My wife and recently took a trip to Virginia Beach. To get a break in our driving before crossing the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, we made a detour to view the Assateague Island Lighthouse located within The Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. Other than the lighthouse, the most outstanding feature of the area would be the wild ponies on the Refuge. While we were not fortunate enough to see the wild ponies, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the lighthouse.
The distinctive red and white striped structure looms 147 feet above sea level. While we found it to be badly in need of paint, we were assured that it was scheduled for restoration next spring. While times have changed both the lighthouse and the island, the Assateague Island Lighthouse continues to be a constant reminder of days gone by. I would highly recommend it as a prime destination for any lighthouse lover who happens through the area.
Before 1833 there were no guiding beacons along the stretch of Atlantic Coast between Cape Henlopen, where a lighthouse marked the southern entrance to Delaware Bay, and Cape Charles, where a lighthouse marked the northern entrance to Chesapeake Bay. As coastal commerce blossomed, shipwrecks piled up on the many shoals that plagued the coasts of Delaware and Virginia. In 1830, Congress appropriated money for a lighthouse halfway between Chesapeake Bay and Delaware Bay. The beacon was intended for the general vicinity of the Island of Chincoteague, and in 1832 the Customs Collector in Norfolk narrowed the site down to Assateague Island. The next year the lighthouse’s Argand lamp system was first lit for the aid of mariners. This arrangement comprised eleven oil lamps hung together on a frame, each with its own reflector. Combined with the tower’s low 45-foot height, however, the lamps proved inadequate as a coastal beacon.
Acknowledging the continued danger along the coast, the Lighthouse Board included Assateague Island Lighthouse in its energetic campaign, launched in the late 1850s, to repair and upgrade deficient lighthouses and lightships. Their plan for Assateague called for a new tall brick tower and work was begun to this effect in 1860. The outbreak of the Civil War, however, soon interrupted the project, and work on the tower did not resume until 1866.
On October 1st of 1867 the much taller lighthouse was put into operation, and it remains standing today at a height of 139 feet. Its stature is accentuated by it position atop a bluff, which is itself 31 feet above the mean low water mark. Built of red brick, the conical tower with a 27 ½ foot base received its distinctive candy cane striping of alternating red and white bands in 1963. Of the Virginia lighthouses, only the daymark at New Cape Henry, with its stark alternating black and white rectangles, rivals Assateague for panache. Obviously striking as a daymark, the island light was also endowed with a first-order Fresnel Lens, which combined with the tower’s great height to render the light visible from up to nineteen miles at sea.
The tower and accompanying one-story, rectangular entrance are built on a twelve-foot deep stone and concrete foundation. The exterior wall at the base is 28 inches thick, while the interior wall is seventeen inches thick. Iron braces are used throughout the tower’s height to add strength and stability, and a cast-iron spiral staircase with six independent landings ascends to the lantern room. On these landings, four north-facing and three south-facing windows light the interior.
A large keepers’ dwelling was constructed in 1867 consisting of three enormous sections each capable of housing an entire family. Each section contained a pantry, kitchen, dining and living rooms, three bedrooms and a bathroom. The house was surrounded by blooming forsythia bushes and daffodils in spring, and in the summer white and purple lilacs were in abundance. A brick oil house also adorned the grounds; it measured fourteen by eighteen feet and was used to store batteries and supplies after oil became obsolete. Today a small concrete bungalow, built in 1910 for an additional keeper, is the only remaining original structure besides the lighthouse. This dwelling is located south of the tower and is now used to house volunteers and interns at the island’s wildlife refuge.
Assateague’s lantern room is cylindrical and nearly 12 feet in diameter. At the very apex of the lighthouse is a brass lightning rod, with a platinum tip, positioned atop the copper ventilator ball. In 1933 electricity replaced oil as the means of illumination; three 100-watt bulbs produced the flashing electric light. An on-site generator was run for about fifteen hours per week to charge the batteries that powered the light. This situation continued until 1963, when power lines were first run to Assateague Island. At this time a directional coded beacon (DCB) was installed. In 1973, this was replaced by a similar beacon with a light characteristic of a double-flash every five seconds. This effect was produced by two revolving drums, one stacked above the other, with an angle of twelve degrees separating the beams of light produced by 1000-watt bulbs. A Daylight Control Monitoring System turns on the lamp at sunset and extinguishes it each morning.
In 1891, the presidential yacht Dispatch ran aground 75 yards offshore from Assateague Island. A 730 ton schooner-rigged steamship, the Dispatch was charged with ferrying high government officials from Washington D.C. to various ports of call. At three a.m. on October 10 it was returning from a trip to New York City, when it became grounded on the sandbars. There were no fatalities, but the yacht, which had faithfully served Presidents Hayes, Garfield, Arthur and Cleveland, as well as then president Benjamin Harrison, was irreparably damaged.
Often situated on wave-swept shorelines, coastal lighthouses are frequently threatened by the encroaching sea. At Assateague Island, however, the opposite is actually true; the southern tip of the island, known as Tom’s Grove Hook, is being slowly built up by currents depositing vast amounts of sand. Most of the Hook did not even exist before the twentieth century, and at one time the lighthouse stood much nearer to the shore. The island has actually grown in size by about five miles since it was first selected as the site for the lighthouse.
Located nearby on Chincoteague Island is the Chincoteague Island Museum (formerly known as the Oyster and Maritime Museum), which was involved in a small controversy with the U.S. Lighthouse Society over the lens from the Assateague Lighthouse. For years, the tower’s large and shimmering first-order Fresnel lens had been exhibited at the base of the tower. This was great for the tourists, but not so good for the lens as it was protected with only a chicken wire fence and was exposed to the elements and stone-hurling vandals. Dismayed at these conditions, the Society, after sending numerous letters and inquiries, learned that the lens was under the care of the museum. The lens had been donated to the museum in 1975 by the Virginia Historical Society, who had first received it from the Coast Guard in 1961. Responding to the complaints, the museum promptly covered the lens with a sturdy wooden box and ultimately relocated it to their museum.
Directions: From Route 13 on Virginia's eastern shore, about four miles south of the Virginia-Maryland state line, take Route 175 east to Chincoteague Island. Immediately after reaching the island, turn left on Main Street and then right on Maddox Boulevard. Continue straight on Maddox Boulevard, which will take you to the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge. The trail to the lighthouse will be on your right about a half mile after entering the refuge. Pets are not allowed on Assateague Island, even if kept in a vehicle.