Honoring Six Keepers in Mathews County, Virginia

by Betty Collins

On Saturday, April 13, 2019, for the second consecutive year, the Chapter dedicated six bronze U.S. Lighthouse Service grave markers honoring six Chesapeake Bay lighthouse keepers at four cemeteries in Mathews County, Virginia.  The day was the culmination of approximately six  months of preparatory work by Chapter members Tony Pasek, his wife Alma, Chapter Secretary Hobie Statzer, Chapter Programs Coordinator Greg Krawczyk, Chapter member Ron Collins and myself, Chapter advisory board member and event coordinator.   Keeper descendants were contacted as well as Mathews County cemetery officials, two churches, the local Coast Guard, and the local Coast Guard Auxiliary.  We received vital information, documents, and photos from descendants of our honorees.  Very helpful information was obtained from Chapter Historian Jennifer Jones, Robert Hurry of the Calvert Marine Museum, and Chapter member Susan Dutton.  And invaluable information was acquired from Kraig Anderson’s Lighthousefriends.com website and our Chapter Keeper Database, researched and compiled by former Chapter Historian Sandy Clunies.

US Lighthouse grave marker
Bronze grave marker

After having received the bronze grave markers from a shop in Eastham, Massachusetts, Hobie and Tony prepared six buckets of fast setting hydraulic cement to hold the markers and flags securely.  One month before the event, invitations, an itinerary, and maps were mailed to descendants and other invitees.  Folders were prepared that contained lighthouse timelines, keeper biographies, keeper anecdotes, photo pages of the keepers’ lighthouses both then and now, and a photo page of the honorees for whom photos were available. On Friday, April 12 Hobie and Tony and their respective wives, Winnie and Alma, loaded into their vehicles items needed to assist with the installation of the markers as well as the prepared grave markers.  A safe trip and good weather were foremost on all of our minds.

And after an uneventful trip to Mathews County, the Statzers and Paseks met Ron and I at H. C. Smither Cemetery in the Hudgins area of the county.  The post-hole digger, shovels, and bucket brought by the Statzers and the Paseks as well as an auger supplied by Ron, were put to good use.  The weather was warm and very breezy with a slight threat of thunder storms which, thank goodness, did not happen as we installed the grave markers.  The marker for Keeper Frank Raymond Lewis was installed in about 15 minutes.  We then walked a short distance in the same cemetery and installed the grave marker to honor Keeper Nelson Stanley Atherton.  Quickly a routine was established starting with the removal of a small area of top soil.  Then Ron used the extremely helpful auger to dig a hole.  The hole was enlarged with the post-hole digger and shovels.  The excess dirt was removed, the marker was set, and the top soil was replaced.  Ron, Hobie, Tony and Alma worked diligently to install the markers.  Winnie and I “supervised!”  Group pictures of the work crew were taken to include the installed markers and flags with the outstanding framed photos of the keepers and their lighthouses, as prepared by Hobie.  The flags were then removed, framed photos collected by Hobie, and the markers were concealed with a secured cloth cover (red with white stars) in preparation for the unveiling the next day. 

After our “routine” was completed at H. C. Smither Cemetery, we drove about 1.1 miles to Mathews Baptist Church where we installed the grave marker at the above ground gravesite of Keeper Levi D. Marchant.  We then followed Route 198 east to the town of Mathews, stopping to take a quick break.  We were doing well with time as we took Route 14 east to Route 608, and then took Route 609 to the Onemo area of Mathews County, stopping at the familiar Pear Tree Cemetery which is about 9.5 miles from Mathews Baptist Church.  (We honored two lighthouse keepers at Pear Tree Cemetery on April 7 of last year.)  Being very close to the Bay, the wind had really picked up as we installed markers at the gravesites of Keeper William James Diggs and Keeper Isaac Foster.  We then made a brief stop at Bethel Beach to view Wolf Trap Lighthouse which is about three miles off shore.  The Bay was covered with white caps and we had to “hold on to our hats” but were able to see the red beacon in the distance.  One more marker to install as we travelled about 7.6 miles once again following Routes 609 and 608 to Route 14 east, and then on to Lighthouse Road in the Bavon section of the county.  Keeper Wesley Foster Ripley, our final honoree, is buried in the Ripley Family Cemetery.  Many thanks to Bill Johnson for providing access to the cemetery by way of his property.  All of the installations went well and we had no encounters with tree roots as was the case in 2018.  Before calling it a day, we drove a short distance on Lighthouse Road to the scenic New Point Comfort Preserve Observation Walkway in order to view the New Point Comfort Lighthouse.  Then the Paseks and Statzers drove to Gloucester for overnight accommodations where they were joined by Chapter officers Andy Gray, twins Lauren and Paula Liebrecht and Chapter member Angie D’Alonzo.  It was time for all of us to get some rest as Saturday, April 13 was going to be an exciting and full day. 

