200 years ago this year: The first manned light vessel in the United States, Craney Island Lightship, Chesapeake Bay

Drawing of America’s first manned lightship, by Henry Eckford
(U.S. Lighthouse Society Archives)

Between 1820 and 1983, the United States government established 116 lightship stations on three coasts and the Great Lakes. The number of active lightship stations peaked in 1909 when there 56 lightships in service at the same time. Today there are no lightships serving as aids to navigation, but some survive as museums or charter vessels.

The nation’s lightship history began when Congress appropriated funds for a light vessel in 1819 to guide shipping through the lower Chesapeake Bay into the harbors of Norfolk and Portsmouth, Virginia. It was established in the following year and designated Lightship C.

The vessel that went into service at the northern extremity of Willoughby Bank, off Willoughby Spit, in April 1820 was a wooden schooner with its hull covered in copper, built by James Poole of Hampton, Virginia. The specifications called for a 70-ton vessel, copper fastened and sheathed, There were berths for four men, a galley, a capstan belfry, spars, and a yawl boat with davits.

Due to the rough sea conditions at Willoughby Bank. it was repositioned in 1821 to a location on the west side of the channel near the mouth of the Elizabeth River off Craney Island, near Norfolk.

Minot’s Ledge Lightship, Massachusetts 1850s (U.S. Lighthouse Society Archives)

Very quickly, four more lightships appeared in Chesapeake Bay, including one at Smith’s Point and another at Upper Cedar Point in the Potomac River. In 1852, it was reported that the Craney Island Lightship had a keeper and three assistants. It was replaced by the Craney Island Lighthouse in 1859.

Craney Island Lighthouse, National Archives image 26-LG-71-70-ac.
The lighthouse was deactivated and removed in 1936. It was replaced by an automated light on the original screw-pile foundation. Then, in the 1970s, the entire foundation was removed and was replaced by a buoy.

The Development of the American Lightship by James Delgado

Lightships in America by Mike Boucher

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