On October 7, 2023, members of the Chesapeake Chapter of the U.S. Lighthouse Society visited Mathews County in Virginia and honored six Chesapeake Bay keepers at three different locations. It was the Chapter’s 4th visit to “Keeper County, Virginia” and our first since October 2020.
The first ceremony was held at 9:30am with mild, very breezy conditions at H.C. Smither Cemetery in the town of Hudgins. Here, we honored Keeper William Edward “Eddie” Davis. Program Coordinator Betty Collins welcomed the attendees which included descendants of Keeper Davis. Members of U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 66 served as the color guard and Petty Officer Gabriel Lacombe of Coast Guard Station Milford Haven also assisted. After past Chapter president and Master of Ceremonies Tony Pasek led the group in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, a review of Keeper Davis’ service was read. Davis served at only one lighthouse during his entire 23-year tenure in the U.S. Lighthouse Service – Windmill Point. This screwpile, located at the end of a long shoal on the Rappahannock River was built in 1869. Davis was the 1st assistant keeper for approximately 10 years before he was promoted to keeper in 1917. He endured ice floe damages during the winter of 1918. (Windmill Point was dismantled by contractors hired by the Coast Guard in 1965 and replaced by a 34-foot skeletal tower.) Though Davis served at only one lighthouse, his brother Albert Davis served at five Chesapeake Bay lights for approximately 14 years and nephew Frank Raymond Lewis served at eight bay beacons for 26 years. After the review of Davis’ service, Petty Officer Lacombe unveiled the U.S. Lighthouse Service plaque and installed an American flag. Then the group read the “Lighthouse Keeper’s Prayer” found in the distributed program. Following the prayer, descendants were invited to offer remarks on the life and service of Keeper Davis and great-grand niece Susan Lewis Powell spoke for a few minutes. As Betty closed the ceremony, Auxiliary officer Tom Edwards played taps and family members gathered at the honored keeper’s headstone for photos as raindrops began to fall.
Steady rain fell during Keeper Robert Franklin Powell’s tribute as we examined his service at two stations – Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse and Tue Marshes Lighthouse. Hexagonal screwpile Deep Water Shoals Light, the second cottage style at the site, was built in 1868 on the James River and manned by Assistant Keeper Powell from 1907 to at least 1913. A keeper’s log entry for February 1912 described “ice running all day shaking house very bad.”
Rectangular screwpile Tue Marshes was built in 1875 on the York River and served by 1st Assistant Keeper Powell from at least 1915 to approximately 1921. Tue Marshes Light had distinctive gingerbread detailing on the eves of the roof. Tue Marshes was dismantled by the Coast Guard in 1960 and an automatic beacon was installed and used until 2012. Deep Water Shoals Light was dismantled in 1966 and replaced with a skeletal daymark tower.
With gradually clearing skies, we resumed our ceremonies at St. Paul United Methodist Church Graveyard in the town of Susan. The very large burial grounds are separated by Route 14 – the main artery in the second smallest county in the state of Virginia. Our remaining four keepers are at rest here: two on each side of Route 14. Honoree number three was Keeper John William “Papa” Thomas, and his gravesite is on the western side of New Point Comfort Highway. Nearly 20 descendants of Keeper Thomas were present as we began the plaque dedication at 1:30 pm. With Petty Officer Lacombe and the color guard in position, we continued the agenda begun in the morning ceremonies.
Keeper Thomas served at three different lighthouses. He was the 2nd assistant keeper at Wolf Trap (when it was a screwpile, built in 1870) from 1888 to 1890, then as 1st assistant keeper at Wolf Trap from 1890 to 1893. In 1893, he served as the assistant keeper at Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse (built in 1886) near Cape Charles, VA. In 1894, Assistant Keeper Thomas then moved to the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse (built in 1858) on Virginia’s Eastern Shore also near Cape Charles. He finally returned as keeper to Old Plantation Flats in 1894, completing his lighthouse service in 1895 after suffering greatly with no food for five days due to the frozen bay. At times, ice blocked the delivery of supplies to lighthouses and ice floes were extreme hazards to keepers.
In January 1893, when the Chesapeake Bay was frozen, Keeper Thomas was on duty at Wolf Trap and was forced to abandon the light before ice floes caused the cottage to rip off of the screwpile foundation. Thomas’ daughter Bessie recalled that her brothers climbed a very tall tree in their yard to look for Wolf Trap Lighthouse. Not finding the screwpile, the family feared the worst. After a very long and anxious week, the Thomas family received word that “Papa” had survived and was recuperating in nearby Lancaster County. The detached cottage that once served as Wolf Trap Lighthouse drifted 20 miles into the Harbor of Hampton Roads and was discovered with only the lantern room visible above the water. In 1893-1894, the present-day Wolf Trap Lighthouse (a caisson) was constructed.
