When early explorers visited the Chesapeake, they reported finding a bay so beautiful and productive that they tried to catch fish in a frying pan. But they also found the shallow estuary a navigational nightmare.
Ironically, the same features made it both productive and treacherous. Being long, narrow, shallow—its average depth is only about 22 feet—and having thousands of miles of shoreline, the Chesapeake had extensive shallow water habitats, such as oyster bars, grass beds and tidal marshes.
That shallowness, along with treacherous shoals and shifting sand bars, were challenging for colonial ship captains. The Bay was one of the most important shipping areas in Colonial America, largely because of its tobacco production, yet early governments showed little interest in reducing navigational hazards, despite the large number of shipwrecks—George Washington’s first ancestor arrived courtesy of a wreck on the Potomac.
Good charts of the Bay were slow to emerge. “None of the early surveyors general of Virginia and Maryland, as far as is known, was interested in, or perhaps capable of, a marine chart,” wrote William P. Cumming in his book, “Early Maps of the Chesapeake.” “The early backers of the Virginia colony were evidently not willing to undergo the expense of surveys or of their publication; those had to be undertaken by individuals, if at all.”
A new era began in 1716 when Boston Light, which marked Boston Harbor, became the first lighthouse in the North American colonies. Other areas began building lighthouses to aid shipping. Not long after the Boston Light began operation, Virginia Gov. Alexander Spotswood tried to improve the situation for Bay mariners, lobbying for a light at Cape Henry to help guide ships past the particularly perilous shifting sand bars at the entrance of the Bay. He failed.
Others rallied to the cause, but none gained the financial support to build a lighthouse. In 1773, a group of men was appointed and sent to Cape Henry and after “consuming an appropriate amount of liquor” actually selected a lighthouse location. But none was built.
By the time of the American Revolution, there were 12 lighthouses along the American coastline, but still none in the Chesapeake. Ironically, the Bay—which had the greatest volume of shipping during much of the Colonial era and Early American history—was the last region to get a lighthouse.
After the Revolutionary War, in 1792, the U.S. government funded its first lighthouse—an octagonal sandstone tower at Cape Henry, built for $24,076. It was lit by an oil lamp burning tuna,
sperm, colza (rapeseed) and lard oils.
(When a new tower was completed in 1881, the old tower was acquired by the commonwealth of Virginia to serve as a monument commemorating the first landing of Capt. John Smith.)
At about the same time that the Cape Henry lighthouse was built, three floating beacons were placed in the Bay, one on Willoughby Spit, one at Horseshoe and the third at Middle Ground, all in the lower Chesapeake.
Such floating markers proved to be a bad idea. They were often moved by bandits who profited from shipwrecks.
Around the beginning of the 19th century, things began to change rapidly, and lighthouses became a fixture around the Bay. Dozens were in place by midcentury. By 1900, lighthouses or lightships marked the majority of navigation obstacles.
The Bay even gained a distinctive style of lighthouse—the screwpile. These squat, leggy lighthouses were placed atop angled, iron legs that were screwed
into the Bay’s soft bottom. Rip-rap was piled around the legs as protection. The legs were usually capped with a two-story hexagonal or octagonal wood-framed keeper’s cottage with a light perched on top. Between 1854 and 1900, 42 screwpile lighthouses were built in the Bay, accounting for more than half the 74 lights that once operated in the Chesapeake.
Operating the lights was often a lonely job. Before the days of electricity, lighthouse keepers had to lug heavy cans of oil — usually up steep and narrow steps—to feed the lamp, which burned day and night.
Exposure to storms was a constant peril. In 1881, the keepers of the Sharps Island lighthouse spent 16 hours drifting down the Bay after ice sheared the structure from its foundation.
New technologies have made lighthouse keepers—and many lighthouses—a thing of the past. Yet 32 lighthouses remain around the Chesapeake, and 23 continue to play a role in aiding navigation, both for recreational captains and the ships that transport more than 85 million tons of cargo annually through the Bay.
People exploring the Bay today find its lighthouses—as well as the Chesapeake itself—marvels to be explored. Many are open to visitors. Ten lighthouses, and one lightship, are parts of the National Park Service’s Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.