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Home > About the Chesapeake > Exploring the Bay > Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses > Lighthouses: Form Followed Function
Lighthouses: Form Followed Function

When it comes to lighthouses, a journey around the Bay is not just an adventure—it’s an education in architectural ingenuity, with conditions in a given location determining which style would be built.

Towers and Cottages
Concord Point The earliest Chesapeake lighthouses - usually towers of stone or glazed brick - were placed on land near the shoreline so passing ships could see them. In some cases, the beacon was a lantern enclosed in a turretlike structure on the roof of a humble cottage. In others, small, easy-to-build wood-frame towers held the lamp and little else. Tower lights had drawbacks: shore erosion could quickly undermine foundations and the elements damaged even iron-plated brick walls. And land-based lights often were of little use in marking shoals—the Bay’s most common threat to shipping. By the mid-1800s this problem would be solved by a curious-looking British innovation, the screwpile lighthouse.

Examples include: Concord Point, Jones Point

Screwpiles—Chesapeake Classics
Thomas Point Shoals LightTo many people, the squat, leggy, and altogether charming screwpile lighthouse is synonymous with the Chesapeake Bay. Like giant waterbugs, screwpile lighthouses were placed atop angled, iron legs screwed into the Bay’s soft bottom. Rip-rap was piled around the legs as protection, and the moorings were usually capped with a two-story, hexagonal or octagonal wood-frame keeper’s cottage with the light perched on top. Situated offshore at the mouths of rivers or on shoals where passing ships could see their light signals or hear their fog bells, forty-two of the lights were built on the Bay between 1854 and 1900. Experience would show that the screwpile design worked best where geography or manmade barriers buffered the structures from ice, strong currents, and the Bay’s powerful winds. For more exposed locations, another innovation—the caisson lighthouse—proved to be the most reliable answer to mariners’ needs.

Examples include: Thomas Point Shoals Light, Drum Point

Caisson Lights—Built to Last
Sandy Point ShoalThe Bay’s sturdiest lighthouses, a dozen caisson lights built between 1873 and 1914 were designed to endure the challenges of wind and weather in open water—and meet the needs of a burgeoning traffic in large ships through the Bay’s deepest channels. These heavy, cylindrical, cast-iron towers rose on foundations that were sunk deep into the bottom. Once the caisson had been towed to its service location and carefully leveled, the hollow interior was filled with cement and large stones. A multilstory tower of iron or brick built atop it included the keeper’s quarters and a lantern room. With time, caisson lights replaced several ice-crushed screwpile lighthouses; all of these rugged structures remain standing and in active use today.

Examples include: Sandy Point Shoal, Newport News Middle Ground

Chesapeake Light Tower Skeletal Lights
The Bay is home to several so-called “skeletal” lights. With open frameworks of iron or steel girders, skeletal lights call up images of electrical towers or oil derricks. An economical alternative to more elaborate types of construction, skeletal lights have been used successfully in the Bay both onshore and in open water.

Examples include: Craighill Channell Lower Range, Chesapeake Light Tower

Lightships
Chesapeake LightshipAn early alternative for guiding Bay mariners was the lightship or “floating light.” Despite their ungainly design—the first ones were full-bodied, wooden sail-powered vessels that tossed and rolled in heavy seas—these ships could be moored in deep water or over treacherous, shifting shoals where no lighthouse could long survive, and they could be moved as conditions warranted. Starting in 1820, a handful of lightships began marking dangerous shoals in the Bay, and more were added later to replace lighthouses destroyed by Confederate forces during the Civil War. As with lighthouses, lightship design evolved over time. By the twentieth century, they had become sleek, seaworthy vessels equipped with advanced illumination and radio equipment and powerful foghorns. Lightships served as valuable navigation aids in the Chesapeake Bay until the 1960s.

Example includes: Lightship 116, Chesapeake

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