I was in hopes this letter would inform you of the completion of the building that has lingered here so long, but, alas, it is not the case. The Lighthouse’s height is 39 feet from the surface of the ground and had Mr. Porter acted honest the work would have been done long (long) ago. The brick he brought from Boston which he said was sufficient to complete the building but it only run 20 feet above the surface of the ground…he has had to go to the main [land] four times for brick and will have to go again before he will have enough to finish with. Mr. Porter has tried to cheat and defraud in every possible manner, in measuring the building with his tape line myself at the top and he remained at the bottom and when the line was sent down to him he managed it so as to cut one foot off and then pinch one foot more off in hand in order to deceive me. … Time would fail me to tell all of his villainy…I have used all the argument I am master of in order to keep him to his contract but he remains inflexible.
David Watson lit the tower’s array of eleven oil lamps set in fourteen-inch reflectors for the first time in the spring of 1833. As the bridge linking Assateague Island to Chincoteague was not built until 1962, the keepers of the lighthouse were quite isolated, though there was a small village just northeast of the lighthouse.
An 1850 inspection report of the lighthouse noted that many bricks had fallen out of the lighthouse and that the tower needed whitewashing. On approaching the island at night, the inspector described the light as very brilliant and strong, even though the reflectors in the lantern room were found to be “quite spotted in consequence of the silver being worn off.” A third-order Fresnel lens replaced the antiquated lamps and reflectors in 1856, but despite this improvement, Assateague Lighthouse was declared ineffective in 1858, as its light could not be seen beyond the dangerous Black Fish and Winter Quarter shoals, which extend fourteen miles from the island. Since the existing lighthouse could not be improved, the Lighthouse Board requested funds for a 150-foot-tall, first-order lighthouse.
Congress allocated $50,000 for the project on June 20, 1860, but little progress was made before the Civil War brought the work to a halt. The old Assateague Lighthouse remained lit for most of the war, as the residents of Chincoteague and Assateague Islands voted 130 to 2 to remain with the Union. When the Lighthouse Board prepared to resume work on the new lighthouse in 1865, it quickly realized that additional money was needed due to an increase in the price of materials and labor. The wharf, plank road, and workmen’s quarters, which had been built before the war, were repaired, and with an additional $25,000 provided by Congress on July 28, 1866, work progressed quickly. By December 13, when work was suspended for the winter, the brick tower stood ninety-five feet tall.
Work resumed on March 1, 1867, and the 140-foot lighthouse was placed in operation on October 1, 1867, exhibiting a fixed white light from its first-order, Bariber & Fenestre Fresnel lens. The lighthouse’s stature is accentuated by it position atop a bluff, which is itself twenty-two feet above the mean low water mark. Built of red brick, the conical tower tapers from a diameter of twenty-eight feet at its base to eighteen feet at is lantern room. Shortly after the light was commissioned, the tower and oil house were covered with a “brick-colored cement,” and a brass tablet was mounted on the lighthouse. It wasn’t until 1968 that Assateague Lighthouse received its distinctive red-and-white bands. Of all the lighthouses in Virginia, only the daymark at New Cape Henry, with its stark alternating black and white rectangles, rivals Assateague for panache.
The tower and accompanying one-story, rectangular entrance are built on a twelve-foot-deep stone and concrete foundation. Iron braces are used throughout the tower’s height to add strength and stability, and a cast-iron spiral staircase with independent landings ascends to the lantern room. On these landings, four north-facing and three south-facing windows light the interior.
A keepers’ duplex was finished just before the lighthouse was placed in operation and housed the station’s two keepers comfortably, until a second assistant keeper, who was not married to the head keeper, was assigned to the station in 1872. In 1891, the Lighthouse Board complained that the station’s two assistant keepers each had just two rooms in the dwelling and noted that in “these rooms they perform all the ordinary acts of life, such as sleeping, dressing, eating, and cooking in the winter.” A sum of $4,000 was requested for improving the accommodations, so that the assistant keepers could “live decently with their families” and have “at least as much comfort as can be had by skilled workmen in cities.” The interior of the dwelling was torn out and remodeled in 1893, and additions were made in order to provide “the keepers proper and necessary rooms.” Known as the “Keeper’s Mansion,” the enlarged dwelling had three apartments, each with a pantry, kitchen, dining and living rooms, three bedrooms, and a bathroom.
In 1900, the area around the tower and dwelling was graded and 108,900 square feet of marsh sod was laid to keep the sandy soil from being blown away. About 280 ornamental shrubs were planted on the lighthouse property, and a new well was sunk behind the keepers’ dwelling. After these improvements, the station was quite attractive, with the dwelling surrounded by blooming forsythia bushes and daffodils in spring, and white and purple lilacs in the summer.
