|New Point Comfort, VA|
Description: The Chesapeake Bay boasted the greatest shipping volume in North America during the 1700s and early 1800s, prompting America’s new federal government to establish lighthouses for guiding vessels to the vital ports therein. The first of these lighthouses were placed at Cape Henry, Smith Point, Old Point Comfort, and then New Point Comfort. This latter tower, now the tenth oldest lighthouse still standing in the United States, is situated on the westerly shore of the Chesapeake, just north of the entrance to Mobjack Bay.
Funds for the New Point Comfort Lighthouse were first appropriated in an 1801 Congressional Act that also commissioned a lighthouse at Smith Point, approximately thirty miles to the north. Five thousand dollars were earmarked for the project, and the Treasury Department’s Commissioner of Revenue William Miller (who was responsible for the nation’s lighthouses at that time) ordered a preliminary survey of the area. John Patterson completed this work and noted some of the features of the land:
New Point Comfort is an Island separated from the main land by a creek of three and a half to four feet water at high tide...the Island is about 3/4 of a mile in length...the width of the land varies from 350 to 500 yards, and contains about 100 acres...it lies generally low and much broken, and covered over with drifted sand hills...about the centre of the Island lies the most elevated firm spot to be found, of about 2 to 3 acres running quite across the point, commanding a good front upon each side...the foundation is good and appears entirely secure against the drifting of the sand...In this last observation “appears” is the operative word, as Patterson’s choice of location would subject the lighthouse to repeated measures to save it from tumbling into the sea.
One Phillip Tabb of Gloucester County owned the 100 acres at the Point and demanded an exorbitant thousand dollars for the few acres needed for the lighthouse. While the Treasury Department bargained with Tabb, they also invited builders Benjamin Latrobe and John McComb (architect of the Cape Henry Light) to submit proposals for the lighthouse. Neither of these men, however, was interested in attempting the project with a budget of only $5,000
Burroughs relocated his family to the Point, and between March and November of 1804 he completed the lighthouse tower with its spiraling stone steps. The lantern and cisterns were subcontracted to Samuel Wheeler of Philadelphia, which proved to be a wise decision. Subcontracting the dwelling house and kitchen to Samuel Stubbs, however, proved to be not so wise. Mr. Stubbs had taken ill for six weeks and his workers had ruined the bricks in attempting to fire them. To appease the government overseer, Burroughs volunteered to keep the light until the dwelling was finished.
Furnished with oil and wicks, Burroughs lit the New Point Comfort Lighthouse for the first time on January 17, 1805. The lantern had arrived from Philadelphia in December, along with an iron floor that “prevented every kind of danger of communicating fire from the lamps.”
The overseer pleaded with Burroughs to finish the keeper’s dwelling, but he “had got his affairs in a deranged situation. His circumstances are now so limited (having latterly been compelled to take the benefit of the Act of Insolvency) that it is now entirely out of his power to procure either materials or laborers...” In short, Burroughs was bankrupt. Mr. Stubbs had been almost fully compensated by Burroughs for the still unfinished dwelling, but under the threat of legal action Burroughs himself was forced to complete the dwelling.
The fifty-eight-foot, sandstone New Point Comfort Lighthouse is similar in design to its sister tower at Old Point Comfort and other period sandstone structures constructed at Cape Henry and Montauk Point. The original light was a fixed signal generated by nine lamps and cast out to sea by nine-inch reflectors. Winslow Lewis revamped the lantern and added fourteen-inch reflectors in 1841, while a Fresnel lens replaced the entire lighting apparatus in 1855.
Throughout its rich history, the survival of New Point Comfort Light was often in doubt. Most people know the British burned down the White House in the War of 1812; the redcoats were scarcely any kinder to this lighthouse. In a letter to the Norfolk Customs Collector one Mathews County man complained: “The enemy left New Point Comfort on Sunday after four weeks possession. Yesterday I went on the Point and such a scene of wanton destruction I never beheld.” The British had burned down the keeper’s house and oil vault, shattered the glass in the lantern, and diligently removed the window frames and the door from the lighthouse. The letter also gives the first indication of the perilous condition of the land at New Point Comfort: “I would not advise the repairing of the light house where it now stands as the water already washes its base and in a few years will undermine it - indeed it was very improperly placed at first.”
After the war, Elzy Burroughs’ services were once again called upon, this time to repair damaged lighthouses on Chesapeake Bay. Burroughs was given a second chance to build the New Point Comfort keeper’s dwelling and was also consulted about the erosion problem at the lighthouse, as “the water every full tide (was) entirely reaching it.” Burroughs recommended digging a ditch in front of the lighthouse, driving piles into the ditch and filling it with treetops, brush and rubble. The cost for the erosion control was estimated at $900; a bargain considering the alternative was moving the lighthouse. According to Burroughs, relocating the lighthouse would have run $6,000, and he should have known since his lighthouse at Smith Point had to be moved.
Like many lighthouses during the Civil War, New Point Comfort was extinguished by Confederate soldiers to hinder the Union’s superior naval forces. A post-war inspection showed the lighthouse grounds neglected and somewhat damaged, but the Confederates had shown far more restraint than the Brits. After a general overhaul, the station was up and running without too much trouble.
Soil erosion at New Point Comfort continued to be a constant source of trouble. The keeper was provided a boat in 1839 as it was no longer possible to walk to the mainland at low tide. Over the years “stone walls, fences, breakwaters, and loose rock” were all employed to delay the ravages of the weather. Then in 1933 a tremendous hurricane and “related tidal flooding...created a swath between the lighthouse and the island where it once stood.”
A series of photographs of the lighthouse over time illustrates the dramatic change to the island. The early picture black and white photograph above shows the lighthouse standing on firm ground with its attendant dwelling, kitchen and oil vault. In 1928 the tower is shown with only the barn. The keeper’s house was gone, and the water appears much closer. A recent snapshot reveals the lighthouse perched in solitude on a mere hundred yards of rocky rubble surrounded by water.
When the light source was converted to acetylene gas in 1919, the keeper position was replaced with a mere occasional lamplighter. In 1950, New Point Comfort was converted to electricity and in 1963 it was decommissioned, replaced by an offshore aid to navigation.
Since 1976 restoration efforts have focused primarily on stabilizing the structure. The Mathews County Historical Society is involved with long term preservation plans, and in 2001 the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force was established. Their mission statement is “to develop a plan to preserve the...lighthouse as a permanent historic sentinel representing American navigation, transportation, commerce, craftsmanship, engineering, and American’s perseverance through peace and war.”
In 2010, Mathews County received a $424,000 Virginia Department of Transportation Enhancement Grant that will be used to build a large rock wall to protect the exposed lighthouse. The wall will have a length of 300 feet, a width of forty six feet, and will rise to a height of twelve feet above the mean low water mark. The New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force has started a fund to ensure the long-term upkeep of the lighthouse. Local residents Bill Burroughs and Wilbur Burroughs, descendants of Elzy Burroughs, donated $10,000 to the fund that will be administered through the Mathews Community Foundation.
Located on the northern side of the entrance to Mobjack Bay, on a tiny island
just off the mainland. The island is the southeastern tip of Mathews
County. The lighthouse is owned by the County of Matthews. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is owned by the County of Matthews. Tower closed.
Notes from a friend:Kraig writes:
Here is the view of the lighthouse from the wooden walkway at the preserve using a telephoto lens. If you want to get closer, you need to get out on the water.
See our List of Lighthouses in Virginia
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.