Chincoteague Natural History Association is raising money for the lighthouse to be painted. Many renovations were done in 2010/2011 to preserve the integrity of the structure. The last project, which is very coastly, is the painting. It is last because it is for aesthetics and not for the actual preservation of the building. It should be painted within the year is what I last heard. The lighthouse tours, grants, and fundraisers along with the tours are providing the funds for the lighthouse repairs and painting.
The History of the Assateague Lighthouse
By Wilma Young
On May 31, 1831, Conway Whittle of Norfolk, VA wrote to W. J. Curtis, the Collector of Customs, Drummondtown, VA; requesting a pilot familiar with the navigation of Chincoteague Inlet in order that said pilot might meet Whittle’s craft to lead such a craft to the Chincoteague Islands “for the purpose of selecting a site for the lighthouse”. He also requested Mr. Curtis “to make the best bargain for me you can, either by the day or by the job”.
His trip was necessary – even urgent – because there was a scarcity of lighthouses south of Delaware. As early as 1825 there had been concern over the desperate need for a seacoast light between Cape Charles, VA and Cape Henlopen, DE. The general plan was to have a lighthouse every 40 miles as each light was visible for 19 to 22 miles. Congress appropriated money for a light on Assateague in 1831 and the Collector of Customs agreed to the location the following year.
Stephen Pleasonton, the Treasury’s fifth auditor of lighthouses advertised for a contractor to build the lighthouse. Pleasonton was known to be an excellent man with the budget but had a reputation of cutting corners to the detriment on any project he controlled. the lowest bidder was Noah Porter from Massachusetts. Porter agreed to build the lighthouse and keepers quarters for $4000 and outfit the quarters for $400. Congress appropriated $7500 on March 3, 1831 for the building of the lighthouse. The tower was built on sand hills on a plot formerly owned by John, Charlotte and Lauretta Winder. the date of the deed was May 4, 1832 and the original cost was $333.34 for 50 acres. There is a reference in Bearrs report the J. M. Winder also received $106.66 on behalf of Susan Winder. The 40 foot lighthouse was never satisfactory to mariners who depended on the light. It was too low and too poorly illuminated to warn ships of the dangerous shoals protruding from the coast.
Lillian Mears Rew wrote in her book Assateague and Chincoteague as I Remember Them that a “standard plunger lamp with five burners to each lamp used after the candle light method”. When the Lighthouse Board was formed in 1852, they evaluated the lighthouse and described the illumination as being “an Argand lamp with 11 small oil lamps being on a frame, each with its own individual reflector”.
The Lighthouse Board came into existence in 1852, taking over a haphazard system. The buildings were poorly maintained and the keepers inadequately trained. The Lighthouse Board was comprised of military personnel who demanded competent, dedicated workers. They set up standards for both keepers and buildings.
In regards to the Assateague Lighthouse, the board insisted it was “the duty of the government to cause is to be increased to power and range to the rank of the first class sea light – without delay. $50000 was appropriated on June 20, 1860, eight years after the decision was made to improve the facililty.
The following year a crew was hired and $3108 was expanded to select a site, construct a wharf, build a plank road from the landing to the site and erect quarters for the labor force.
At the end the of the Civil War the Lighthouse Board stated there had been “increased dilapidation”.
The project engineer was G. Castor Smith, acting engineer of the 4th Lighthouse district. The work was resumed in 1865 at which time Smith discovered that the $50000 voted by Congress five years before was “insufficient”. On July 28, 1886 Congress voted $25000 more.
The structure and roadway built in 1861 had decayed and were repaired. The old tower was razed, new foundations were laid the present tower rests on a foundation of stone masonry 10 feet thick. By Sept. 1, the brick tower was 37 feet high.
Brick was brought in by boat and brought to the crest of the ridge in carts pulled by oxen. Oyster shells were burned to provide lime for the building.
The tower was at 95 feet by Dec. 13 at which time work was stopped for the winter and a watchman was left in charge.
On March 1, 1867 construction began again – and the tower was completed by the end of summer. The illuminating apparatus was adjusted and the light from the new Assateague Lighthouse first shone over the channel on Oct. 1, 1867. The lens was a first order Fresnel lens, enabling mariners to see it from a distance of 19 miles. The tower is 142 feet high and stands on a sand hill 22 feet above mean highwater, making the focal plane 154 feet above sea level. The first fuel was oil.
In 1867 the lantern the lantern glass had to be protected by wire gauge screens against wild fowl.
The brass plate was put up over the lighthouse door in 1868. Brick walks from house to tower were replaced with planks in 1880, the bricks being used to pave the tower.
In 1885 a new plank wall was laid and a new pump was place in the keeper’s kitchen.
