Digest>Archives> January 2003

The House That Leaked

By Richard Clayton


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Very near the shipping lanes in the Delaware River was a place of shallow water that was called the Brandywine Shoal (an elevation of land coming close to but not above the surface of the water). The Delaware River was the only outlet to the ocean for the busy port of Philadelphia, where many colonial ships had their bottoms ripped open when they struck the Brandywine sandbar. The Chesapeake Bay and the Delaware River were notorious for quick heavy fog and northeaster storms, so for the protection of the early mariners, a lightship was placed on this treacherous part of the river in 1823. In the early 1800’s, the lighthouse service was a part of the Treasury Department. The penny-pinching Fifth Auditor, Stephen Pleasanton, oversaw the construction and maintenance of America’s lighthouses. Fortunately, by the late 1840’s, a plan was before Congress to form a Lighthouse Board that would replace Mr. Pleasanton’s control of the budgets for navigational aids. The “screw-pile” tower was the invention of Alexander Mitchell, an engineer from Ireland who patented his idea in the 1830s. The “screw-pile” lighthouse was a lightweight, wooden tower on iron stilts, the legs of which were tipped with cork-screw-like flanges, hence its name. These legs were turned into the soft ground that permitted the construction of lighthouses on sites too soft to support the weight of a heavy tower.

The first “screw-pile” lighthouse built in the United States was the Brandywine Shoal Light on the Delaware River. It stood 46 feet above sea level and guided mariners with a third-order light. It was, also, one of the first three lighthouses in the U.S. to have a Fresnel lens. To protect the structure from destructive ice floes, construction crews dumped broken stone around the foundation and added an outer “fence” of piles. This concept proved a success, and the building stood up to storms and ice for more than sixty years. Thus, it was referred to as a “protected” light station. The construction was completed in 1850 and was now ready for human habitation. William Legg was appointed as the first keeper and arrived at the station on October 22nd. His first entry in the logbook read: “I arrived here this morning by assistance of Uncle John John. Captain Honeywell in charge of the schooner Lieutenant Meade left here about 4PM for Philadelphia and left me in charge of this station with William Evans and Cornelius Mosely to assist me in the duties of the station.” The three men began getting acquainted as they stored the supplies of oil and rations. Mr. Legg was assigning duties each day and they had barely been at the lighthouse for two weeks before all hell broke loose. Mr. Legg’s entry of November 8, ‘50: “Notwithstanding, we have now a stiff breeze and we also had a stiff breeze last night. This morning we have a large sea. Our stove smokes so that we have just now at 7 A.M. had to put out the fire. Between the smoke and gas from the stove and attending the lamp during the night, I have not slept any during the night.

10.30 A.M.: Gale from east-northeast with a heavy sea. The house shakes more than I expected it would with the wind. The sea is not very high.

12 noon: The high water is now about over. Wind blowing a hard gale from northeast. Hard rain and heavy sea. House shakes considerably so as to have stopped my clock. I now suppose it is 2 P.M. The stove is smoking so that we have been under the necessity to put out the fire. The windows of this house all leak more or less and the rain beats at the door. To enable us to have a fire to look into the ensuing night, I have had the stove moved into the front room and run the pipe out at the SW window. The house is wet in every room, even wet in the lantern room and water is standing on the lower platform around the house an inch deep. This I may with propriety set down as an unpleasant day and a prospect of a dreary night ahead. Our quarters are all wet and the stove smokes so that we shall have to do without a fire tonight.”

The next day blew a hard gale with lots of rain and a thick fog. None of the keepers slept all night. The warmth of the light fogged over the inside windows of the tower and they were continuously wiping them dry through the night. Mr. Legg noted that this rain reminded him of a similar storm back in 1831 when he was at the Cape Henlopen Light. (This would indicate that he had been in the lighthouse service over twenty years prior to his appointment to the Brandywine Shoals Light.) This November storm lasted a full week. On November 16, ‘50, Mr. Legg made this discovery:

“On examining the building for leaks I discover that the seams under the molding that secure the bottom of the panes of glass in the lantern were open so that a knife would enter freely. Also, I find that the seams in the walls in the house, about at the second floor, were considerably open and in particular the joint around the house. Those joints had never been stopped since the house had been built and must, from my opinion, been a great neglect in the building mechanic. Today in the fore noon, the three of us have been engaged in stopping those seams, the best we can, with putty.” Mr. Pleasanton, the Fifth Auditor, was very proud of the fact that the total bill for the construction of the Brandywine Shoal Lighthouse came to a modest $53,317.00. However, the bad news was that the living quarters for the keeper and his two able assistants were abominable.

It is safe to say that the construction of the keeper’s house went to the lowest bidder who cut corners in building it. Consequently, the house leaked like a sieve. The good news is that men of vision, such as Major Hartman Bache and Lt. George Meade took an idea from an English lighthouse and solved a difficult problem in the Delaware River at Brandywine Shoals.

By 1875, from Chesapeake Bay all the way down to the Middle Bay Light in Mobile, Alabama, over a hundred other “screw-pile” lighthouses were patterned after the Brandywine Shoals Lighthouse. Also, it pioneered the use of a Fresnel lens that soon became the apparatus of choice in almost every lighthouse in America.

For additional information, I would recommend that you read these books about screw-pile lighthouse construction and the Brandywine Shoals Light: Anatomy of the Lighthouse by Michael J. Rheim; Lost Lighthouses by Tim Harrison and Ray Jones.

This story appeared in the January 2003 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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