The forecast for Saturday, April 13 was scattered showers and we all awakened early to the dreaded sound of a steady rain.  The temperature was warm and the wind had subsided but the rain showers were persistent.  Tony had wisely prepared for rain by providing plastic bags for the printed programs nicely prepared by Greg, and for the folders of information to be distributed to the families and descendants at each gravesite.  Ron, myself and the Paseks placed the new Grave Marker Ceremony signs at strategic locations marking the way to the morning ceremonies, and then we all headed to H. C. Smither Cemetery.  Tony and I officiated at each ceremony. I covered the Welcome and Closing Remarks, and Tony served as master of ceremony.  Each ceremony included the Pledge of Allegiance, the review of the keeper’s record of service/biography, the unveiling of the USLHS grave marker and installation of the small American flag, the reading of the Lighthouse Keeper’s Prayer, the playing of “Taps”,  and remarks including anecdotes about each honoree.  There were guest speakers at some of the ceremonies.  Don Connolly, Jim Gierlak and Nick Koch, members of Flotilla 66, Milford Haven Coast Guard Auxiliary, served throughout the day as our Color Guard with member Tom Edwards serving as bugler.  Also, personnel from Station Milford Haven, United States Coast Guard, served as Honor Guard.  Hobie assisted with the unveiling of the grave markers and placement of the American flags.  We had 10 Chapter members present at each ceremony with the addition of Chapter member Susan Dutton who was present at the first ceremony honoring her grandfather, and Chapter member Kim Powers who attended several of the ceremonies.

Family of honored Keeper Frank Raymond Lewis at his gravesite. Son, Frank Raymond Lewis, Jr., is on the 2nd row, 4th from the right. Photo by Hobie Statzer

Our first honoree at H.C. Smither Cemetery was Keeper Frank Raymond Lewis.  There were 34 people in attendance including Keeper Lewis’ son, Frank Raymond Lewis, Jr.  Also included in the family group were several adorable children who seemed to be enjoying their umbrellas!  During the ceremony which started at 9:30 am, Tony shared information in regard to Keeper Lewis.   Keeper Frank Raymond Lewis served as a corporal in the U.S. Army during WWI prior to entering the Lighthouse Service.  His 26 years in Lighthouse Service (1922 – at least 1948) included service at two Maryland Lighthouses: Cedar Point and Coles (Ragged) Point.  And he served at four Virginia Lighthouses: Great Wicomico, Stingray Point (two tours), Pages Rock, and York Spit.  On August 1, 1926, while serving at Great Wicomico River Lighthouse, Lewis assisted in rendering aid to the Red Wing, a grounded yacht.  In 1928, his annual salary as assistant keeper was $1,560 and he was required to supply his own uniform at a cost of about $15.  The infamous hurricane of 1933 prevented Head Keeper Lewis, who was on shore leave, from reporting for scheduled duty at Stingray Point Lighthouse.  Also while serving at Stingray Point in 1934, Lewis spotted seals off of the lighthouse.  Lewis passed away in 1959 at the age of 65.

Keeper Lewis Anecdote – While serving at Cedar Point Lighthouse, Frank’s wife, Clemmie accidentally cut her finger and due to the light’s remote location, was unable to see a doctor and infection set in.  Although the injured finger had to be amputated; she was still able to enjoy quilting.  While serving at Stingray Point Lighthouse by himself, Keeper Lewis had to remove a fishing hook that had gone through his finger. Two days passed before he was able to see a doctor.  Lewis liked to joke that when painting screwpile lighthouses, by the time you finished, it was time to start over.  Frank Raymond Lewis, Jr. remembers staying at Stingray Point Lighthouse when his father was keeper and recalls collecting water in the two cisterns.  He remembers eating canned food and cooking fish they caught on a kerosene stove.  Also, he was afraid to go in the outdoor privy!

At the conclusion of the ceremony for Keeper Lewis, the rain had slowed down and group photos of the Lewis family were taken without umbrellas!

