Keeper Bio: Nelson Stanley Atherton

Nelson Stanley Atherton

Date of Service: 1937-1965

1903: Born March 30 in Hallieford, Mathews County, VA.
1920: Begins service in the Merchant Marine and as a crew member on the Steamer Pennsylvania. The vessel stopped at Old Point Comfort Lighthouse in route between Cape Charles and Norfolk, VA.
1929: Married Arlys Hurst on August 26. The couple raises one daughter, June.
1937: Served as an “additional Keeper” at Drum Point Lighthouse, MD, helping with station duties when Keeper J. J. Daley injured.
1938: Served as Assistant Keeper at Ragged Point Lighthouse, MD.
1939: Served as Second Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse, VA. His starting salary was $1,440 per year.
1941: Appointed Keeper at Smith Point Lighthouse, VA.
1943: Voluntarily began active WWII duty as Chief Boatswain in USCG Reserve in the South Pacific on the CGC Violet, LT 134 and CGC Verbena.
1946: Left USCG Reserve and returned to Smith Point Lighthouse as a civilian Keeper.
1949: Assisted in the rescue of six people from the yacht Matilda – on fire and sinking – in rough seas off Smith Point Lighthouse.
1965: Retires with 27.5 years of continuous service in the U.S. Lighthouse Service and USCG with 24.5 years of service as a Keeper. Retires as one of the few remaining civilian lighthouse keepers.
1981: Keeper Atherton passes away on October 16 at age 78 and is buried at H. C. Smither Cemetery, Hudgins, VA. At the time of his passing, he had four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Keeper Atherton Anecdotes:
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. 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 to Virginia’s Northern Neck from their home in Mathews. They would park their car on the shore facing the Ragged Point Lighthouse and shine their headlights to let their Keeper father know that they were there.

In 1957, Atherton’s son-in-law Maury King remembered fishing at Smith Point Lighthouse. They 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; ate two of them, sold the other 90 while on shore.

There was a television on Smith Point Lighthouse, but Atherton still enjoyed the old “wickie” pastime – reading.

Sources: Mrs. June Atherton King; Robert J. Hurry, Registrar – Calvert Marine Museum; Lighthouse Friends web site:; Chesapeake Chapter web site – and see “Our Heritage” heading.

Permanent link to this article: