in 1896, and in April of the next year, the bottom part of the foundation was towed to the offshore site. Pneumatic machinery was brought in to help the caisson settle to a depth of fifteen feet, five inches in the seabed, after which workers filled the caisson with concrete and piled several tons of riprap 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.
On February 10, 1900, a Daboll trumpet was installed at the lighthouse, but the station’s fog bell was retained as a backup device and so it could be rung while the compressor was building up sufficient air pressure to sound the fog horn. Having cracked during its service, the fog bell was replaced by a new one in September 1900. In April 1901, a new fog horn trumpet was installed at the lighthouse to replace one blown away a couple months earlier.
By 1936, modern radio equipment had been installed at the lighthouse, and the lighthouse had three boats for the use of the keepers at the time, 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 shore. If this power source were interrupted, a backup battery system was activated to power a small emergency light mounted outside the lantern room.
In the 1980s, the submarine cable was in fact damaged, and the Coast Guard considered decommissioning the lighthouse rather than replacing the cable. Public outcry was abrupt and determined, proving that citizens do indeed become attached to their historic landmarks. In 1988, the power cable was 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 at this time would have found two large rooms on the entrance level, which formerly were the kitchen and sitting room, but then contained electronic equipment and emergency battery power packs. The second floor consisted of three irregularly shaped rooms with tongue-and-groove floors. One of the rooms was five sided and also had a pentagonal closet. Ascending to the third floor, one found an eight-by-ten watchroom containing a metal ladder that lead up into the lantern room, a six-foot-wide octagonal space enclosed in glass.
In 2005, Smith Point was one of four offshore lighthouses in Virginia to be auctioned off by the General Services Administration, after no entity was found 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. These lighthouse auctions were the start of what became a new trend for the nation’s offshore lighthouses, as these automated and keeper-less bastions are becoming available for private ownership. 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, Rich Schoeller, used by permission.