1889 brought a new well, described variously as dug or drilled. A new three-call bell was replaced in the tower with connection to the living quarters. The hurricane of 1889 wrecked the station’s wharf; it was replaced but needed repairs the following year.
The Lighthouse Board took advantage of the appropriation for National Defense voted by Congress in 1898 to prepare for war with Spain – and voted for a phone in the keepers quarters to be connected to the Assateague Life Saving Station, 1 and 1/8 south of the lighthouse.
In 1891 an inspector from the board deemed the keepers quarters inadequate. “The assistant keepers are living at the 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 workers in cities. It is estimated that suitable quarters for the keeper can be erected for $4000 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”. The request was denied by Congress so the building was remodeled into three six-room apartments.
The brick oil house was erected in 1892 – 14 X 16 feet. A frame barn was rebuilt. the statement of appropriations does not indicate the original building nor its cost, however in a questionnaire dated Oct. 30, 1929 covering government owned real estate, we find this item: “Describe briefly and generally the improvements on land, such as buildings and other structures with uses:
1 Lighthouse @ $95000.00
1 Oil house @ $750.00
1 Dwelling @ $12200.00
1 Barn @ $400.00
We must then assume the barn still existed in 1929.
In 1900 “280 ornamental shrubs were planted on the hill” and “an inch and a quarter driven well was sunk 26′ in the rear of dwelling 2″. Mrs. Dennis Holland, wife of former refuge manager reports that metal stains once went down the hillside. An outside toilet was situated below that site, across the residence drive.
In 1902, 100 additional trees and shrubs were added and “some additional seeds were furnished for use on the grounds”.
Frames for the ruby glass for the red sector were made, and on Feb. 20, 1907 the red sector was exhibited for the first time. This was for demarcation of an especially dangerous area.
In 1910 a masonry house was built for the lighthouse keeper. It was built under the contract from the Dept. of Commerce by a firm from either Philadelphia or Delaware in 1909-1910.
Mr. and Mrs. William Collins moved into this house in 1910, living in it until 1929. Mrs. Collins was employed as a teacher. Their three children were born in the house, Ada Elizabeth in June 1911, Margaret on July 18, 1913 and Ruth on Jan. 23, 1917. They moved to Smith Island in 1933 daughter Ruth and her grand-daughter (Ruth’s daughter). Mrs. Holland (wife of Dennis) reports that they were living in the house at the time of Mrs. Collins visit. Mrs. Collins was unable to go up to the stars into the house and refused assistance when an offer was made to carry her into the house. Ruth remembered that when she and her sisters were very young they accompanied their mother; by boat to a platform lighthouse in Black Narrows. Sometimes they kept house there for a couple weeks in summertime.
In 1968 the regional supervisor of the U.S.F. & W. suggested that modifications to the lighthouse would have to be made if it were to be suitable for public admittance. These modifications would require expenditure of $54,600. Inflation is evident as the expenditure on the site from 1879 to 1882 had been $82,800 including purchase, construction, and repairs.
A generator was used to operate the light beginning in 1933. This was a flashing electric light, using three 100 watt light bulbs. The staff could then be reduced so the large dwelling was no longer required and was sold and dismantled.
After the bridge was built, in 1963 electric lines came to Assateague. A rotating beacon was installed, another beacon replacing that one in 1970. This light is the one presently in the tower. It consists of 2 drums- each with a 1000 watt lamp with special reflectors. The flash pattern is a double flash every 5 seconds.
Lillian Mears Rew writes that the keepers quarters was built in 1867 “consisting of three large sections large enough to house three families regardless of the size of each family.” The large home was located “on a very high hill” (one wonders; how high as the present structure is only 22 feet above sea level and only the hill where law enforcements’ residence were built any higher.) To the south of the lighthouse she describes a “cement and brick structure” having been built for Mr. William Collins, the lighthouse keeper.
She reports that William Parker (an African-American man) “was briefly a keeper at Assateague but soon transferred to Killock Shoals on Chincoteague Bay.
The large keepers house was built in 1867 and dismantled and sold in 1933 as there was no longer a need for so many keepers as the light was automated.
There is evidence of an earlier dwelling-note picture of 1833 lighthouse with “keepers house”. There is a note in files at H.Q. that a bungalow was “sold to Geo Kilsner in 1929 for a Hunt Club. Later sold to Monrone.”
Was this the first keepers house- the picture of which appears in “Virginia’s Eastern Shore”-or are they referring to the large house dismantled in 1933″?
These facts can probably be ascertained only by checking records of deeds and transfers at the Accomack County Court House.
A set of steps leads from the northwest corner of the 1910 built house down the hill towards Assateague Village. One note says this was the set of steps from the “main keepers house”.