Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2014-05-18.
With many immigrants and commercial trade making their way to the many ports in the new world in the late 1700s through the early 1800s, vessel traffic along the Eastern Seaboard increased considerably. Although some coastal lighthouses had been established such as Cape May, Cape Henolopen, Cape Charles, and Cape Hatteras, large sections of the eastern seaboard were unlit.
One such section was off the coast of Delaware and Virginia where numerous shoals existed. The Cape Henolopen Lighthouse marked the southern entrance to Delaware Bay and the Cape Charles Lighthouse marked the northern entrance to the Chesapeake Bay. This left over 100 miles of coastline dark making it difficult for mariners to traverse.
Although concerns about this area were raised as early as 1825, it would be several years before any action was taken. Congress appropriated $7,500 on March 3, 1831 for the establishment of a lighthouse on one of the Chincoteague Islands roughly halfway between Cape Henolopen and Cape Charles.
On May 31, 1831, the Superintendent of Lighthouses in Norfolk, Conway Whittle, set out with a pilot to navigate the area around the Chincoteague Islands to find a suitable location for the lighthouse. A location on Assateague Island was selected, and on May 4, 1832 a deed was signed purchasing 50 acres of land for $440 from the Winder Family.
Stephen Pleasonton, the fifth auditor of the Treasury, was in charge of lighthouses and aids to navigation at the time. As an auditor, his skills aligned well with numbers and a budget, not so much with engineering and lighthouses. He was routinely known to sacrifice quality to save money. When the job was advertised, Noah Porter was the lowest bidder and subsequently received the job.
Noah Porter, a native of Massachusetts, was no stranger to lighthouse construction. In 1823, he had constructed the Ocracoke Island Lighthouse in North Carolina. He bid $4,000 to construct the 45-foot tall Assateague Lighthouse and brick keeper's quarters with an additional $400 to furnish the quarters.
Porter started construction of the station in August 1832 and per the contract, it was to be completed in January of 1833 with the first lighting to take place on May 15, however; many problems were encountered. The following letter was written by Richard C. Grant, construction supervisor to Conway Whittle, the Superintendent of Lights in Norfolk:
"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 intended to make a sand wall, it appears that every thing work against him, 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. I then had recourse to the 10 foot rule but on examining the length found he had cut 2 ? inches off also. Time would fail me to tell all of his villainy it remains a doubt with me whether or not his work will be received. I have used all the argument I am master of in order to keep him to his contract but he remains inflexible."
The lighthouse was eventually constructed, and the station's first keeper, David Watson, arrived in April 1833. Watson could not perform his job as he had none of the necessary supplies to perform the tasks. He informed Superintendent Whittle and supplies eventually made it to the island, but the date of the tower's first lighting is unknown.
Although the tower was finished and exhibited its light each night, many shipwrecks still occurred on the shoals. As the numerous shoals stretched from five to 12 miles offshore, the tower was considered too short and dim to be effective having only been rated at 14 miles in good weather. Further obscuring the light was a stand of loblolly pines which sat upon an adjacent plot of private property.
By 1850, Congress was fielding many complaints related to lighthouses and their management. To combat the issues, the United States Lighthouse Board was established in 1852. This moved the system of lighthouses, fog bells, and buoys from the oversight of the U.S. Treasury department and put them under the auspices of a group which consisted of distinguished military officers and civilian scientists who understood the navigation.
One of the first orders of business for the newly formed Lighthouse Board was an inspection of coastal lighthouses. Their inspection revealed that 36 lighthouses needed immediate replacing with Assateague Island Lighthouse coming in 16th on the list. As replacement would take some time, a third-order Fresnel lens was installed in 1856.
By 1859, Congress had recommended that the lighthouse at Assateague Island be replaced. The following text appeared in the Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the state of the Finances for the year ending June 30, 1859:
The light-house at Assateague, on the coast of Virginia, has been represented to the board as inefficient. The present state of the structure and illuminating apparatus will not admit of any greater efficiency. The dangerous Black Fish and Winter Quarter shoals extend fourteen miles seaward from Assateague, and the existing light does not show outside of them.
