Keeper Bio: Powell, Robert Franklin


Date of Service: 1907-1921

1870:  Born on December 10, in Mathews County, VA to parents Thomas & Mary Powell.

1897:  Marries Maria Jane Winder on April 28 in Mathews County, VA.  The couple has four children – Carl, Nellie, Audrey and Lizzie.

1907:   The Mathews Journal reports that “Mr. R. F. Powell of Cricket Hill left Monday (May 20) for Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse”.

1907 – at least 1913:    Serves as Assistant Keeper at Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse (VA).  His beginning annual salary – $435 and his ending annual salary – $480.

1909:   During fog in January, the fog bell is rung from 5 p.m. until 10:20 a.m. the next morning.  The fog bell at Deep Waters Shoal Lighthouse is fitted with a Stevens striking mechanism sounding a strike every 15 seconds.

1909:  Annual inspection on January 29 at Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse found the station to be in “excellent condition”. The report states, “An unusually well-kept station”. 

1912:   A logbook entry from February states “ice running all day shaking house very bad”.  The original Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse was destroyed by ice floes in 1867.  Ice floes were a concern at screwpile lights like Deep Water Shoals.

At least 1915 – at least 1921:  Serves as First Assistant Keeper at Tue Marshes Lighthouse (VA).  His beginning annual salary – $480 and his ending annual salary – $780. John F. Jarvis of Mathews, VA served as Keeper from 1908 until at least 1921.

1921:   On June 18, Keeper John F. Jarvis and First Assistant Keeper Robert F. Powell rendered assistance by sending a message for aid for the motor launch from the United States Naval Air Station.  The launch is sighted in distress in the vicinity of Tue Marshes Lighthouse.

At least 1921:   Robert F. Powell retired from the United States Lighthouse Service.

1924:  Passed away on November 16 at the age of 53 and is buried in the cemetery at Mathews Baptist Church, Hudgins, VA where Keeper Powell was a faithful member.  He is remembered as a man of sterling Christian character and greatly respected and beloved by all he knew.  Daughter Audrey passed away in 1929 and wife Maria Jane passed away in 1942.  Keeper Powell’s old sea trunk has been passed down through the family.

Keeper Robert Franklin Powell Anecdotes:

Keeper Powell served at two screwpile lighthouses during his career with the US Lighthouse Service. Neither of these Chesapeake Bay lights are standing today.   Tue Marshes Lighthouse, also called at one time “Too’s Marshes”, had distinct gingerbread detailing on the eves of the roof.  The rectangular lighthouse was removed in 1960.  An automatic beacon was installed atop the remaining screwpile foundation and that foundation was permanently removed by the Coast Guard in 2015.  Keeper Powell served at the second Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse.  The original lighthouse was destroyed in 1867 by ice floes. In 1966, the second Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse was torn down and a skeletal tower with a daymark was mounted on the remaining screw-pile foundation. And that skeletal tower with a daymark was removed in the late 1980’s.   

In late 1912 into early 1913 when Keeper Powell was serving at Deep Water Shoals Lighthouse, oysters became a “topic of concern”. The property that screwpile lighthouses sat upon belonged to the United States Government.  And it seems that Virginia’s oyster inspectors challenged lighthouse keepers in regard to “taking oysters” from lighthouse property. Letters were mailed to the keepers at several James River Lighthouses including Deep Water Shoals. Head Keeper Alex P. Hurst (1907-1928) responded, “Your letter of Jan 2/1913 Recd on this above date and will say in reply that we catch a mess of Oysters to eat whenever we want them.  Also, we comply with the Game and Fisheries Laws of Va according to the Regulations.”  Another keeper expressed his concern over possibly breaking the law and a third keeper stated that at times he had to “drive off” would-be oyster poachers.  A resolution was formulated assuring that these keepers were indeed allowed to “harvest” and enjoy delicious oysters at their lighthouses.

Sources –; Chesapeake Chapter Database;;; Mark Kemp; Susan Lewis Powell; Mary Godsey; Mathews Journal – May 25, 2017; Screwpiles: The Forgotten Lighthouses, Larry Saint, Karla Smith, John H. Sheally II, Phyllis Speidell, The Donning Company Publishers, 2018.


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