This is part two of Chesapeake Lighthouses, Southern Expedition, a two-day excursion to 11 lighthouses around the Chesapeake Bay.
From Tangier Island, we headed straight over to Onancock, VA, arriving around 5:30 p.m. We unloaded our bags, and headed up the street to our respective inns (Captain Jack arranged rides for those in the group who needed help getting to the inns). Overnight arrangements were made individually at the various bed and breakfast inns in Onancock.
Founded in 1680, Onancock is a peaceful, bayside village, with stately, Victorian homes along waterfront properties, the crepe myrtle blooms were fading, but still lovely. The name, Onancock, is derived from the Indian word “auwannaku” meaning foggy place. Along Market Street, mid-19th century homes were land bases for sea captains who sailed the bay in vessels large and small. Late 19th century houses with intricate Victorian gingerbread trim represent the flourishing steamboat era during which Onancock connected itself firmly to cosmopolitan Baltimore.
Some of the Bay’s lighthouses are now simply lights mounted on the same base where the lighthouse used to be. In the 1960s, the Coast Guard dismantled several of the lights, including the Watts Island and Janes Island lighthouses. We cruised by these lights on our way to fuel up in Crisfield.
The Watts Island Light was a historic lighthouse located near Watts Island — now one of the Bay’s “disappeared islands.” The island was plagued with erosion, and by 1923 four of the original 7 acres had disappeared. In that year the light was automated and the entire island, including the keeper’s house, was sold to a Baltimore insurance executive, save a tiny plot centered on the tower. In 1944 a winter storm demolished both the house and the tower, and now even the island itself is gone. The spot is now charted as “Watts Island Rocks” and is marked only with a lighted buoy. The Janes Island Light was a screw-pile lighthouse located near Crisfield. Twice destroyed by ice, it was replaced in 1935 with an automated beacon.
Once five miles long, Hollands Island, which was settled by European colonists in the 1600s, was home to a fishing community of 250 to 360 people, with more than 60 homes, a church and other buildings and a thriving fleet of workboats, including schooners and 55 skipjacks. According to a Washington Post article, sea levels in the Chesapeake are rising faster than they are in other coastal regions of the United States. One reason is ancient: The land here has been slowly sinking for thousands of years, settling itself from bulges created by the weight of Ice Age glaciers. The weight of glaciers to the north pushed the Earth’s crust down, and the crust in this area went up like the other end of a see-saw. Now, the whole region is slowly sinking again. The other reason is modern: climate change. The Earth’s oceans are rising because polar ice is melting, and because warmer water expands. Holland Island was especially hard-hit: Like other Chesapeake islands, it was made of silt and clay, not rock, so its land eroded readily.
In any case, all that’s left of Hollands Island is the Hollands Bar Lighthouse, erected in 1889. It was originally a lovely white hexagonal cottage screwpile lighthouse. And there’s a mystery surrounding this lighthouse — in 1931 Keeper Ulman Owens was mysteriously found dead at the lighthouse. Though there was blood and evidence of a struggle, no wounds were found on his body and the death was ruled natural.
The death of the keeper wasn’t the last of the lighthouse’s mishaps: The lighthouse stood near the hulk of an old ship, the Hannibal, which was frequently used for target practice by Navy fighters. In 1957, Navy aircraft doing a routine practice night bombing raid mistakenly dropped targeting flares on the lighthouse instead of the target ship. The planes then proceeded to bomb the lliving crap out of the structure, demolishing the lighthouse and injuring the two poor lightkeepers, who must have been grateful the next morning to find themselves alive. The house was dismantled in 1960; it was replaced by an automated beacon mounted on the original foundation.
Likewise, our next stop was also a light mounted on the original foundation: Sharkfin Shoal Light, which was constructed as a cottage screwpile lighthouse in 1892. The lighthouse was demolished in 1964 and a skeletal tower was constructed on the original screwpile foundation. The Hooper Straight Light, built to mark the passage between Chesapeake Bay and Tangier Sound, is another example of the base being salvaged as a platform to host a simple light.
After going past the three lights, we were glad to see a real lighthouse again, when we came up to the Hoopers Straight Lighthouse. Finished in 1902, Hooper Island Lighthouse was one of only four Chesapeake lighthouses erected during the 20th century. Hooper Island Lighthouse was fully automated on November 21, 1961. Fifteen years later, someone somehow stole the light, necessitating the installation of a new solar-powered beacon.
I’ve always wanted to explore the Chesapeake Bay and this tour of the Chesapeake lighthouses was a good way to get a better sense of the islands and history and fragile ecology. We got to visit Tangier Island and Onancock, VA, as well as Crisfield, MD. We learned about disappearing islands and tragedies on lighthouses, as well as got to enjoy the antics of pelicans and ospreys diving into the water. It was very fun, and despite all that time on the water, left me wanting to go on additional lighthouse tours!
Check out Part 1 of this 2-day tour!
Websites: Update May 2021: Chesapeake Lights no longer offers lighthouse tours.
Onancock, VA: www.onancock.org/stay.html