It is respectfully recommended that this light be replaced by a first order light-house, 150 feet high, to be constructed of brick. The cost of such a structure will be $50,000.
On June 20, 1860, Congress had appropriated $50,000 for a First Class lighthouse at Assateague Island. The following year, preliminary work had started. This included building a wharf, a plank road, and temporary workers' housing. However, with the onset of the Civil War, funds would be diverted and construction would cease.
As seafood was the primary industry, residents in the area of Chincoteague and surrounding islands opted to stay with the Union to maintain access to the many seafood markets in the north. Shortly thereafter, Confederate sympathizer pilfered the lamp from the tower, although it was quickly recovered and placed back into service. To thwart any other planned attacks, Union troops were ordered to stand guard at the lighthouse.
The Civil War ended in May of 1865. The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the state of the Finances for the year ending June 30, 1865 detailed the worsening condition of the Assateague Lighthouse:
The increasing dilapidation of the present tower of Assateague has obliged the board to take measures for building a new one, as authorized by act of Congress. The execution of this work has been postponed, however, on account of more pressing wants in other branches of the service. It is now believed that there should be no further delay, and measures are in progress to build a new first class tower for this important sea-coast station. It is found, however, that the sum available for this purpose is insufficient, on account of the rise in the price of materials and labor, and an estimate to cover the additional cost is submitted.
Work on the lighthouse continued in 1866. The Report of the Secretary of the Treasury, on the state of the Finances for that year had the following entry:
At Assateague the work is going on in a satisfactory manner. During the year the preliminary works erected in 1860 and 1861, such as the wharf, plank-road, and workmen's quarters which had decayed, have been repaired, the masonry has been removed, new foundations established, and on the 1st of September the new tower of brick-work had reached the height of thirty-seven feet. The work will be continued as long as the weather will permit.
The lighthouse and keeper's duplex was completed in September 1867. Inside the lantern sat a first-order Fresnel lens illuminated by 9,000 candlepower which provided a 19-mile visibility.
There were reports on numerous occasions of geese flying into lighthouses along the eastern coast. They would sometimes become disoriented and fly towards the light. Although an event like this wasn't reported at the Assateague Lighthouse, it did happen to the south at Bodie Island three weeks after the tower was lit damaging the expensive first-order lens. As a preventative measure, in 1869 wire screening was placed over the glass in the lantern.
By 1873, a second assistant keeper was added to the station to help with the workload. This lead to cramped quarters as the duplex built in 1867 was never meant to house three families. Each assistant was provided two rooms in which to live. Although a recommendation was made to construct another dwelling, it would never materialize. The subject wouldn't be brought back up until 1891. Some changes took place in 1878. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year had the following entry:
279. Assateague, Assateague Inlet, sea coast of Virginia - The brick walk from the keeper's dwelling to the tower was replaced by a plank walk, and the bricks taken up were used for making a pavement in front of the dwelling. The tower yard was leveled and repaved; the brickwork around the cellar windows was repaired, hoods were provided for the windows, the lining of the watch-room was repaired, and the floor of the watch-room and the steps to the lantern were renewed. The stove-pipe from the watch-room was carried out through the lantern roof, and the tower and oil-room were cement-washed on the outside.
Changes continued on throughout the years. Stone monuments to mark the lighthouse boundaries were sent to the station and placed in 1883. Several years later in 1889, a well was dug and pipes were laid to supply the station with water. That same year, a three-call bell system linking the tower and dwelling was installed allowing the keepers to communicate with each other using codes.
