Newport News Middle Ground Lighthouse, in the busy port of Hampton Roads, Virginia is in the middle of a tight squeeze due to the Coast Guard’s lack of funds and manpower. The priority of the Coast Guard, particularly since 9-11, is the important task of homeland security because of the threat of terrorism. Drug enforcement, marine safety and law enforcement are also part of their duties. This leaves little time, money and manpower to maintain old navigational structures that require constant attention.
Sometime in the future the Coast Guard may have to declare Middle Ground Lighthouse surplus property with the hope that a preservationist group will take on the responsibility of upkeep. However, the red “sparkplug” light is offshore with poor potential for public access. Maintenance costs are higher with the offshore location. The metal structure and salt-water corrosion require constant scraping, sanding and painting.
The harbor of Hampton Roads is one of the world’s busiest ports with several marine terminals and the Newport News Shipbuilding Company, which builds Nimitz Class aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines among other ships. The shipyard is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Across the harbor, Norfolk Naval Base is the homeport for many Navy ships. The marine terminals handle international container cargo as well as coal shipping.
After the opening of the nearby Monitor-Merrimac Bridge-Tunnel in April 1992 the Virginia Pilot Association, those who are responsible for guiding ships into and out of the harbor, asked for changes in the light. It seems the white lighthouse light was blending in with lights from the bridge and coal piers behind it. For the first time in its 109-year history, the light was changed to red and made much brighter.
Middle Ground Lighthouse is on a caisson or large iron tube, 25 feet in diameter that was built on shore and taken to the site. The caisson was sunk to the depth of 34 feet below the surface of the shoal; there it hit clean white sand. About 1000 tons of large rocks were put at the base to stop underwater erosion. The water and mud were pumped out of the caisson and sand and concrete were pumped in to a level nine feet from the top of the tube. In this basement were placed cisterns to collect rainwater from the gallery roof. Gutters with strainers and downspouts delivered the water to the basement. The first floor living quarters consisting of three rooms, a watch room and lantern room was then built.
Middle Ground is the oldest of Virginia’s caisson-type lighthouses (1891). It has a focal plane of 52 feet. Before the light was in operation ships drawing a draft of 24 feet or more would remain at dock overnight so they would not go aground in the dark on the L shaped shoal in the middle of the harbor. The depth around the light is approximately 15 feet.
During the Battle of the Ironclads (Monitor and Merrimac-Civil War), the captain of the Merrimac had to be careful not go aground and thus be at the mercy of the Monitor. Like other lighthouses in busy ports, Middle Ground has had close encounters with ships. On April 21, 1979 it was hit by the tugboat Capt. Jim, knocking off some of the first level decking and causing the caisson foundation to leak. Minor repairs were made in the early 1980’s.
The lighthouse has also been the scene of at least one death. Late on Christmas Day 1938, W.S. Brown was returning to the lighthouse in a rowboat with gifts, food and mail for the other keeper, Captain Cox, and himself. The weather was terrible as freezing rain fell and winds whipped up white caps on the large waves. Several times Brown felt like giving up and letting the boat drift in the wind toward Norfolk.
In the lighthouse, Captain Cox watched as his friend in the small boat fought the elements. He probably thought he had seen it for the last time each time the little boat went down in a trough between tall waves. But Brown stayed the course and as he approached the lighthouse he saw a line thrown out to him. He was able to pull himself and his cargo in to the landing. When the exhausted rower climbed up on the narrow walkway he saw his companion lying on the edge of the planking. It only took a glance by Brown to see that his companion was dead. After a medical examination it was decided that Captain Cox died of a heart attack.
Middle Ground would be a challenge to maintain. However, if it is abandoned and allowed to deteriorate we will lose another historic sentinel of the coast. Soon “sparkplug” caisson type lighthouses will be a memory of the past.
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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