One of the most important lighthouses in the Chesapeake Bay was called the “Bug Light” by early seafarers. This lighthouse directs super naval carriers, commercial tankers, freighters and even tall ships into one of the deepest ports in the world. The “World’s Greatest Harbor,” as Hampton Roads is called, has dry docks in which the building, outfitting, overhauling and repair of commercial and naval vessels takes place. The Atlantic section of the Intracoastal Waterway from Boston to Miami follows this main Norfolk Harbor Channel through the port of Hampton Roads. The “bug light” is on a busy waterway.
The official name of the “Bug Light” is the Thimble Shoal Lighthouse. This unusual name came to be in 1872, when the original hexagonal wooden cottage was built on a screw pile foundation. Local watermen said it resembled a bug perched on the water. This much-needed lighthouse had replaced a lightship. In 1880 the house was destroyed by fire. Divers were able to recover the optics, a fourth order Fresnel lens which was reused when a new cottage was built on the old screwpile foundation in the short span of 55 days.
This structure lasted until 8:30 a.m. on December 27, 1909 when a tugboat, the John Twohy, Jr., attempted to tow the schooner Malcolm Baxter, Jr. past the lighthouse and into the port of Norfolk, Virginia.
As they passed the “Tail of the Horseshoe” shoal the crew on the Baxter began taking in sails. There was about 450 feet of towline between the two vessels. When it became obvious the Baxter was not going to clear the lighthouse, the tug dropped its towing hawser. The Baxter drifted toward Thimble Shoal Light.
Suddenly with a loud crash, Keeper Hudgins and his two assistants, who sat near a small coal-burning stove in the lighthouse, saw the bow spring and prow of a ship pushing through the wall of their living quarters. They started for the outside door as the floor split open and toppled the hot stove. When the hot coals touched the oil-soaked floor the lighthouse caught on fire. Keeper Hudgins, J. B. Thomas and T. L. Faucher escaped in a small rowboat, as the lighthouse became a flaming torch. The massive bow of the schooner continued to ram itself farther into the lighthouse as men on the Baxter attempted to free the ship before it could catch on fire. Soon the seas and winds pushed the ship past the lighthouse without further damage.
With the schooner away from the flaming lighthouse, the crewmembers on the tug were able to secure the Malcolm Baxter, Jr. again. A navy cruiser that had been anchored in Hampton Roads picked up the light keepers. As they watched the lighthouse burn, a crowd began to gather on the shore as well. After the fire, only twisted iron marked the shoal. Remains of the old screw pile foundation next to the present lighthouse could be seen until a few years ago.
This bad luck lighthouse had been rammed at least twice before this incident; in 1891 by a steamer and in 1898 by a coal barge. The federal government replaced the lighthouse in 1914 with a cast iron and concrete caisson, which also took on the name of “bug light.” The caisson was built nearby in the Berkley section of Norfolk, taken out and sunk in place.
During World War II, when the Coast Artillery Corps was stationed at nearby Fort Monroe, the light was still called the “bug light” by thousands of soldiers. At the first ray of sun each day and again at dusk, every gun in the harbor was pointed at the “bug light” as the soldiers checked their orientation. That was a lot of firepower trained on a bug!
“The Thimble” as it is sometimes called, is the only remaining Chesapeake Bay caisson-type lighthouse that still has its first level gallery roof. It has three stories and a basement. It serves as an active aid to navigation and also has a foghorn. Automated in 1964, the signal flashes a white light every two and a half seconds. When it was automated the inside of the lighthouse was gutted because, like most of the other Chesapeake Bay lights, it no longer needed a crew to live on the location.
This strong heavy lighthouse has remained accident free since it was sunk on the shoal. After the war the guns at Fort Monroe were removed and Thimble Shoal slowly lost its name of the “Bug Light.”
This story appeared in the
April 2002 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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