|Newport News Middle Ground, VA|
Description: The Lighthouse Board gave the following justification for a lighthouse at Newport News Middle Ground Shoal in its 1887 Annual Report: "Vessels leaving the docks at Newport News drawing 24 feet of water invariably pass to the southward of the Middle Ground, and because of the several changes of course masters now hesitate to leave their berths for sea on very dark or foggy nights. To obviate the necessity for thus losing much valuable time a light-house and fog-signal should be established on the Middle Ground, near Newport News, or in the vicinity of Newport News at such a point as may be selected by the Board."
In 1888 Congress appropriated $50,000 for the construction. The next year bid proposals were requested, but the lowest bid left too small of a margin for the purchase of necessary materials to be supplied to the contractor by the Government and for other incidental expenses. The Lighthouse Board cut a few corners: “...modifications, which would not impair its stability, were made in the sub-structure, the quantity of riprap stone (to be distributed at the base of the caisson) was reduced one third...” With these alterations the contractor was able to lower his bid by $4,000, and he began the project in the spring of 1890.
The Board reported that over the summer “the framing of the crib was commenced at Newport News, Virginia...the iron caisson was delivered at the Portsmouth, Virginia depot, and... the iron superstructure is nearly finished at the contractor’s shops...” In July “the wooden caisson with four sections of the dredging shaft and two courses of the foundation cylinder was towed to the site and sunk.” By October the caisson had dropped to the layer of clean, white sand 34 feet beneath the top of the shoal. In January of 1891 the iron tower was completely built atop the caisson, and on “April 15, 1891, the light was first exhibited from the lens for the benefit of mariners.” The fourth-order Fresnel lens displayed a fixed white light accompanied by a white flash every twenty seconds.
The Newport News lighthouse’s caisson foundation is 56 feet high and 25 feet in diameter, and is visible 15 feet above the water level. The caisson is painted black, and the conical tower that tops it is brown in color. The tower is 29 feet high and 21 feet in diameter at its base; its light sits an average of 51 feet above the water. The lantern room is octagonal with a tin roof, and within the room an iron pedestal supports the lens and light apparatus. Newport News was originally endowed with a Stevens fog bell, which was sounded twice automatically every fifteen seconds. The keeper and his assistant shared three rooms of living space housed within the structure.
The lighthouse has five levels, beginning with a basement with brick walls and a concrete floor, where rain collecting cisterns gather the runoff from gutters running along the first level gallery roof. The main level possesses walls that are lined in brick 3/4 of the way up, with the rest composed of wood. The floor of this level is made of unpainted tongue and groove boards. A floor for equipment comes next, followed by a watch room with an iron floor and tongue and groove wooden walls. An iron ladder ascends through the ceiling of this level, leading to the octagonal lantern room.
In 1982 the first major inspection team investigated the lighthouse, with an eye to possible repairs. What they found was alarming: sections of the balustrade were missing from the gallery deck, holes had appeared in the gallery roof and pieces of the first level decking had been torn away by an errant ship in 1979, so that water leaked into the foundation. A perusal of the cellar revealed flaking paint and leaky porthole windows, and the cisterns were filled with water that might have come from the compromised foundation. On the first through third levels there was more flaking paint and leaking windows, along with ubiquitous seagull eggs and bat droppings. The watchroom and lantern room were missing windows and had broken, wide open doors, granting birds free access to nest near the light. All of this prompted one inspector to offer to remain behind and repair the structure, so dire was its condition.
Some repairs were made, and in 1987 solar power was installed at the station. Two twelve volt batteries were placed on the floor of the lantern room, and the light was removed outside to a pole above the gallery. In 1988 the Coast Guard spent $14,400 on a long list of improvements, including sandblasting and painting, replacement railings and a new and safer access ladder. In 1992, however, an inspection found that iron plates of the tower were rusting away and water was still leaking into the caisson. These observations were confirmed in 1994, when inspectors noted pitting rust all around the waterline of the foundation, and “considerable rust” up and down the seams of the tower’s plates. Corrosion had also attacked the new access ladder and the underside of the first level deck. Additional pieces of the structure were found to have fallen off, including a support for the main deck along with one third of the main deck balustrade. Also, the interior masonry of the basement and caisson was cracked. The state of disrepair even extended to the very maintenance logs themselves, which were missing. The inspector’s report made some practical suggestions to immediately improve Newport News. It recommended moving the light from its exterior pole back inside to the lantern pedestal, making it easier to service. The report also suggested replacing the age-yellowed lantern panes and changing out the steel plates over the windows with vented acrylic glazing to improve air flow in the structure. The inspectors also decided it would be best if qualified sub-contractors addressed the structural instability in the main deck and foundation.
In 2005 Newport News Middle Ground Lighthouse was auctioned off on an online site for the disposal of government property after no eligible government agencies or non-profit groups wanted to assume stewardship of the property when it was offered under the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act in 2002. The auction website describes the lighthouse as “56 feet tall with catwalk and roofed canopy,” and warns that prospective buyers will likely need to obtain an occupancy license from the state of Virginia. Lighthouse auctions are an attempt to defray some of the expense of maintaining these unmanned structures. Both the Coast Guard and historical preservation groups have found them to be very costly to service. Though sold at auction, Newport News Middle Ground Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation, and its new owner is required to provide safe access to the Coast Guard to service the beacon. Given its structural deficiencies and poor condition, the Newport News tower only fetched $31,000. This is far below market value for a sturdy and respectable offshore lighthouse, but the beleaguered station is the oldest caisson lighthouse left in Virginia.
Robert Gonsoulin of Williamsburg, Virginia is the new owner of the Newport News Middle Ground Lighthouse, and he and his extended family poured hours of labor and over $30,000 into turning the lighthouse into an offbeat vacation home. The lighthouse has been rigged with an electrical system, Coast Guard-approved toilets, and heavy-duty storm windows. The family officially opened their new residence, which offers panoramic views of one of the country's busiest harbors, on July 4, 2006.
Located just west of Interstate 664's bridge over the James River. The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
The lighthouse is privately owned. Tower closed.
Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, used by permission.