Issue: November 2003
On the Brink

Virginia’s New Point Comfort Lighthouse has endured two centuries’ worth of war and weather, but how much longer can it fend off the Bay itself?

 

For almost as long as it has been standing, the lighthouse at New Point Comfort has had to worry about falling over. Back in 1801, this spot - then on the tip of a 100-acre island marking the northern edge of Mobjack Bay - seemed like a sure enough bet. The clay beneath the sand seemed solid. Two salt ponds protected it on either side, and trees and bushes nearby held the land fast. A scow could deliver building materials and supplies on sheltered water to within 150 yards of the light. Yet by 1814, only 10 years after the lighthouse’s construction, the Chesapeake was licking at its doorstep like a hungry dog. Has been ever since. ¶ The water does not care that this lighthouse is the third oldest still standing on the Bay and among the 10 oldest in the country. The northeasters that shred the Bay in winter could care less that Elzy Burroughs went bankrupt even as he finished the stout tower, still standing as testament to his masonry skill. The hurricanes don’t remember that British soldiers sacked the lighthouse in the War of 1812, that Confederates wrecked it again in hopes that Union ships might run aground without it, that Jerry McHenry Farley, a minister and one of the country’s few African-American lighthouse keepers, found it “a lonely and dreary place,” despite his faith in God and his devotion to the steady flame of the lamps. The fitful water that has been this lighthouse’s lifelong companion has also been its steady predator. Today, a wreath of rock speckled with guano and oyster shells is all that holds it off. The 100 acres, the salt ponds, the trees, the house, the well and vaults for the oil, the soldiers, the keepers - gone. All that’s left are ghosts, birds and water. And the lighthouse.

    “It could tell you somethin’, if it could talk,” says Edward Pritchett, a waterman who has lived all his life in its shadow and believes he is related to Elzy Burroughs on his mother’s side. “Oh, it could.”

    As lighthouses go, New Point Comfort is really rather plain, lacking the quaint architecture of the Bay’s screwpiles, like Thomas Point, or the towering grace of Cape Hatteras. Its beauty lies in its simplicity, and its stoicism.

    It stands 63 feet tall and is shaped like an octagon, wide and thick-walled at the bottom and growing more slender as it rises. It’s made of the same Virginia sandstone quarried for the White House, but in some places where time and weather have worn off the whitewash, the rock is sinuously striped with the yellows, browns and coppers of desert canyons. Staring up the stone spiral staircase leading to the lantern room is like gazing into the elegant symmetry of a chambered nautilus. In 1963 the Coast Guard extinguished New Point Comfort’s light and demoted the lighthouse to a daymarker - the same inglorious status as pressure-treated poles jammed into the mud and topped with a numbered green square or red triangle.

    For 200 years, the lighthouse has always been there, and for the people who live nearby, who have grown up within its sight, that’s enough. “The one thing that everyone agrees on in Mathews County is that lighthouse,” says Marion Grey Trusch. “Everyone loves it.” Marion Grey’s great-grandfather Wesley Ripley (the family called him Big Pa), was a sea captain and a keeper of the light from 1881 to 1883. “My father as a young man used to stay in the house with him and help him keep the light, and my father would say that was the most beautiful thing on a moonlit night, to go up there at night and light that light and see the Chesapeake Bay where it meets the Mobjack Bay. He talked so much about it I almost felt like I was up there with him, and that’s why it’s important to me.”

    Marion Grey, as everyone calls her, was a schoolteacher, but in another life she could have been a lightkeeper. In a way, she is now. Every day the 83-year-old makes the pilgrimage to the lighthouse overlook, a small walkway located in 95 acres of Nature Conservancy preserve. She just likes to see it there, a tall white candle in the distance.

    After the Coast Guard extinguished the light, for the longest time the darkness that remained bothered her - and evidently many others in the low-country communities nearby. The lighthouse needed a lamp, and the locals finally decided they were going to put one there. They formed the Lighthouse Lantern Committee. Marion Grey’s niece Ida Trusch, a graphic designer who camped at the lighthouse as a youngster and holds the memory like the magic of a first kiss, designed a poster of the light. Folks sold it to raise some money - about $3,000 - so the county wouldn’t have to fork over a single cent for the project. A helpful young coastguardsman worked hard to get permission to install a light that would not be used for navigation. The editor at the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal gave the project lots of prominent ink. Edward Pritchett ferried volunteers to and from the lighthouse on his crab skiff. Local cabinetmaker Gary Wayne Brownley worked with the Coast Guard to study the light’s history. Now, along with his brother Stephen and Edward Pritchett, he helps maintain the lantern, which was relighted on December 12, 1999. It’s a simple setup, powered with a solar panel and generator. “You can see it a right good ways,” says Pritchett. “And it’s just nice to look at.”

    It was an honorable and worthy step, but the next move is a leap far more expensive and uncertain, and it’s probably little consolation that people were hemming and hawing about it as early as 1814: How to keep the lighthouse standing and well maintained? “A lot of work needs to be done here, I mean it’s a helluva challenge,” says Earl Soles Jr., of nearby Cobbs Creek, chairman of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force, a committee of the Mathews County Historic Society. The task force commissioned lighthouse historian Candace Clifford to research the light’s past, and her report reveals clearly the light’s long battles with erosion, vandalism and weather. Autumn gales of 1815 brought water to the light’s foundation, and Elzy Burroughs suggested various ways to protect it - from building a piling-and-fill seawall to moving the entire building (they chose the seawall, which, photos show, lasted at least until 1928).

    Among the options under consideration now are adding more granite to the stone already in place, building jetties that would encourage sand to build up around it, or even building a berm and using dredge spoil to create a new island around the lighthouse.

    Perhaps most important, the task force has drawn attention to the lighthouse’s plight. Last year, the Preservation Alliance of Virginia listed the New Point Comfort Lighthouse as among 10 of the most endangered historic places in the commonwealth. And just this spring, the Army Corps of Engineers announced it is including the lighthouse in a study of shoreline erosion on the Bay - a move that should bring federal dollars and technical expertise to help solve the lighthouse’s problems.

    Everyone hopes the lighthouse can wait just a while longer. It has, after all, endured this much. 

 

    This story was adapted from Wendy Mitman Clarke’s book Window on the Chesapeake: The Bay, Its People and Places, published by the Mariners’ Museum in cooperation with the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.