Family of honored Keeper Nelson Stanley Atherton at his gravesite. Daughter, June Atherton King, is in the foreground. Photo by Hobie Statzer

Unfortunately, as we walked a short distance in H. C. Smither Cemetery to prepare for our 10:15 am ceremony, the steady rain returned.   In spite of the weather, we had 34 in attendance as we honored Keeper Nelson Stanley Atherton.  His daughter, June Atherton King, was among the group of family members.  And during the ceremony, as Tony reviewed the biography for Keeper Atherton, Mother Nature provided one loud clap of thunder, which was not included in the printed program!  Atherton served as a Merchant Marine and as a crew member on the Steamer Pennsylvania prior to his 24.5 years (1937 – 1943; 1946 – 1965) in the Lighthouse Service.  And during WWII, he served voluntary active duty for three years as Chief Boatswain in the Coast Guard Reserve in the South Pacific on the CGC Violet, LT134 and CGC Verbena.  Because of this service, we added a U.S. Coast Guard attachment to Atherton’s grave marker in addition to the usual keeper attachment.  Atherton served at two Maryland lighthouses: Drum Point and Ragged  (Coles) Point.  He also served at two Virginia Lighthouses: Wolf Trap and Smith Point (2 tours).  In 1949 while serving at Smith Point Lighthouse, Atherton rescued six people from the yacht Matilda, on fire and sinking in rough seas.  When he retired in 1965, he was one of the few remaining civilian lighthouse keepers.  Atherton passed away in 1981 at the age of 78.

Keeper Atherton Anecdote – Keeper Atherton’s first station was the off-shore Drum Point Lighthouse near Solomons, MD where he served alone in 1937.  Atherton said, “At the end of the first week I was sitting up there with a heavy nor’easter on and I said, ‘Damn I’m lonely!’  But you get used to it.”  Atherton once took a lawnmower out to an off-shore lighthouse and people laughed when they saw his boat head out to the Bay.  But he was taking the mower out to the light to repair it.  Keeper Atherton was an accomplished cook and was no doubt a part of the ongoing competition with the keepers at Wolf Trap Lighthouse as to who had the best cooks.  At age 57, Atherton was quoted in the “Washington Post” as telling some visitors at Smith Point Lighthouse, “I don’t like to say this, but I can do a better job than the weather bureau.”  This statement was the result of experiencing many weather situations. 

Atherton’s daughter, June, recalls visiting her father at Drum Point Lighthouse.  And while he was stationed at Ragged Point Lighthouse, the family did not have a telephone in their home.  June remembers that her father would call the local Post Office and leave a message telling the family when he needed to be picked up for shore leave. The family would drive up Virginia’s Northern Neck from their home in Mathews County.  They would park their car on shore facing the Ragged Point Lighthouse and shine their headlights to let their Keeper father know that they were there. Maury King, Atherton’s late son-in-law, remembered fishing at Smith Point Lighthouse in 1957.  He and Keeper Atherton fished from the steps using a board as a platform.  Atherton taught Maury how to fish with strips of bedding fashioned to resemble fishing lures.  They caught 92 trout, eating two of them and selling 90 while on shore.  There was a television on Smith Point Lighthouse but Atherton still enjoyed the old “wickie” pastime – reading.

Descendants of honored Keeper Levi D. Marchant at his gravesite. Photo by Betty Collins

With persistent rain, we left H. C. Smither Cemetery moving on to Mathews Baptist Church to honor Keeper Levi D. Marchant at 11:15 am.  There were 26 people in attendance including four great grandchildren and one great-great grandson.  During the ceremony, I shared memories that my late mother, Doris Helbig, had of Keeper Marchant. Great grandson David Marchant also spoke to the attendees.  And Tony’s review of the record of service/biography for Marchant revealed a remarkable career of 38 years of Lighthouse Service beginning on December 31, 1882 and concluding on March 31, 1921.  Marchant served at three Virginia Lighthouses: Wolf Trap, Watts Island, and Stingray Point.  Marchant’s annual salary in 1887 was $560 while serving as keeper at Watts Island Lighthouse. In 1893, ice prevented Marchant from returning for scheduled duty at Stingray Point Lighthouse.  And in 1912, Marchant was isolated at Stingray Point Lighthouse for 30 days due to ice.  When he retired in 1921, Keeper Marchant had served at Stingray Point Lighthouse for 32 years which is believed to be one of the longest tenures of duty at a single lighthouse on the Chesapeake Bay.  Marchant passed away in 1943 at the age of 87.

Keeper Marchant Anecdote – Keeper Marchant began service at the off-shore Stingray Point Lighthouse in the summer of 1889.  During an interview with a reporter from the “Baltimore  Sun” Marchant said, “During very stormy weather, the seas running high, the station shook badly. It is supported by 6 small iron piles and I have seen it sway back and forth like a rocking chair.”