A year later, a wharf that was carried away during a storm in September 1889 was replaced. That same year, due to a change to more-volatile kerosene, an oil house was requested. Changes continued on throughout the years. The Annual Report of the lighthouse Board for 1891 had the following detailed entry:
374. Assateague, seacoast of Virginia - A new iron door, leading from the watchroom to the gallery, was hung, the fences and plank walks were renewed, a brick oil house was built, and various repairs were made. The assistant keepers are living at this station in two rooms each. In these rooms they perform all the ordinary acts of life, such as sleeping, dressing, eating, and cooking in the winter. New quarters should be built at this station, so that the assistant keepers can live decently with their families, let alone having at least as much comfort as can be had by skilled workmen in cities. It is estimated that suitable quarters for the keeper can be erected for $4,000, and it is recommended that an appropriation of this amount be made for that purpose. The quarters now occupied by the keeper will then be available for one of the assistants.
Although a new quarters was recommended, no movement was made for several years.
On the night of October 10, 1891, the USS Despatch, a wooden-hulled steamer which served as the yacht for many US Presidents, including Benjamin Harrison, James Garfield, and Grover Cleveland, ran aground one-mile off Assateague Island on its way from New York to Washington, D.C.
The vessel was under control of the second lieutenant while the commanding officer was below deck resting. Lieutenant Mulligan thought he saw the red light of the Winter Quarter Shoal Lightship which was anchored 20 miles offshore. Seeing that, he ordered the vessel to change course as there was no reason to be traveling that far out in the Atlantic.
What the second lieutenant didn't realize is that the Winter Quarter Shoal Lightship was temporarily removed from service for repairs and he was viewing the results of atmospheric phenomena that produced light where there was none.
After running aground near the Assateague Lighthouse, a distress signal was fired. The men from the Assateague Island Life Saving Station came to their aid getting everyone safely to shore. The vessel ended up being torn apart in the surf.
The following year in 1892, a 14 x 18 oil house was constructed and a barn was rebuilt. No additional keeper's dwelling was constructed. Instead, an addition was made to the keeper's duplex in 1893. The interior was then remodeled to provide three six-room apartments finally giving relief to the assistant keepers.
A new boat landing was built in 1895, and the following year in 1896, a survey was conducted of the station. That same year, the boathouse and wharf were rebuilt. Although the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for that year lists 4,800 feet of fencing being installed, I don't think that was the case due to an entries in the 1899 and 1900 reports detailed below.
Due to the Spanish American War, a telephone line between the lighthouse and the Life-Saving Service installed, and the station supplied with signal-code flags in 1898.
The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board for 1899 had an entry stating the following, "specifications were prepared and a contract made for the erection of about 4,210 feet of board fence." The report for the following year had a more detailed entry of the extensive landscape work done:
526. Assateague, seacoast of Virginia - The boundary monuments to the northward of the tower were reset to correspond to the boundary lines established in 1896. A brick walk was laid from the west side of the dwelling, down the side of the hill, toward the road leading to the boat landing. About 725 cubic yards of grading was done around the tower and dwelling, and about 108,900 square feet of marsh sod, 8 inches or more thick, was laid around the tower and dwelling to keep the sandy soil from being cut away by the wind. About 280 ornamental shrubs were planted. Some 4,210 feet of board fence was built along the boundaries of the reservation, and some 800 feet of board and wire-net fence was built around the barnyard. A contract was made for furnishing shells with which to extend the road to the oil house. An inch and a quarter driven well 26 feet deep was sunk in the rear of dwelling No. 2. Retaining and wing walls were built for both the front and rear entrances of the barn. Various repairs were made.
The landscape work continued on into 1902. The shell road was extended to the south boundary of the property, the gate was moved to coincide with the new road, and 100 additional ornamental trees and shrubs were planted on the grounds.
Several years would pass before any additional changes were made. However, in 1907, a red sector was established on the lighthouse to mark the dangerous shoals offshore. It was exhibited for the first time on February 20, 1907.
A year later, the keeper from the nearby Fishing Point Light Station, William Collins, was transferred to Assateague Lighthouse as the third assistant keeper. To provide proper housing, a concrete bungalow was built in 1910.
