Preserving local maritime history

Published 4:50 pm Tuesday, June 5, 2018

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The White Shoal lighthouse was abandoned in the 1930s, long before my time.

When we were kids, it was a derelict structure that was absolutely fascinating just for being there. Teenagers in the 1950s reputedly partied in the building that sat atop a screwpile frame, but by the time we were teenagers in the 1960s it was pretty much a rotten wreck, though still standing.

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When Anne and I returned to Smithfield in 1972, following college and a Navy tour, a top priority for me was to get a boat, so the second year we were here we purchased a small sailboat and headed for the river. White Shoal Light was still there, even more decrepit than a decade earlier, but still standing as a reminder of river navigation a half century earlier.

Then, in the spring of 1977, when I headed into the river for another season, there was something missing. Instead of the distinctive hexagonal old lighthouse, there was a pile of rubble adopt the White Shoal screwpile frame

No one saw the lighthouse collapse, but Rescue watermen told me it had occurred during an ice melt in January. That winter, the East Coast had experienced a near-record freeze. The James River and Hampton Roads were locked in ice for weeks. When that much ice begins to break up as the weather warms, it can sweep away anything in its path.

I can visualize the rotten old lighthouse being shaken to its base and collapsing onto itself as the ice moved downriver.

It was the end of the last screwpile lighthouse on the James River. Others had included the Nansemond River light, the Point of Shoals and the Deepwater Shoals.

Amazingly, many of the steel screwpile frames on which the lighthouses were built still stand today, a testament to the soundness of the design used in the late 1800s when the lighthouses were constructed.

Many people today, if they even know about the screwpile foundations, have little idea what those odd structures actually are, or how important they were to the history of our region. Thankfully, four people have cared enough to devote years to researching the history of the screwpiles and compiling it in a delightful book — “Screwpiles: The Forgotten Lighthouses.”

Smithfield resident Larry Saint has been the driving force behind the project, but the book is solidly a team effort. Researcher and educator Karla Smith, Photographer and editor John H. Sheally II and writer and editor Phyllis Speidell worked hand in hand in its production.

I would note that local historians like these four do what they do out of love for history and for the particular subject, not to fund their retirement. They rarely expect to make a profit from their work and are often lucky to cover printing expenses.

“Screwpiles” is available on Amazon. It’s a beautifully illustrated book and worth every dime of its $40 sale price.

Kudos to Saint and team. They have preserved and, one might say, illuminated, an important piece of local maritime history.