It was a very short drive – or walk – to the eastern side of the graveyard and the burial site of honoree number four, Keeper James Temple Ripley. We learned about Keeper Ripley’s service at five light stations. Ripley’s first three assignments began with his service as assistant keeper at Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse in 1900. Next, he served at Pages Rock Lighthouse (another screwpile built in 1894) located on the York River, from 1901 to 1905. Then, onto lighthouse number three – Smith Point (a caisson built in 1897) from 1905 to 1907. Ripley was then promoted to keeper at beacon number four – Old Plantation Flats from 1907 to 1908. He closed his USLHS service as keeper at station number five – Nansemond River (a screwpile built in 1878 on the Nansemond River in Suffolk) from 1908 to 1930 when he retired with about 30 years of service. Keeper Ripley was a dedicated and efficient keeper and was awarded the Inspector’s Red and Gold Efficiency Star in 1916 while on duty at Nansemond River, then the Commissioner’s Blue and Gold Efficiency Star at Nansemond twice – first for the calendar year 1922 and then for calendar year 1924.
Now with sunny weather conditions, most of the participants walked a few hundred yards north on the east side of the graveyard to keeper number five: Oliver R. “Ollie” Hudgins’ tall headstone. Here, we learned about Keeper Hudgins’ tenure at three lights. From 1885 to 1887, Hudgins was the 2nd assistant keeper and then 1st assistant keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse when the structure was a screwpile (built in 1870). From 1887 to 1888, Hudgins served as the Head Keeper and John William “Papa” Thomas (Honoree #3) was his second assistant. Of interest is the fact that shortly before O.R. Hudgins’ tenure began at Wolf Trap, the Baltimore Sun stated that there were reports of a “merry ghost” haunting the lighthouse. “Ollie” Hudgins’ second station from 1888 to 1889 was the cut-stone octagonal New Point Comfort Lighthouse, the 3rd oldest lighthouse on the bay (built in 1804). The tower is a Mathews County offshore attraction. Its long-term restoration was completed in 2021 and it was removed from Lighthouse Digest’s Doomsday List in 2022. Hudgins was replaced by his brother-in-law, James Beauregard Hurst (Honoree #6) in 1899. When serving at New Point Comfort Light, Hudgins was responsible for maintaining the lighthouse, the keeper’s house, and other structures without the help of an assistant keeper. Assistant keepers were never assigned to this beacon, though they were greatly needed. Hudgins’s final station was the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse – built in 1858. Tragically, Hudgins died at age 41 while on duty at Cherrystone Bar in 1903 from complications due to a crab bite. In 1921, the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse was moved from Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Maryland. It became the second Choptank River Lighthouse until it was demolished in 1964.
We then crossed Route 14 to recognize our final and sixth honoree of the day – Keeper James Beauregard Hurst. Hurst was stationed at seven different lighthouses during his long career with the USLHS. Hurst began his lighthouse service as a 1st assistant keeper in 1888 at the York Spit Lighthouse, a screwpile built in 1870. In 1890, during a severe storm, a schooner ran aground near the lighthouse. Despite a heroic rescue effort by Hurst, five men tragically perished in the stormy seas. Adrift in a small lighthouse boat which was no match for the violent wind and waves, Hurst was rescued by the steamer Defiance. Hurst then served as Keeper at Newport News Middle Ground in 1891, Deep Water Shoals, also in 1891, Cherrystone Bar from 1891 to 1899 and at New Point Comfort from 1899 to 1901. Lighthouse number six was the Tue Marshes Lighthouse from 1901 to 1908. Hurst concluded his 31+ years of faithful service at the Wolf Trap caisson from 1908 to at least 1920. In the summer of 1919, Keeper Hurst and Assistant Keeper Virgil Montague performed a daring sea rescue, saving a man, woman and four children from the sinking schooner, Sidonia Curley.
On a variable October day, the Chesapeake Chapter honored six keepers who served at 12 different Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses. The chapter has now honored 25 Keepers during four separate events in Mathews County, Virginia – continuing an overdue recognition begun and supported by Lighthouse Digest founder Tim Harrison. There were over 100 attendees for the six ceremonies. Special thanks to U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary Flotilla 66, the Milford Haven Coast Guard Station, and the participating cemeteries and churches of Mathews County. Another outstanding keeper dedication event by Betty Collins, Tony Pasek and the Chapter’s dedicated volunteers.
This story appeared in the
Nov/Dec 2023 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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