Sunday, June 12, 2016

A Recycled Lighthouse

The U.S. Bureau of Lighthouse began publishing the Lighthouse Service Bulletin in 1912. It was an internal publication, devised by the forward-thinking and personable commissioner of the service, George Putnam, and aimed at informing employees of the news and accomplishments of the lighthouse service. But Putnam's primary goal was to increase camaraderie and give voice to the solicitous and benevolent work of his employees.

The bulletin continued in publication until 1939 when the lighthouse service was transferred to the U.S. Coast Guard. Stories ran the gamut from new construction to brave rescues to recipes to instructional pieces to superlatives and curiosities, and more.

The monthly issues, archived at various museums and nonprofits, have always fascinated me and provided grist for my articles and books. I enjoy spending time just perusing each issue to discover something new about the old lighthouse service and its people.

Below is an entry from June 1921 telling about the relocation of a lighthouse from Virginia to Maryland. The recent move of Sankaty Lighthouse out of danger from erosion, captured a great deal of media attention. "Imagine that!" a newscaster reported on our local news. "Moving a big lighthouse!" It might surprise you to know this is nothing new. Block Island Lighthouse, Nauset Lighthouse, and Cape Hatteras Lighthouse are among a few sentinels that have been relocated in recent years. But in the mid-to-late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, lighthouses were moved as a matter of course. Some of their designs were devised for that purpose. In 1921, the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse in Virginia was moved north to the Choptank River entrance in Maryland. Read the Lighthouse Service Bulletin report about it--

The moving of a lighthouse intact with all the furniture in place a distance of more than 70 miles over the waters of Chesapeake Bay was completed recently when the structure was shifted from its scow to its new foundation at the mouth of the Choptank River.

This lighthouse was formerly located on Cherrystone Bar, near Cape Charles City [shown above], and was replaced in 1919 by the first automatic light station, fog signal, and bell to be established in this country. The building was placed on a lighter and taken to Cape Charles City on December 15, where it remained until April 1, when it was towed up the bay to its new location. The keeper, Walter S. Hudgins, who had all of his personal belongings in the building, continued to live in the structure. He even made the trip up the bay with it.

The light is expected to be placed in commission on July 1 and will be a white light with red sectors showing other dangerous waters.

The old Cherrystone Bar Light as it looked after being moved to the entrance of the Choptank River. This image, and the one above, courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Several things about this event strike me as unusual. First, the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse, a screwpile light pictured above, was moved in winter, a time when ice often covered parts of the Chesapeake Bay and the weather was difficult. The lighthouse had to be sawed off its foundation and lifted onto a barge. The meddle of the men of the lighthouse service should never be underestimated!

I'm also amazed, and amused, by the fact that Keeper Hudgins' belongings and furniture remained in the lighthouse as it was lifted from its original foundation, moved, and placed on a new foundation. A crane was used for the lifting onto the barge and the placement on the new foundation. I can imagine the crane operator being extra careful to not jostle the lighthouse too much. I also know, from years of living in the Chesapeake region, that the Chesapeake Bay can be rough in winter. Can you picture the barge hauling the lighthouse while being rocked in the waves. Perhaps Keeper Hudgins sat inside drinking a cup of coffee??!! Did he sleep soundly as his home was conveyed up the bay? Did he wind up his Victrola and dance around on the lighthouse floor? If he had a chicken coop underneath his lighthouse, was it also taken aboard the barge and shipped north?

Finally, I note that the light placed on the Cherrystone Bar after the screwpile lighthouse was removed and relocated is listed as being "the first automatic" light and fog signal in the nation. That's a benchmark on the history of U.S. navigational aids. It was also the advent of the ugly light, a fact not lost on the public. People often objected to the replacement of a traditional and beautiful old light with a skeleton tower.

One thing is certain: Few lightkeepers had such an experience, being transferred from one light station to another in this unusual way! And we should recognize that the old lighthouse service was not only creative and innovative, but also determined  and penurious. Why build a new lighthouse when there's an old one to be recycled?

The Cherrystone-moved-to-Choptank lighthouse was destroyed by storms years ago. Today, a replica of it stands near the bridge at Cambridge, Maryland. It's open to the public. Go visit!

The replica of the Cherrystone Bar-Choptank River lighthouses, by Brian Wallace.

Here's a Coast Guard photo of the automatic light and bell light that replaced the Cherrystone Bar screwpile lighthouse. No wonder the public was disenchanted. It resembles a huge sparkplug rising from the bay. But such is progress...not always pretty. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Coast Guard.


  1. This is such and fun and excellent article, Elinor! I am so struck by the image of the lighthouse moving along through the waves with all its furniture and the keeper inside. It's very inspiring to think of the bravery and resourcefulness of the Lighthouse men and women. I, too, can see why people prefer the picturesque lighthouses, but in those times it was all business, and a very important one. Thanks for the very interesting article!

  2. Thanks, Linda. This story is very much like Dorothy flying through the sky in her house during the tornado in "The Wizard of Oz." It wasn't always easy being a lighthouse keeper!


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