Keeper Bio: Thomas, John William

John William Thomas

Dates of Service: 1888-1895

1846:  Born on November 9, 1846, at New Point, Mathews County, VA to parents John B. & Sarah Thomas.  He is orphaned in infancy and raised by his grandmother until age five and then sheltered by various relatives.

1872:  Marries Emma Jane Davis. The couple has eleven children including Ruth Virginia, Henry Vincent, G. Leonard, and Sarah Elizabeth.                     

1888-1890:   Serves as Second Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse (VA). Annual salary – $400.

1890-1893:   Serves as First Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse (VA). Annual salary – $440.

1893:    Wolf Trap Lighthouse is destroyed by ice on January 22nd. Keeper Thomas is on duty at that time and escapes onto the ice before the screwpile lighthouse is swept away.  Keeper Thomas is rescued by a boat caught on the ice about 300 yards away and falls through the ice several times before reaching the safety of   land. Sick and weakened, he recovers in Lancaster County and returns to duty.                                                                    

1893:  Serves as Assistant Keeper at Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse (VA). Annual salary – $435.

1894: Serves as Assistant Keeper at Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse (VA). Annual salary – $435.

1894-1895:  Serves as Keeper at Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse (VA). Annual Salary –  $575.  In February of 1895, the Chesapeake Bay froze over, impacting shipping.  Putting duty first, Keeper Thomas waits too long to leave the station and suffers  as he has no food for five days.  Keeper Thomas submits his resignation.

1896:   Moves to Lancaster County, VA where Thomas works as a farmer & fisherman.

1899:  Thomas returns to Mathews County, VA.  He is listed as a farmer in both the 1900 & 1910 U.S. Census.

1929:  Emma Thomas passes away on February 7.

1929: Keeper Thomas passes away on March 1 at age 82 and is buried at St. Paul United Methodist Church Cemetery, Susan, VA.  He is remembered as a devout man who formed two churches that continue today as Asbury United Methodist Church, White Stone, VA and Beulah United Methodist Church, New Point, VA. 

Keeper John William “Papa” Thomas Anecdote:

Keeper Thomas served at three light stations during his career with the US Lighthouse Service.  None of these screwpile lighthouses are standing today. Located on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, Old Plantation Flats was demolished in 1962.  However a replica completed in 2004 stands at the Bay Creek Resort near Cape Charles, VA.  In 1920, the Cherrystone Bar Lighthouse was moved from Virginia to Maryland and served as the second Choptank River Lighthouse until it was demolished in 1964.  A replica of this lighthouse dedicated in 2012, stands on the waterfront in Cambridge, MD.  After the original Wolf Trap Light was destroyed by ice floes in 1893, a caisson light was constructed on that site and still stands today.  It can be viewed from Bethel Beach, Mathews, VA about three miles out in the Chesapeake Bay.

Ice floes were a real enemy to many screwpile lighthouses that stood on the Chesapeake Bay.  Ice building up around the screwpile foundation often caused the attached cottage to shake and on occasion the building was torn off of its foundation.  And on January 22, 1893, the Chesapeake Bay was frozen and Bessie, daughter of Keeper Thomas recalled in a newspaper account that her brothers climbed a very tall tree in their yard on Davis Creek to look for Wolf Trap Lighthouse. Upon seeing that the lighthouse was gone, they were fearful as to their father’s fate and after an extremely long week, the family finally received word that Keeper Thomas had survived this harrowing experience and was recuperating in Lancaster County.  The detached cottage that once served as Wolf Trap Lighthouse drifted about 20 miles into the Harbor of Hampton Roads and was discovered with only the lantern room visible above the water.

Sources; Chesapeake Chapter Database; Lighting The Bay: Tales of  Chesapeake Bay Lighthouses, Pat Vojtech, Tidewater Publishers, 1996; Sharon B. Minter;  Mary Godsey;;; Screwpiles: The Forgotten Lighthouses, Larry Saint, Karla Smith, John H. Sheally II, Phyllis Speidell, The Donning Company Publishers, 2018; Bay Beacons, Linda Turbyville, Eastwind Publishing, 1995.


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