|Wolf Trap, VA|
Description: In 1819, the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, who was in charge of the young nation’s lighthouses, faced a difficult decision. Congress had appropriated funds for aiding navigation on the Chesapeake Bay, but the amount was enough to illuminate only one of two vital areas: “Windmill Point, at the south of the Rappahannock River, or a light vessel or boat on Wolf Trap Shoals...” After weighing the merits of the two options, the Secretary chose the Wolf Trap site as the more pressing need.
Perhaps the Secretary had in mind the misfortune of the Wolfe, a 350-ton vessel of the Royal British Navy that was enlisted to combat piracy and smuggling, and to enforce the Navigation Acts so detested by the colonies. In 1691, the Wolfe ran aground on the shoal to which she would reluctantly bestow her name. The ship’s captain immediately summoned help, and watermen of the Virginia colony made haste to unload the heavy guns, ammunition and stores weighing down the ship. After the seawater that had leaked through the hull was pumped out, the vessel floated free and was towed to safety.
The captain was grateful for the aid, but refused to compensate the watermen for their efforts. The colonial governor held the captain liable and ordered the garnishment of his wages. Ultimately, the ship’s owners settled the captain’s debts, but the affair so angered the watermen that they thereafter referred to the shoal as Wolf Trap.
The troublesome Wolf Trap Shoals received a brand new 180-ton lightship in 1821. The vessel carried two fixed lights, at elevations of 30 and 38 feet, which were visible for ten miles. To further aid mariners, a fog bell was also mounted on the vessel, which was painted lead-gray and had “Wolf Trap” stenciled in black on its sides.
After taking responsibility for lighthouses from the Treasury Department in the mid 1800s, the Lighthouse Board took measures to refurbish many of the deteriorating lightships in the Chesapeake. In August of 1854, the Wolf Trap was towed to Alexandria, Virginia, where it was repaired and outfitted with new lanterns. After forty years of service, the lightship was destroyed by insurgents in 1861 after the outbreak of the Civil War. Three years later, a second lightship was placed on the station, when the Union had the region firmly under control. Following the war, however, the Board was intent on replacing costly lightships with economical screwpile lighthouses. These innovative lighthouses required less maintenance and fewer personnel than lightships, but, as will be seen, they weren’t a perfect solution.
The hexagonal dwelling and supporting ironwork that had been assembled at the Lazaretto Depot near Baltimore were transported to Wolf Trap Shoals in the spring of 1870. Multiple, cast-iron screws were secured in the seabed, and the dwelling was mounted on top of these spindly legs. Construction of the new light mostly went off without a hitch, except when a storm blew away the workman’s platform and delayed the first lighting until October 1, 1870. The lighthouse stood in sixteen feet of water, and the focal plane of the fourth-order Fresnel lens in the lantern room was thirty-eight feet. The lens produced a fixed white light, punctuated by a brilliant flash every thirty seconds, which could be seen for eleven nautical miles.
On January 22, 1893, heavy ice floes severed the lighthouse from its foundation. A few days later, the lighthouse was found afloat several miles to the south near Thimble Shoals, with only its roof and lantern still peaking out above the water. The lens and lantern room were salvaged from the lighthouse, and the navigational hazard was then towed to shore. John William Thomas, the keeper of the lighthouse, was able to escape the doomed structure and walk across the ice and find shelter in a tugboat trapped in the frozen bay.
Embedded in the top of the concrete section are two water cisterns holding 4,500 gallons, and above these in the fluted portion of the pier is a cellar with rooms for a compressor and for the storage of oil, coal and provisions. Walls and steal beams divide these rooms, making them “reasonably fireproof.” The top of the pier protrudes twelve feet above the water and supports the octagonal, brick keepers’ dwelling, which has a kitchen and sitting room on the first level, three bedrooms on the second, and a watch room in the square tower just beneath the lantern room. The water closet was an iron structure, resembling a guard shack, positioned on the edge of the pier next to the lighthouse. A fourth-order lens was placed in the lantern room and exhibited for the first time on September 20, 1894.
In the late 1920s, the dwelling was given a red coat of paint to protect the bricks from the corrosive salt water spray. For many years the lens was coupled with a reed trumpet fog signal to help ships navigate the shallows, but these days only a small solar powered light is used. The lighthouse also contained a radio calibration station, and for this reason Wolf Trap was one of the very last manned light stations on the Chesapeake, being automated in 1971.
In 1919, keeper James B. Hurst and his assistant, V.J. Montague, were commended for their roles in a daring sea rescue. During a severe storm the schooner Sidonia Curley sank four miles from Wolf Trap Lighthouse. Shortly thereafter a man, woman and four children landed at the station in a motorboat. As recorded in the USLHS Bulletin: “In endeavoring to land the occupants of the boat on the east landing of the station, the keeper was twice washed from the steps, but each time managed to retain a hold on the steps with one hand.” Ultimately the shipwreck victims were transferred safely to the lighthouse, with the smallest two-year-old child “being hoisted up in a bag."
These days there are no keepers to come to the aid of victims similarly afflicted. The lack of human personnel has also led to the inevitable deterioration of the lighthouse, so when the buoy tender Cowslip was dispatched in 1991 to repair the light, its crew had their work cut out for them. They found windows broken by bullets and storms, a leaking roof, plenty of guano, and twenty years of weather damage. Working 12-hour days, the crew replaced all the windows with Plexiglas, installed vents to improve air circulation, and water-blasted and painted the exterior walls. The light, which had been placed on the peak of the cupola, was returned to the pedestal in the lantern room. A Coast Guard officer noted that the cupola was unsafe, as personnel servicing the light “must climb up onto the top of the cupola, and are limited to only one square foot of area in which to stand...after arranging themselves in this precarious position they then must lean out and tend to the task of servicing not one but two 300 mm lanterns...”
The Cowslip’s Chief Boatswain Mate was hopeful about the future of the station: “This is a strong and sturdy lighthouse and I really think (it will) last another 150 years.” Under the provisions of the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act, the Wolf Trap Lighthouse was offered to qualified organizations and non-profit groups in 2004. When no applications were received, the lighthouse was auctioned online by the General Services Administration in October of 2005. Nick Korstad submitted the winning bid of $75,000, with intentions of opening the lighthouse as a bed and breakfast. However, after nine months of unsuccessfully searching for a lender willing to make a loan for a lighthouse, Korstad put the lighthouse up for auction on eBay with a starting bid of $119,000. Just hours before the auction was set to expire, a bid was made, but the potential buyer wanted to send out engineers to inspect the lighthouse before making a down payment, and the deal fell through.
Roughly six months after the auction, James H. Southard, Jr. of Charleston, South Carolina contacted Korstad and purchased the lighthouse from him for $115,000. In 2007, a new roof was installed at the lighthouse. In the future, attention will be turned to restoring the interior of the lighthouse. Though it is now privately owned, Wolf Trap Lighthouse will remain a familiar daymark and a Coast Guard maintained aid to navigation, faithfully demarcating the location of the treacherous Wolf Trap Shoals.
Wolf Trap Lighthouse was back on the market in 2012, with an asking price of $288,000, but this included a waterfront lot on Horn Harbor.
Located on the western side of the Chesapeake Bay just over three miles offshore and at a point roughly midway between the Piankatank River and Mobjack Bay. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.