Keeper Bio: William James Diggs

Keeper William James Diggs

Date of Service: 1916 – 1943

1882: Born January 5 in Mathews County, VA
1908: Married Edna Grey Brooks on November 18 at Bethel United Methodist Church in Laban (now Onemo), Virginia. The couple raises three children, daughters Edna Virginia, Alice Jeanette and a son, James Carlton.
1916 to 1917: Serves as Second Assistant Keeper at Wolf Trap Lighthouse in Mathews County, Virginia. His annual salary was $456/year.
1917 to 1922: Serves as First Assistant Keeper at York Spit Lighthouse, Virginia. His annual salary was $780/year.
1918: In February, after the lighthouse is severely damaged by ice floes, Keepers Diggs and John Filmore Hudgins abandon yawl and are rescued by a tug.
1922 to 1924: Serves as Keeper at Old Plantation Flats Lighthouse near Cape Charles, VA.
1924: Begins Keeper service at York Spit Lighthouse. His beginning salary was $1800/year.
1926: Keeper Diggs rescues three soldiers on a fishing trip. Houses trio at York Spit Light Station during high winds.
1933: A hurricane damages the lighthouse. Station boat and oil tanks are swept away; the lower floor loses decking and handrail.  Keeper Diggs survives by holding on to station fog bell and is rescued by passing fisherman. The station boat is found at Cape Charles, VA. Later, Diggs establishes a temporary light.
1936: Keeper Diggs is removed from the station due to dangerous ice floes.
1943: Keeper Diggs retires after 27 years of Lighthouse Service; 24 of those years are at York Spit Lighthouse. His ending salary was $1860/year.
1973: On his 91st birthday, Keeper Diggs receives congratulatory messages from President Richard Nixon and Congressman Thomas Downing.
1978: Keeper Diggs passes away on January 13 at age 96 and is buried at Pear Tree Cemetery, Onemo, VA. At the time of his passing, Keeper Diggs has nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Keeper Diggs Anecdotes:

After the Hurricane of 1933, Keeper Diggs while on duty in 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 the 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 February 1936, Keeper Diggs was removed from York Spit due to dangerous ice floes.

After he retired, Keeper Diggs built a couple of houses, painted for many people and always had a big garden. He said, “Idle hands are the Devil’s workshop.” In 1973, on his 91st birthday, Keeper Diggs received a congratulatory message from President and Mrs. Richard Nixon and Congressman Thomas Downing. Congress 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.

Sources: Judy Diggs Hudgins; Lighthouse Friends web site – www.lighthousefriends.com; Chesapeake Chapter web site – www.cheslights.org and see “Our Heritage” heading; “Lighthouses of Maryland/Virginia; History, Mystery, Legends & Lore” by Bob Trapani, Jr. and “Forgotten Beacons” by Patrick Hornberger and Linda Turbyville.

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