At three a.m. on October 10, 1891, the presidential yacht Despatch, a 730-ton schooner-rigged steamship charged with ferrying government officials from Washington D.C. to various ports of call, ran aground on a sandbar roughly a mile off Assateague Island. When the second lieutenant piloting the Despatch spotted what he thought was the light from Winter Quarter Shoals Lightship, he ordered the vessel to be put closer to land, but this proved disastrous when the light turned out to be Assateague Lighthouse. Those aboard were rescued by the lifesaving crew from Assateague Island, but the yacht, which had faithfully served Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur and Cleveland, as well as then president Benjamin Harrison, was a total wreck.
A new brick oil house, measuring fourteen by eighteen feet, was added to the station in 1891, and in 1907, ruby-red glass was placed in a portion of the lantern room to create a red sector in the light. In 1910, a concrete bungalow was built at the lighthouse for Keeper William Collins, who was responsible for the beacon light at Fishing Point in Tom’s Cove. The lighthouse, an oil house, and the bungalow are the only structures from the station that remain standing today. This dwelling is located south of the tower and is used to house staff for the wildlife refuge.
Electricity replaced oil as the means of illumination at the lighthouse in April 1933, when three 100-watt bulbs were placed inside the Fresnel lens. An array of batteries was placed in the oil house, and these were charged by a pair of 2,000-watt generators, which would run for about fifteen hours each week. An astronomical clock turned the light on at dusk and off at dawn, eliminating the need for a resident keeper. Head Keeper Walter J. Westcott, who had come to Assateague Lighthouse as an assistant in 1905, was transferred to Hog Island Lighthouse, Assistant William Collins was assigned to Cape Charles Lighthouse, and care for Assateague Lighthouse was added to the responsibilities of the keeper of Killock Shoal Lighthouse. No longer needed, the large keepers’ dwelling was sold in 1933 and subsequently served as a hunting lodge before being relocated to Chincoteague.
Power lines were run to Assateague Island in 1961, allowing the lighthouse to operate on commercial power. At this time, a directional coded beacon (DCB) replaced the Fresnel lens atop the lighthouse. This Crouse-Hinds DCB was a thirty-six-inch, double-drum, rotating lens whose intensity of over a million candlepower allowed the Coast Guard to discontinue Winter Quarter Lightship located off Assateague Island. A Daylight Control Monitoring System was used to turn the beacon on at sunset and extinguish it in the morning.
Assateague Lighthouse is blessed in many respects, including architecturally and environmentally. It is a beautiful structure with brick walls and floors, along with magnificent brick arches overhanging its entrance and windows. The station is situated in a pristine refuge, where a menagerie of wildlife roams the grounds. Guided tours through the island’s marshes and beaches reveal native white tailed deer, Sika elk, colorful ducks and other waterfowl, and wild ponies. Nature trails and bicycle paths are also available, and at the island’s southern tip there is a beautiful beach with a bathing area.
Often situated on wave-swept shorelines, coastal lighthouses are frequently threatened by the encroaching sea, but at Assateague Island, the opposite is actually true. The southern tip of the island, known as Tom’s Cove Hook, is slowly being built up by vast amounts of sand deposited by ocean currents. Most of the Hook did not even exist before the twentieth century, and now the lighthouse stands much farther from the inlet to Chincoteague Bay.
Located nearby on Chincoteague Island is the Museum of Chincoteague Island (formerly known as the Oyster and Maritime Museum), which was involved in a small controversy with the U.S. Lighthouse Society over Assateague Lighthouse’s Fresnel lens. In 1961, the Coast Guard gave the lens to the Virginia Historical Society, which in turn donated it to the museum in 1975. For years, the shimmering first-order Fresnel lens was exhibited near the base of the tower. This was great for tourists, but not so good for the lens as it was protected by only a chicken wire fence and exposed to the elements and stone-hurling vandals. Dismayed at these conditions, the Lighthouse Society, after sending numerous letters and inquiries, learned that the lens was under the care of the museum and requested that it be properly exhibited. The museum responded promptly, having the lens covered with a sturdy wooden box and ultimately relocating it to their facilities.
Assateague Lighthouse remains an active aid to navigation. In 2004, it was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Coast Guard to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Since the transfer, a $1.5-million, multi-phase restoration project has been carried out on the tower, prompted by a part of the cast-iron lantern room deck falling to the gallery deck in 2008. During the first two phases, the lower gallery deck was replaced along with some of the glass in the lantern room, which will stop water leaks. This work cost $400,000, and additional fundraising was conducted before the upper gallery deck was renovated, additional windows were replaced, and the entire tower was re-pointed and painted. This photograph was taken in May 2013, before the tower was painted later that summer and re-opened to visitors in September.