“The most lonesome time I experienced was during the winter of 1912 when I was alone for 30 days in a freeze.  The tower shook while the ice drifted around the station and the Chesapeake was covered with ice as far as the eye could see.  There was nothing but fields of ice.”  Asked about his health, Marchant said, “During my long time in the Lighthouse Service I have not been sick a single day and have not lost a day’s pay.  The secret of my good health is that I have been where the doctors couldn’t get to me.”  Keeper Marchant thoroughly enjoyed reading and looked forward to receiving the traveling library, a cabinet with a variety of books moved from lighthouse to lighthouse by the U.S. Lighthouse Service.

Descendants of honored Keeper Isaac Foster at his gravesite. Photo by Hobie Statzer

As the ceremony for Keeper Marchant concluded, once again the rain seemed to be subsiding and group photos of his descendants were taken without umbrellas! The Grave Marker Ceremony signs were removed and would later be placed in strategic locations, marking the way to the final three ceremonies. Our group of Chapter volunteers caravanned to the town of Mathews for a quick lunch, with the hope that the weather would continue to improve. However, the steady rain returned as we headed to Pear Tree Cemetery where we were greeted by swarms of biting gnats!  The rain and gnats served as a reminder that lighthouse keepers endured many inconveniences in their line of duty.  We had 32 people present at Pear Tree Cemetery to honor Keeper Isaac Foster at 1:30 pm, and the rain and swarms of gnats  would not hinder our mission! During the Foster ceremony, Rev. Dr. Eugene Foster Thomas, great-great-great grandson, shared some well-prepared statements about his ancestor as well as thoughts about lighthouse keepers in general.  Foster had an eight year record of Lighthouse Service from 1846 – 1854 as keeper at New Point Comfort Lighthouse, Mathews County, VA,  passing away at the age of 65 while in service there. Prior to his lighthouse service, Foster served as a private and a sergeant in the Virginia Militia during the War of 1812.  He served as a surveyor in Mathews County from 1817 -1830 and in 1827, he commissioned the Ferrata, the first three-masted Schooner in America which was built in Mathews County. In 1846, Isaac Foster’s annual salary as keeper at New Point Comfort Lighthouse was $400.

Keeper Foster Anecdote – Keeper Foster was remembered for the exemplary records he kept while serving at New Point Comfort Lighthouse.  A December 1848 letter found in the National Archives said, “Keeper Foster reports that repairs to the ‘kitchen top’ and a window are needed as well as repairs to other windows at the light station.  Keeper Foster reports that Mr. John Thomas will do the work for $60.”

Family of honored Keeper William James Diggs at his gravesite. Granddaughter, Judy Diggs Hudgins, is on the 1st row, 3rd from the right. Photo by Betty Collins

Thanks to the protection of a large tree, we were able to get some nice group photos of Keeper Foster’s descendants without their umbrellas!  And it was then time to honor Keeper William James Diggs whose gravesite is in close proximity to that of Keeper Foster.  We had 33 attendees present for the 2:15 pm ceremony in spite of the relentless rain and gnats.  During the ceremony, Judy Diggs Hudgins shared some thoughts about her grandfather, Keeper Diggs.   Tony’s review revealed 27 years (1916 – 1943) of Lighthouse Service at three Virginia Lighthouses: Wolf Trap, York Spit (two tours), and Old Plantation Flats.  In 1918 and in 1936 Diggs was rescued from York Spit Lighthouse due to dangerous ice floes.  In 1926, he rescued three soldiers who were experiencing high winds while on a fishing trip, housing them safely at York Spit.  Diggs survived the hurricane of 1933 at York Spit Lighthouse by holding on to the station fog bell and was later rescued by a passing fisherman.  Diggs retired  in 1943 having served 24 of his 27 years of service at York Spit Lighthouse.  He passed away in 1978 at the age of 96.

Keeper Diggs Anecdote – After the hurricane of 1933, Keeper Diggs (while on duty at the off-shore York Spit Lighthouse) reported that the “floors began to burst up, the sailboat broke away, the sea broke over the deck and the oil tanks broke away.”  When the station boat was found on Virginia’s Eastern Shore near Cape Charles, 20 nautical miles from York Spit Lighthouse, it was assumed that Keeper Diggs was lost at sea.  However, Keeper Diggs survived by holding on to the station bell and was rescued by a passing fisherman.  In 1973 on his 91st birthday, Keeper Diggs received a congratulatory message from President and Mrs. Richard Nixon and Congressman Thomas Downing.  Congressman Downing wrote, “There is no way of telling how many watermen have silently thanked you for getting them safely to shore.”  He was also presented with a flag that was flown over the U.S. Capitol in observance of this special event.

