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
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
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’
Examples include: Thomas
Point Shoals Light, Drum
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
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
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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