Digest>Archives> June 2002

Collectors' Corner

History in the Making: Lightships - floating sentinels risked all to guide mariners for centuries

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Imagine being anchored at the mouth of a treacherous estuary in a wooden sail-propelled ship, with gas lanterns to send out a guiding light and a hand-operated bell to serve as a fog signal to approaching ships. And imagine having to maintain this precarious vigil through raging storms and vicious seas.

This was the calling of those brave seamen who undertook this lonely task for hundreds of years. While the American history of lightships only spans little more than two centuries, the ancient mariners of Rome and Greece often lighted fires on open baskets at their mastheads, patrolling the coasts to guide and protect incoming vessels.

It was 1819 when the first American lightship was contracted with John Pool of Hampton, Virginia. The contract called for a “vessel 70 tons burthen, copper-fastened a cabin with four berths...” Delivered in the summer of 1820, its first station was off Willoughby Spit, Virginia to aid Chesapeake Bay traffic. The exposed position was so dangerous that the lightship had to be shifted to safer anchorage off Craney Island, near Norfolk.

Ship’s logs and historic accounts of early lightships tell the stories of loneliness, isolation, collisions and loss of life. At times, the small crews - usually 4 to 6 men - were recruited from villages along the coasts. From the ocean to the Great Lakes, lightships of varying size and capability guided mariners through dangers, while exposing themselves to even greater dangers.

Lightships were designated by number - LV, for Light Vessel, and a number assigned at its registration. Many came to be called by the port or estuary they guarded, and names were sometimes changed, making it difficult to accurately trace. The US Coast Guard historians provide an extensive and engrossing account of lightships, including such fascinating information as their original cost, the size of their lanterns and wood from which they were crafted - these records also give an accounting of incidents and damage, refitting and ultimate disposition of the old sentinels.

The last of the American lightships was retired on March 29, 1985, when the Coast Guard decommissioned the Nantucket I. Replaced for the most part by “Texas Tower” type offshore light platforms, and the modern lighting capabilities of fixed lighthouses, the long and remarkable era of lightships came to a close. Still, the stories and historic value of these “lonely sentinels of the seaways” continues to whet the imagination and interest of lighthouse historians and enthusiasts.

This colorful history led Harbour Lights to launch its authentic reproductions in the Anchor Bay Collection of lightships and rescue vessels. To date, four of these famous lightships have been recreated, with more planned in coming years. Each one is researched with great care, because Harbour Lights prides itself on authenticity and accuracy.

One of the relatively “modern” lightships, LV 116, also known as the Chesapeake was reproduced by Harbour Lights in 1997, in a limited edition of 4,000. Although now a closed edition, this beautiful rendition portrayed the elegance of the lightship. Built in 1930, the Chesapeake was driven by electric-powered diesel engines, and illuminated by powerful electric lens lanterns at each masthead. Retired in 1970, visitors can see this amazing ship in the Inner Harbour in Baltimore, Maryland.

Another famous lightship recreated by Harbour Lights is LV 101, the Portsmouth, taking her name from the port where she now serves as a Lightship Museum. Originally called the Charles, LV 101 began her duties in 1916 at the Smith Island Shoal off Cape Charles. The exquisite Anchor Bay reproduction is 4x7-in. and comes on a beautiful wooden base with a glass case.

In 1892, the first American lightship to serve on the Pacific Coast was commissioned to mark the mouth of the dangerous Columbia River between Oregon and Washington. At a cost of about $60,000 - a considerable sum in 1892 - LV 50 was built in San Francisco. For its day, Columbia was considered spacious and modern - with comfortable living quarters for the crew of eight and a six-lamp lighting apparatus that provided illumination in every direction. The Anchor Bay reproduction is in sharp contrast to the more modern Portsmouth, and reflects the difference in design by ship builders to accommodate the hazards and conditions the lightship might face. Measuring 4x7-in., Columbia also comes with a furniture-quality wooden base and glass case.

For more information about the Anchor Bay collection, contact Lighthouse Depot at P.O. Box 1690, Wells, Maine 04090 or call 1-800-758-1444 or visit the Lighthouse Depot web site at www.LighthouseDepot.com.

This story appeared in the June 2002 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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