A wealthy clothing manufacturer out of Baltimore, Samuel B. Field started buying land on Assateague Island and ended up owning most of it. By 1922, he fenced it off, hired a hand to watch over it, and started raising horses and cattle. This blocked many resident's access to the fishing village and the fish-processing plant that they worked at.
Prior to 1922, the only access to Assateague was by boat. Things changed that year when a causeway was built to connect Assateague to nearby Chincoteague. Chincoteague had many more amenities not available to island residents, such as electricity, cars, banks, and a public water system.
The following year in 1923, two of the long-standing keepers at Assateague Lighthouse retired, one having served for 45 years, the other for 43 years. The positions they left behind were not filled leaving two remaining keepers to tend to the tower. That same year, people began moving their houses to Chincoteague by placing them on skids and floating them across the channel.
Assateague Lighthouse Archive Photo
This was the beginning of the end of settlement on Assateague Island. With the prospect of automation being discussed, preparations were being made. The Lighthouse Service took the first step that year when it sold off a 28-acre wooded lot. In 1929, a second parcel was sold off removing an additional 3.88 acres and the concrete bungalow constructed in 1910.
By 1933, very few residents were left on the island. In April of that year, the lighthouse was changed over to electricity powered by a pair of electrical generators that would charge banks of batteries housed in the oil house. Although the first-order Fresnel lens was still in use, three 100-watt bulbs took the place of the old oil lamps.
That same year, the Assateague Lighthouse was automated. As the government had no use for the remaining duplex and 18 acres of land, it was sold. The two remaining keepers were transferred to other stations. Any occasional maintenance items were taken care of by the nearby Killock Shoals lighthouse keeper.
In 1943, the family of Samuel B. Field sold the property on Assateague Island to the U.S. Government for use as a national wildlife refuge, which became the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.
Power lines strung across the channel in 1961 brought electricity to the island. At this time, a direction coded beacon, commonly referred to as a "DCB" was installed in the lantern. The DCB consisted of two drums, each outfitted with a 1,000-watt light bulb and reflector. A newer DCB was installed in 1970 which made the light visible for 22 miles at sea.
The first-order Fresnel lens was removed in 1961 when the DCB was installed. It has been restored and is on display at the Oyster and Maritime Museum in Chincoteague, on load from the U.S. Coast Guard.
Although you may think that the historic lighthouse has always had its unique red and white bands, they were added more recently in 1969. Prior to that, the lighthouse was a natural red brick color.
The U.S. Coast Guard transferred ownership to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in 2004 via the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Act of 2000. The act makes lighthouses available to a qualifying non-profit agency. An organization associated with the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge called the Chincoteague Natural History Association began opening the lighthouse regularly to visitors and earmarked the climbing fees for restoration.
In 2006, a part of the cast iron lantern deck broke free and fell. As a precaution, the Chincoteague Natural History Association stopped allowing people on the balcony, but still allowed them to climb the spiral staircase and look out windows atop the tower.
The tower underwent $1.5 million restoration in 2008, with the work carried out by International Chimney Corporation, the same group that had moved many lighthouses including Cape Hatteras in North Carolina and Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Another company well versed in lighthouse restoration, Campbell Construction Group, was also brought in to help with the work.
The restoration was comprehensive and included repairing or replacing most of the metal work on the lighthouse. Other tasks included repairing brickwork around the supports, replacing damaged glass panes in the lantern, and the stripping the exterior paint off. Although the thoughts of leaving the tower a natural red brick color were entertained, the group decided to put the stripes back on as that is how most people know it.
The restoration was completed in September of 2013. The funds for the restoration came from the Chincoteague Natural History Association, donations, and grants.
Directions: From Route 13 in Virginia, follow Route 175 east to Chincoteague Island. Once onto Chincoteague Island, follow Maddox Boulevard to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. There will be a parking area with a trail leading to the lighthouse.
Access: The lighthouse and grounds are open in season. The lighthouse is owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.View more Assateague Lighthouse pictures