Digest>Archives> September 2008

Lost Lighthouse Survives In More Ways Than One

By Steve Okonek

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The original Tangier Sound Lighthouse built in ...

Tangier Island isn’t about to let its historic screw pile lighthouse, demolished by the Coast Guard in 1961, become forgotten. Scale reminders of the iconic beacon, awaiting input from residents and tourists alike, are scattered all about the island as Amish-crafted trash containers.

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The Virginia island, only about a dozen miles from the Maryland Eastern Shore, serves as kind of time warp from the rest of the Chesapeake Bay. Only a mile wide and three miles long, it consists of six ridges of land rising only slightly above the cord grass and mudflats. Three of the ridges, linked only by narrow bridges, are home to the island’s approximately 600 inhabitants, many of whom work the bay. Automobiles are extremely rare with golf carts and bicycles being the preferred modes of transit. Access is only by plane or boat, and several ferries from the mainland bring supplies for the residents along with visitors to enjoy its noteworthy seafood restaurants.

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Fresh from repair, Tangier Lighthouse trash ...
Photo by: Steve Okonek

This year marks the 400th anniversary of its “discovery” by John Smith, and its brand new museum, dedicated in June, features numerous exhibits on its legendary fishing history as well as the original lighthouse. While its population has declined steadily over the years, it continues as a major national supplier of oysters and soft shell crab.

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The cupola from the original Tangier Lighthouse ...
Photo by: Steve Okonek

“We wanted something whimsical, functional and unique to the island,” says Neil Kaye, a forensic psychiatrist who chairs the museum committee. “I often see photos of them posted on the Internet,” he adds, “and hopefully their unusual and fun shape makes them more prone to use than everyday trash cans.” Kaye and his wife Susan, a pathologist, split time between their homes in Delaware and on Tangier Island. Kaye, who flies a helicopter as a hobby, stopped on the island to visit years ago, and became fascinated with it. Besides spearheading much of the museum fundraising, he volunteers as an Angel Flight pilot, delivering island residents to mainland doctors and hospitals. He’s won a wealth of awards for his work including the Delaware Pilot of the Year and the Virginia Governor’s Volunteerism and Community Service Award.

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A concrete slab and blockhouse sits atop the ...
Photo by: Steve Okonek

“We toyed with the idea of building a replica of the lighthouse as a museum and visitor center,” Kaye recalls, “but the expense and the limited museum display space precluded it.” Nevertheless, the lighthouse serves as one of the museum’s icons.

Kaye is proud of the sturdy construction of the units, noting that they survived both hurricanes Ernesto and Isabel. “We saw them floating about,” he said, noting that because Tangier Island is barely above sea level, any storm of consequence can wreak havoc that would go relatively unnoticed on the mainland. “Their durability gave them lots of credibility amongst the island residents,” he adds. There are now about two dozen on the island, and the more recent ones have been designed with more composite materials to allow color impregnation instead of frequent repainting.

Unlike the bay’s numerous caisson-style towers, the unusual Chesapeake screw pile lights have been a vanishing act. Today, only Thomas Point Lighthouse, near Annapolis, remains in its original bay location. Several others - Drum Point at the Calvert Marine Museum; Hooper Straight Lighthouse at St. Michael’s Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum; and Seven-Foot Knoll in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor - have been meticulously restored but are located far from their original locations. The vast majority, like the Tangier beacon, met their demise either during the breaking of winter ice packs or later when the Coast Guard found the wooden cottages atop the iron pilings too difficult to maintain. Dredging of new channels made some of the screw pile lighthouses obsolete and others were replaced with skeleton steel towers with lights.

The original Tangier Lighthouse was built in 1890, one of the newer Chesapeake screw pile beacons at the time. The Northeast had virtually fished out its own oyster beds and the increasing use of early refrigeration coupled with a new railroad line had allowed the Chesapeake to become an attractive new seafood source. Merchants demanded a light be constructed to guide them around a long shoal on the southern end of the island. The screw pile lighthouse was built at a cost of $25,000, and a fixed fourth-order white light was placed in it with red panels facing the shoal.

Two other reminders of the original Tangier beacon remain. The new Tangiers Light, a steel tower, stands on the original platform on which the screw pile light stood. And the cupola from the tower survives as a top for one of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation buildings on adjacent Port Isobel Island.

Kaye hopes the island will be able to do more with the lighthouse as the museum boosts its holdings from the community. He is particularly interested in the February 1905 wreck of the Mary L. Colburn, which ran aground amidst heavy ice. As the ice broke up, the floundering vessel was repeatedly picked up and thrown against the lighthouse pilings, eventually lodging into it and jeopardizing both the structure and its keeper John T. Jarvis. Jarvis was able to keep the light burning until help arrived.

The museum is not the only place to pick up bits of Tangier Lighthouse history. Brian King, whose father was its last lighthouse keeper Earl King, runs Spanky’s Ice Cream Parlor, the closest you’ll get to a nightclub on Tangier Island, where alcohol is not sold.

This story appeared in the September 2008 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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