Descendants of honored Keeper Wesley Foster Ripley at his gravesite. Great grandson, Arnold Ripley, is 3rd from the right. Photo by Betty Collins

Umbrellas were necessary as group photos were taken of the family of Keeper Diggs. We left Pear Tree Cemetery, returning to Route 14 east and on to the Ripley Family Cemetery. And finally, after a very soggy day, the rain subsided, the sky cleared, and we were able to put our umbrellas away!  Several of the attendees at the Ripley ceremony, including great grandson Arnold Ripley, had very wisely elected to wear boots. And a big thank you to the Ripley family who had set up a tent in case of rain!  Ironically, we did not need it for the 3:45 pm ceremony!  Among the 37 attendees at the ceremony honoring Keeper Wesley Foster Ripley were members of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse Preservation Task Force.  Captain Wes Ripley, great-great grandson, and property owner Bill Johnson, both spoke during the ceremony.  And most appropriately, an eagle flew over as Tony was sharing information in regard to Keeper Ripley who had an impressive record of 35 years (1881 – 1916) of Lighthouse Service.  Ripley served at six Virginia Lighthouses: Wolf Trap, New Point Comfort (two tours), York Spit, Stingray Point, Thimble Shoal, and Newport News Middle Ground.  Prior to his lighthouse service, Keeper Ripley served for the Confederacy during the Civil War on the Giles Light Artillery, CSA and as a soldier for the State of Virginia in the 61st Regiment, Virginia Militia.  He also became a merchant seaman sailing around Cape Horn.  Ripley’s annual salary in 1886 when serving as 1st assistant keeper at York Spit Lighthouse was $440.  While serving as keeper at Stingray Point Lighthouse (1886 – 1888), his annual salary increased to $540 with another increase to $640 in 1888, as he began his service at Thimble Shoal Lighthouse.  Ripley passed away in 1916 at the age of 80 while serving as keeper at New Point Comfort Lighthouse. 

Keeper Ripley Anecdote – Keeper Ripley served at Thimble Shoal Lighthouse when it was a srewpile from 1888 – 1904.  In 1891, the lighthouse was rammed and damaged by a hit-and-run steamer.  A coal barge rammed the lighthouse in 1898, causing considerable damage and requiring extensive repairs.  Also that same year, Keeper Ripley’s 14 year old son Tommie,  passed away on July 30.  And in a tragic coincidence two years later on July 30, 1900, Keeper Ripley’s 29 year old son Luther passed away.  In November 1906 while in service at the New Point Comfort Lighthouse, Keeper Ripley white-washed the lighthouse, hiring a worker for $2 to assist him.

At the conclusion of the final ceremony, group photos of Keeper Ripley’s descendants were taken. We then attended a lovely reception courtesy of Brenda Ripley and noted that the Mobjack Bay was, at that time, covered with fog.  After the reception, our Chapter volunteers enjoyed dinner at Richardson’s Café in Mathews. 

The families/descendants of the six very deserving honorees were all quite impressed with the USLHS grave markers and were likewise extremely appreciate of our efforts.  It was a very rewarding day and was made possible due to the team effort of many people.  Thank you to everyone who helped to made the event a big success! A special thank you to Hobie, Greg, Ron, Alma, Winnie, Paula, Lauren, Andy and Angie.  And a big thank you to Tony for the countless hours spent preparing over 20 pages of lighthouse timelines, keeper biographies, keeper anecdotes, and photo pages that were assembled into folders. And kudos to Tony for a great job of serving as our master of ceremonies. Thank you to Paula Liebrecht and Maria Alvarez-Lundie who secured a donation and grant respectively that directly benefitted the Grave Marker Program, allowing for the purchase of a Chapter bugle used to play “Taps” at the ceremonies.  Many thanks to members of Flotilla 66, Coast Guard Auxiliary, Milford Haven, for providing the Color Guard, and a special thank you to member Tom Edwards who served as bugler and assisted in many other ways.   Thank you to Chief Petty Officer Menges and personnel from Station Milford Haven, U. S. Coast Guard, for serving as Honor Guard.  Kudos to reporter Pete Teagle of the Gloucester-Mathews Gazette-Journal and reporter Larry Chowning of the Southside Sentinel for their fine coverage of our event in their respective newspapers.  Also thank you to the Keepers’ families/descendants who provided outstanding information and photos.  And thank you to the many descendants who came from far and wide to be a part of this very memorable event.

We have now honored a total of 16 lighthouse keepers with grave markers, three keepers in Maryland and 13 in Virginia. We do have more ceremonies planned for 2020.  Stay tuned!

The USLHS Grave Marker application is available for anyone who would like to nominate a lighthouse keeper.

Permanent link to this article: https://cheslights.org/honoring-six-keepers-in-mathews-county-virginia/